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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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.