by Brian Cathcart
At the Liberal Democrat party conference in Brighton this week the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, set out a firm position on the need for independent press regulation that protects the public and also supports free expression.
Answering questions from party members, he said that the government should implement Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals on press reform (due out in the next few weeks) providing they are ‘proportionate and workable’.
Clegg drew a distinction between ‘statutory regulation’ of the kind that newspapers warn of, which implies restraints on free expression, and regulation with statutory underpinning, or a statutory backstop. He implied that the latter might be necessary to enable the creation of an effective regulator capable of protecting the public from press abuses.
At the same time, the Liberal Democrat leader stressed the need to protect free expression and to ensure that regulation was not under political control and did not prevent journalists from performing their important democratic function.
Here is a transcript of his remarks about the press:
Question: If the Leveson Inquiry calls for a new system of statutory press regulation, the rumours are that the Conservatives would reject this. Where do you stand?
Nick Clegg: Well my starting point is pretty simple. We’ve asked Judge Leveson and his colleagues to do a job; we the Government asked them to do that, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – and assuming he comes up with proposals which are proportionate and workable, we should implement them. Simple as that.
I can’t tell you what I think Judge Leveson is going to come up with. I simply have no idea. I sometimes think that …well, first there’s this.. I mean… What is the test for Leveson? I actually agree, I actually agree with David Cameron, the Prime Minister, on this. He said to the Leveson Inquiry, he said: ‘The real test will be – can we look . . .’ Well he didn’t quite phrase it like this but he still said: ‘The test is how does this look from the point of view of the victims?’ Can we look Milly Dowler’s mother and father in the eye, whose privacy was so outrageously abused, whose family was so outrageously intruded upon at a moment of extraordinary grief. Can we look them in the eye and say: ‘Mr and Mrs Dowler, what happened to Milly, what happened to you, the way in which her phone was hacked, the way in which the press acted as if there was one rule or one law for them and another rule and another law for others, has been dealt with by the Leveson Inquiry and this government is acting upon it’?
I simply don’t know what Leveson is going to come up with. But I think that’s the test. The other test of course, as an old fashioned Liberal, is that – much though some mornings it might be tempting – I would hate to see anything, anything, that could reasonably be construed as politicians trying to interfere with how the press do their work. And of course it would be completely unacceptable to do anything that allows politicians and government to intrude upon the content of what the media do. I think we benefit massively from having such a vibrant, raucous, lively and dynamic press. Far more so than many other developed democracies.
The question with Leveson is how do you balance that great liberal tradition with the reassurance to Mr and Mrs Dowler that lessons have been learnt and it won’t happen again. [Applause]
Question: Thanks for that answer, Nick. I think the follow-up to that question will be more looking at . . . We’ve heard a lot of conversations about Labour and how we should be working more closely with Labour. My follow-up is basically, whether or not you want to speculate on actually what Labour’s position would be if there is a call for statutory regulation of the press?
Nick Clegg: Look, I just think we need to be a bit careful about some of the cardboard cut out caricatures that have already been banded about… about statutory regulation. I mean look, this party will never- I would certainlynever – accept illiberal statutory regulation of the press. Of course not, we’re a liberal party. We believe in free speech. [Applause]
Even I believe in the freedom of the Daily Mail to say the things they say about me and us every day. So you know, that’s just beyond doubt. The question is a slightly different one. I think people are kind of creating this spectre of statutory interference which is not going to happen, never going to happen. We will never go along with that.
It’s a slightly different question – a very specific one. Everybody knows that in order to ensure that the press, like any other industry or vested interest in this country, is properly held to account when things go wrong, when people abuse other people – you know, innocent civilians’, citizens’, privacy. That there’s proper recourse, there’s proper scrutiny, proper accountability. Everybody accepts that the indispensable ingredient in any new system has to be a proper form of independent accountability and scrutiny. Independent of the industry itself, right? So the question is, can you have something which is genuinely independent of the press – which can be tough on the press when that is merited – that doesn’t in one shape or form, even indirectly, have some kind of footing in statute? That in my view is the only . . . that’s actually where the argument lies.
Everybody agrees that the PCC . . . had very good people working in it . . . but frankly was a joke. It was kind of . . . judge and jury of the press itself. In no other walk of life do people lord it over themselves when things go wrong. So everybody agrees you need an independent form of scrutiny and accountability. The question is: how do you ensure independence, not just for today but for good, if you don’t have that reflected in some sense in statute?
I think it’s nothing to do – or I certainly would not tolerate anything which is about statute leading to politicians kind of trying to muscle in on press. It’s how do you ensure that the press, which many thoughtful people in the press say this is what they want themselves, have an independent form of scrutiny andaccountability? How do you guarantee that independence if you’re not going to use statute in one shape or form at all? So I think those are the kind of questions but, you know, let’s see what Leveson comes up with. But I should say at the outset, assuming, since we asked him to do the job, assuming that he comes up with a good answer, a proportionate answer, not an illiberal answer, and a workable one, we should implement it.
Question: I accept all you say about the need to regulate the press sensibly. I think the thing that appals me and most people in this country is the fact that the press get away with lying, with character assassination which is totally unjustified – and nothing, but nothing, ever gets done about it. And if they apologise, they apologise on the bottom of page 32 in small print. Now that is something that has to be tackled whether Leveson comes up with the answer or not. And I have written to Lord Justice Leveson along the lines of, suggesting, that in those circumstances the response, the reply, the apology should be in the same place, the same sized text, and everything else, so that the press don’t get away with it. Can I have your views on that? [Applause]
Nick Clegg: Well, as a human being who’s had a fair amount of stuff, and a fair amount of patently false stuff, written about me or indeed my family, I have a lot of sympathy with your sense of anger and outrage. I think the thing you need to remember . . . just step back for a minute. The written press is an industry, it’s a bit like, sort of, animals around a disappearing waterhole. They are fighting over an increasingly small pool of customers. I think what’s happening in the British press, because they’re becoming more desperate, because people frankly are accessing their information in increasingly different ways, I really doubt frankly my children, small as they are, I really doubt when they get older their going to buy a newspaper in a traditional sense. So of course what you’ve got, which I think is historically perhaps almost inevitable, you’re getting an increasingly shrill and ferocious tone. It’s sort of like, at times an almost hysterical tone as newspapers, worried about their own futures, try and keep their head above water.
That’s what I think is going on. And I think it will go on and on for some time. Now some of them are trying to find different ways of getting different customers on different platforms. None of them have really quite worked it out, and I just think, much though I . . . Believe you me of course it’s sometimes . . . it’s sometimes extraordinary to see the level of downright exaggeration and hyperbole or mendacity. It’s not really, I think, for liberals to start saying we’re going to start wielding a great big club over them. That’s one of the prices of free society and I’d rather have a free society with a raucous and rude press than an unfree society with a tame and insipid press. [Applause]
Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart