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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser