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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.