Nick Clegg changes his tune on the media

In April, Clegg thought that the press barons and their newspapers were irrelevant - yesterday, howe

Nick Clegg called for an overhaul of the British media in a speech on Thursday. The media, he argued, was too powerful, not plural and in need of proper regulation. He also offered a mea culpa for the political classes' failure to deal with the problem until now.

In recent decades the political class has consistently failed to stand up to the media. Seeking to curry favour with powerful media barons or prevent their own personal lives from being splashed across the front pages.

This is a far cry from the Nick Clegg that Jemima Kahn interviewed for the New Statesman in April. Back then, the "powerful media barons" weren't that powerful, and governments largely ignored them.

The days where newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone. Those days have just gone.

Likewise, Clegg seems to have changed his mind on the importance of traditional media. In Thursday's speech, Clegg declares:

It is true that the media landscape is changing, but it simply is not the case that traditional media no longer matters.

In the April interview, however, Clegg pegs "traditional media" - and the relationship between politicians and those who control it - as irrelevant. Take a look at the original transcript of the Khan interview.

Jemima Khan: Oh come on. There is a very close relationship between Murdoch, Cameron, Rebecca Wade. I think it's a little disingenuous of you to say that.
Nick Clegg: No, I don't think it is disingenuous. I think if you look at the way that people get their information these days, broadcast is more important and is more influential on people's opinions; newspaper readership is declining. You've got this absolute explosion of access to information on the internet. It's much more dissipated. In a sense, the old model of barons, newspapers, millions of people reading cover to cover, has gone. They know that themselves.

Khan presses Clegg on phone-hacking later on in the interview, and particularly the relationship between Rebekah Brooks and David Cameron. Here is the full transcript of this exchange:

Jemima Khan So you don't think the closeness of the relationship between the government and the Murdochs is inappropriate?
Nick Clegg If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave - I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties - it's not my world. It's never going to be my world.
Jemima Khan What do you think of the Oxfordshire dinner parties?
Nick Clegg I don't know about Oxfordshire dinner parties
Jemima Khan Yes you do, what about that controversial dinner in the middle of this investigation- James Murdoch and Rebecca Wade and Cameron sat down to dinner together - what do you think about that - was it inappropriate?
Nick Clegg Well I'm assuming they weren't sitting there talking about News international issues
Jemima Khan Doesn't matter - if there was an investigation going on, about phone tapping and the BskyB take over.
Nick Clegg You're putting me in a very awkward spot.
Jemima Khan I feel sorry for you - I think you can't say certain things now. I remember being married to a politician - you constantly feel one thing and have to say another and it's frustrating because I feel like I know what you really think but you can't say it.
Nick Clegg Do I? Er, except that now I'm in government I'm more constrained in what I can say? Yes. There's a lot more I can do. Do I think that a lot of the heat and speculation about the relationship between politicians and newspaper editors and proprietors is really what it's like in reality? No I don't actually. I really think things have changed. I really think this old sort of command and control view of newspaper barons has gone.

To read the full Clegg, click here.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue