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.

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad