Nick on Nigella / Saatchi. His LBC comments were incoherent and ill thought out. But let’s keep some proportion

It was ‘Call Clegg’ this morning, and Nick’s comments on the Nigella Lawson/ Charles Saatchi photographs — which show him allegedly assaulting her outside a restaurant — have sparked controversy. He was asked to put himself in the position of those near-by and to say what he would have done if he’d witnessed the situation. Here’s the encounter:

And here’s the transcript (via the Telegraph):

What a difficult question I find it so difficult to imagine… so you see a couple… I mean, I don’t know what happened. I’m like you, I don’t know what happened.
When you see a couple having an argument… most people, you know, just assume that the couple will resolve it themselves. If of course something descends into outright violence then that’s something different.
I just don’t know, there was this one photograph, I don’t whether that was just a fleeting thing…or…I’m at a loss to be able to put myself in to that position without knowing exactly…
You’re asking me to comment on photographs that everyone has seen in the papers, which as Nick Ferrari has said… I don’t know whether that was a fleeting moment so I’d rather not comment on a set
of events that I wasn’t…
If you’re asking me a more general question, if you’re sitting next to people in a restaurant who start, particularly if someone is much stronger, let’s say, not always, but let’s say if a man is much stronger than the woman is physically threatening a woman, then I hope everyone’s instincts would be… to try and protect the weaker person.
To try and protect the person who might be hurt. It’s just I find trying to re-imagine how you might react to very specific events which still are not entirely clear – that’s the bit I find it’s very difficult.

In particular Nick’s reference to it being a ‘fleeting moment’ has (unsurprisingly) triggered criticism. It’s a clumsy phrase which implies physical violence is somehow less of a thing if it’s all over and done with quickly. However, I don’t think for a moment that’s what Nick intended his comment to mean — more that it’s harder to know how to react to an episode which (for all those of who weren’t there know) maybe happened very quickly. In short, Nick was not trying to minimise (and certainly not excuse) domestic violence.

But, but, but… what I find genuinely bizarre about his comments is their incoherence. This can’t have been an unexpected question, after all. These pictures have been the dominating topic of public conversation this week. Obviously Nick has had many other bigger, more global issues on his mind — it has been the week of the G8 summit, after all — but he gave every appearance of being under-prepared. For instance, he seemed not to know there were a number of photos of the incident, or what they showed, and he seemed unaware that Charles Saatchi has accepted a police caution, an admission of guilt (however expedient) of violent behaviour.

The question was not as hard to answer as he made it. It’s reasonable enough to say that none of us who weren’t there can know exactly how we would have reacted. But there is a clear message — unprovoked violent behaviour between partners is always wrong, always to be condemned — that Nick only hesitantly stumbles towards at the end of his answer.

Nick was caught unawares, gave a gauche answer. That will happen sometimes on Call Clegg. It was always going to be the risk of a live weekly radio programme, interacting with the public.

But the timing is unfortunate to say the least. Last week saw Nick having to accept he’d made mistakes handling the allegations of sexual impropriety made against Chris Rennard when he was the party’s chief executive. This week will now see him on the defensive for appearing not to take domestic violence seriously enough. It hands his opponents the opportunity to say this is a pattern of behaviour. I don’t buy that critique, but no-one ever said politics was fair.

UPDATE: Nick Clegg has now released this statement to clarify his comments.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • I listened to this at the time. And although he stumbled through it and didn’t explain properly I think this has been blown out of all proportion. I did not take it the way you describe here. I understood when he said ‘fleeting moment’ that it could all happen so fast you wouldn’t know what to do or have time to even think about it. I don’t for one minute think he condoned what actually happened.

  • Neil Monnery 20th Jun '13 - 1:14pm

    So Stephen how would you have answered it…?

  • Clegg was trying to avoid being judgemental of the other diners for suffering from bystander syndrome is what it seems like to me. bystander syndrome is well documented. People will actually stand and watch s murder, and the more people are watching the less likely it is someone will intervene.

    So yes; he could have answered better, but however he answered the press would have gone for him. The whole “last week he refused diversity training, this week shows that he needs it” schtick coming from the likes of the Torygraph and Paul Waugh is vomitorious in its hypocrisy

  • Neil Monnery 20th Jun '13 - 1:49pm

    See that is kinda what he said – but in a clumsy way. No-one can ever say how they would have reacted to a hypothetical because no-one knows exactly what they would have seen or heard. I once saw a car flip on to its side and I just froze. I would’ve loved to have said I’d have rushed over but I didn’t. Luckily others did and all the occupants were fine but you don’t know what you’d do.

    Agree it was very clumsy but it was in fact pretty truthful. Obviously the story had moved on by the time Clegg got asked the question but if it was at the time then Saatchi would not have already have accepted a caution and therefore anyone who saw the incident would not have known he’d have admitted an assault.

  • Seems like another case of the standard journalistic position of “something wrong in the world, how can we put Clegg in the frame”. After the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby it was only a matter of hours before it was all down to Clegg blocking the Snooper’s charter.
    I’m pleased to see most here are supporting Nick. There’s a lot the guy gets wrong, but at least he’s out there trying to engage with the public and sometimes his responses won’t be slick press release style prepared statements. Does anybody sensible for a minute think Nick supports domestic violence? What was he supposed to say? I’d step over and chin the b**stard?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 20th Jun '13 - 3:14pm

    I think Jon and Jennie are right. You expect journalists to make mischief, but Yvette Cooper’s comments are completely reprehensible. I’d like to see her do an intense half hour weekly q and a with members of the public, being asked questions on anything, and never ever fluffing an answer.

    It seems to me that Nick wasn’t properly briefed on this – as he should have been on all the things that people are talking about because they are bound to come up. It was like he thought the whole story was based on one photo, though, and he was being careful as to what he said in case he got some detail wrong, or accused someone of something that he shouldn’t have. I wonder if he’d have been a bit more confident about saying “it was out of order and I would hope I’d have intervened if I’d seen it” if he’d known about the caution, too. For the police to give a caution, they have to be sure that there is a prosecutable offence. Saatchi’s acceptance of it is by rights an admission of guilt. Cautions aren’t normally issued in cases of domestic violence, but can be if, for example, the victim doesn’t support a prosecution.

    He got to where he needed to be in his answer, even if he took the pony instead of the helicopter to do it.

    He was much better, and less guarded, later on when he was asked about the sentence given to Stuart Hall – he emphasised that as a politician he should have no right to interfere in the judicial system and there was a process for the Attorney General to go through, but he said that he felt the same as everyone else about it.

    He also talked about Ian Brady and he was very strong on his horror that the murderer was making so much of his own rights when he wouldn’t tell the family of one of his victims where to find his body.

    One of Nick’s great strengths is that he talks like a human being. Sometimes that works against him and he says things that are not quite as he thinks. It was the same with the unnecessary hole he dug himself into on diversity training last week. He should have just said that Morrissey said it should happen, he’d do it, but it was only one part of wider ranging recommendations. Instead he sounded like he was dodging the question defensively. Nick Clegg needs a diversity course a lot less than most people so it was a shame he got himself tied up in knots about it.

    In general, though, Call Clegg works really well. It’s helping him win the respect of the public and while he might need to go in better briefed on the issues of the day sometimes, he’s comes over really well.

  • While Clegg is not in the wrong, and the misrepresentations are a disgrace, he once again displays staggering naivety and an inability to think on his feet. How long does it take to think to say:
    “Sorry, I don’t know anything about the story. In a week that we have mass demonstrations across Brazil, fires in Indonesia that indicate a serious issue with the entire palm oil industry, a continuing bloodbath in Syria, a G8 summit, hugely significant elections in Iran, ongoing issues in Turkey and a UN report out that Israel systematically injured, tortured and used children as human shields… I’m afraid I don’t have time to keep up with the celebrity news’

    Or words to that effect, which took me all of ten seconds to think of and say. And surely both a better representation of him and this job, and likely, in essence, not dishonest. I doubt he has kept up with it, despite idiots like Gaby Hinsliff claiming it’s one of the biggest stories of the week.

