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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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era