Clegg can’t walk on water

The Lib Dem leader could perform miracles and still not get a fair hearing from the press. He should

There used to be a joke about Neil Kinnock when he was leader of the Labour Party. He couldn't get decent headlines. Everything he did was reported as a blunder. His advisers thought long and hard about how to turn it around. In the end, they concluded he would have to walk on water. Kinnock obliged and walked from one side of the Thames to the other. The next day the Sun headline screamed: "Kinnock fails to swim river".

When it comes to coverage of Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems need to stop waiting for a miracle.

I had a chat last week with someone at editoral level at the Daily Mail. I asked a simple question: isn't it the case that, whatever the Lib Dems do, whether you agree with them or not, you are likely to praise the Tories for the policy, but not Nick Clegg? I was assured that my assumption was entirely accurate.

So when the newly acquired Daily Mail political journalist Iain Martin writes in a tweet yesterday that: "This morning's press coverage is probably not what Nick Clegg had in mind when he launched his 'social mobility strategy' . . ." we have to understand the context in which it is written. Clegg could walk on water right now and the Daily Mail would see it as a failure or a blunder.

Let me make a prediction. Over the next two years, journalists will prop each other up and say, "Ooo err, aren't the headlines bad for Nick Clegg." They will say it as if they are somehow surprised. They will say it as if it is somehow not predetermined, which it mostly is. Only a few, like Julian Glover yesterday, will be the exception that proves the rule.

So what should Clegg and his team do about it? First, as I have said previously, the policies are everything. We need to see achievements, not be told what is in the pipeline. Clegg needs to draw up a strong communications strategy for the long term, but keep it small-scale and tactical at the moment. Don't over-obsess about the press – especially the printed press. Above all, Clegg should use something that Neil Kinnock didn't have: social media and an ever-growing army of tweeters and bloggers. Reach beyond the Mail, Telegraph, Guardian. As ever, if there are limited resources, focus on broadcast.

For Lib Dem members, expect nothing from most of the print media, but call them up when they are wrong. Another political journalist said to me last week how amazed he was that the Lib Dem membership was holding up so well under the pressure. Further evidence that Lib Dems are made of stern stuff and have long-standing experience of making coalitions work in local government, and in Scotland and Wales.

The kind of party leader I cannot bear is the one who can do the PR spin, who looks all glossy to the journalists, but when you challenge them on their policy convictions and ambitions they fall short. Nick Clegg is not that kind of leader. If you want a "public relations bunny" don't look to him. If you want favourable headlines don't look at the papers. If you are a Lib Dem and manage to walk on water don't expect any miracles.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder