Why the "bigot" row has done Clegg no good

The right are outraged, the left think he's a flip-flopper.

When Gordon Brown described voter Gillian Duffy as a "bigoted woman", Nick Clegg declared that he would have to "answer" for his comments. Now the Deputy Prime Minister is having to do the same. A press release issued in advance of a speech given by Clegg on gay marriage suggested that he would describe opponents of the policy as "bigots". It read:

Continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we “postpone” the equalities agenda in order to deal with “the things people really care about”. As if pursuing greater equality and fixing the economy simply cannot happen at once.

But after Clegg's remarks prompted predictable outrage among some on the right, his office issued a "recall" email to journalists, followed by a corrected email. The latter replaced the words "gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand" with "leads some people to demand". A spokesman for Clegg added that "This was not something the deputy prime minister has said. It's not something he was ever going to say because it's not something he believes. It was removed from the draft copy, that should never have been sent out, for that very reason."

The damage, however, was done. Today, both the Mail and the Telegraph splash on the story, in an assault on the Lib Dem leader reminiscent of that before the last election. So it's worth asking whether the row will help or hinder Clegg. For many on the left, "bigot" is the appropriate term for those who believe that same-sex couples should be denied the right to marry. A reminder that the Deputy Prime Minister feels the same way should, however briefly, improve his standing among liberals. Yet the fact that the Cabinet Office withdrew the email means that Clegg is enjoying few plaudits this morning. Instead, the affair is seen as further confirmation of his flip-flop approach to politics (cf. tuition fees, the NHS reforms). Once again, the Deputy PM has performed the dubious feat of uniting the left and the right in loathing for him.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg denied that he planned to refer to opponents of gay marriage as "bigots". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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