The Deputy Prime Minister has told the Leveson Inquiry enough opportunities have been given to a “pure judge and jury self-regulation method” to prove itself.
Nick Clegg said this morning he believed steps needed to be taken to protect freedom of speech, but also to ensure against the abuse of power in the press.
He said: “We’ve given enough opportunities to that pure judge and jury self-regulation method to prove itself and each time it seems to have come a cropper.”
Clegg suggested in his witness statement the press need to have a regulator genuinely free from the interference of editors, proprietors and politicians.
He reminded the inquiry of the atrocious treatment given by newspapers to the Dowler family and Chris Jefferies, who was wrongly accused of being architect Joanna Yeates’ murderer.
He said: “It’s outrageous that innocent people who haven’t asked to be put forward in the public eye at all are destroyed like that.”
In his written witness statement (paragraph 86), he suggested a new regulator should not only be independent from government and media, it should also have the power to initiate investigations and impose meaningful sanctions, liberate journalism in the public interest, and be open to complaints from individuals and third parties.
Referring to the “Desmond problem” (Richard Desmond, owner of Express and Star newspapers, who pulled out of the PCC), Clegg told Lord Justice Leveson he had not yet heard anyone make a persuasive case that you can have independent regulation with teeth and full participation of all parts that doesn’t involve some sort of statutory backing.
He said: “It’s bad for politics, it’s bad for Parliament, for democracy, it’s bad for the press, it’s offensive and distressing to public to let things carry on as they are.”
BSkyB bid issues show process needs to change
During his evidence, Clegg denied having ever discussed the BSkyB bid with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel.
He explained they had met socially and formally on a number of occasions when Clegg was in opposition. His children went to the same school as Clegg’s children, in Putney.
He said he asked questions about the timing of the process, and was open-minded on how process evolved, but sceptical about dangers of concentration of power in hands of News Corp.
He wrote: “On several occasions while in government, senior executives and editors have raised their objection and opposition to the BSkyB bid. On these occasions I listened to their concerns but explained that this was a matter for the Secretary of State and had to be dealt with in accordance with his statutory obligations.”
In relation to Vince Cable’s sting by the Telegraph (when he told two undercover reporters he would wage war on Murdoch, while overseeing the BSkyB bid), Clegg said he heard about it practically at the same time as David Cameron, and thought he should hear from Cable first.
He said: “I recognised, and that was partly why I was quite frustrated, that it made it impossible for him to carry on being responsible for the decision.”
Clegg said he sought assurances on the appointment of Jeremy Hunt to oversee the quasi-judicial process.
He said: “I remember asking questions of Gus O’Donnell… if I could be sure the bid would be dealt with objectively and appropriately by Mr Hunt.”
On the current process to decide issues of plurality, Clegg said: “What is flawed at the moment is that the instruments available to us are quite imprecise. They’re poorly defined. They’re subject to a huge amount of interpretation. Notably, in this case, the plurality test. If you read in the Enterprise Act how the public interest and plurality are defined, you can run a coach and horses through it.”
Clegg was asked about some of his meetings with the Murdochs and senior newspaper executives.
A list of the meetings is available on the Leveson Inquiry website.
He joked at the inquiry about being sat at the end of the table “where children sit” at a dinner with Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch.
He also said he was never in “anyone’s pocket”, and that before General Elections there was indifference at best and derision at worst by the press towards the Lib Dems.
When asked whether he believed a “chilling effect” was emanating from the inquiry and its possible outcome, Clegg said that was an important question.
He said, however, “there’s been a slight mawkish quality to some of the more breathless predictions that somehow the press is under the cosh.”