  • Seems like a typical attempt by Labour to make a mountain out of a molehill.

    On the subject of domestic abuse, where was Yvette Cooper when the Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese, accepted a police caution for battering his teenage step daughter?

    I don’t remember Cooper slamming Leese when the Manchester Evening News asked if the incident would make it difficult for him to lead anti-crime initiatives, he replied: “I don’t think I’ve ever used the expression ‘zero tolerance'” !!!

    Three years later, he’s still there and still has his Knighthood.

  • paul barker 20th Jun '13 - 8:42pm

    I have witnessed a number of incidents of men attacking women & adults attacking or threatening children. Sometimes I intervened & sometimes not. In several cases where I didnt intervene it was simple cowardice, a cold decision to protect myself rather than the innocent.

  • Stumbling in these situations generally represents an over-concentration on what you think the world would want you to say rather than putting forward a straightforward reaction. The problem of PR men in politics – Cameron is equally prone.

  • George Kendall 20th Jun '13 - 9:28pm

    In carefully prepared media appearances, politicians can produce scripted responses to most issues which might prevent the rightwing press and Yvette Cooper making mischief. It also makes them come over as insincere, machine politicians.

    I thought Nick came over a genuine and sincere, and it was absolutely clear where he stood on the issue. I think most voters would have far preferred his response to that of a scripted machine politician.

    Recently, I was canvassing in a place far from London, and a voter said that Nick had won over his daughter with this performances on LBC. On the basis of this excerpt (supposedly Nick at his least effective), I can see why.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Jun '13 - 12:06am

    George Kendall

    I thought Nick came over a genuine and sincere, and it was absolutely clear where he stood on the issue. I think most voters would have far preferred his response to that of a scripted machine politician.

    As someone who is usually very critical of Nick Clegg, I agree. He comes across here as a human being who is actually thinking about this as a normal human being would, not as a robot chanting pre-prepared lines, or as someone whose real views we don’t know because everything he says is geared to what would be considered the correct “gaffe-free” line. I think we want politicians who are human beings, not robots.

    Most of us in this situation would be reluctant to intervene, either out of embarrassment or cowardice – that’s the reality. Also Clegg is following what ought to be a good liberal principle – innocent until proven guilty, which seems to me what the “fleeting moment” phrase was about – was this just something that looked much worse than it was because of how the photos happened to capture it? He clearly hasn’t followed the case in detail, so he doesn’t want to make the “guilty” accusation. Maybe he didn’t phrase it in the best way it could have been phrased, but who of us making a verbal response to a question on a human dilemma can every time get it completely right every time, can always avoid saying something which a vindictive person might twist to use against us?

  • Clegg is a professional politician for goodness sake. Surely he must have read the papers & anticipated a question.
    But that wasn’t as bad as Ed Davy on Question Time squirming to avoid condemning the idea of arming Syrian rebels. The lib dem supporting questioner was clearly as disappointed as the rest of us. Add to that Steve Webb providing the opportunity for a hostile media to imply that the triple lock might be unaffordable post 2015. This may be true but what why say it and spoil one of the Party’s excellent policies 2 years out from an election?
    A bad day.

  • I think the focus here is on the wrong aspect of this situation. Stephen, you should rather have asked ‘How could Yvette Cooper cynically try to make political capital out of someone’s domestic distress? Is domestic violence a situation for point scoring?’ The problem for Labour is Nick’s success every Thursday morning at getting through a biased press to talk directly to the electorate and be increasingly well received.

  • I’m no Clegg fan but give the man a break. A picture may show only 1/1000 of a second of time. You need context and he is right to say so. He was also right to give his own context (i.e. the restaurant) and was clear what he hoped he would do.

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