Nick Clegg’s Letter from the Leader: “Protecting individuals and press freedom”

Nick Clegg’s latest email missive arrived in my email inbox this weekend. Two odd things about it…

First, as Paul Walter and Jonathan Calder have already picked up: the absence of any mention of last weekend’s debate on ‘secret courts’. I understood why it wasn’t mentioned in his leader’s speech last weekend: he wanted to keep the media’s attention focused on the party’s core message. But if we go back to the original intention of the Letter from the Leader, it was – as Nick himself wrote in the first one – “to give you a bit more of an insight into what’s going on behind those Whitehall doors and how we, as Lib Dems, are dealing with the issues and challenges that come up.” Hands up all those party members who think Nick’s lived up to that pledge on secret courts?

The second odd thing is the repeated request to send us to a paywalled website to find out more about Nick’s plans for Leveson: that’s right, Lib Dem supporters are invited to hand over money to Rupert Murdoch to get the party leader’s views on how the Lib Dems intend to crack down on the abuses perpetrated by Rupert Murdoch’s company. Now, I’ve already made clear my disagreement with Nick on this issue. But I’ve no doubt he’s speaking for the majority of party members in backing a Royal Charter to implement the Leveson Report. Yet instead of directing them to a Lib Dem website, or capturing emails via a Lib Dem petition website, the Leader’s Letter invites supporters to bump their head against a paywall and make their views known through a third-party website. Neither are especially smart.

My gripes over — read on…

libdem letter from nick clegg

When I came into work on Monday morning I thought this week was going to be about two things. First – National Apprenticeship Week, celebrating the achievements of the million new apprentices who have started training under this government. And second – finalising the Budget for next week.

But that got rather overtaken on Thursday morning. The Prime Minister decided to pull the plug on cross-party talks on implementing a new system of independent, self regulation for the press, as proposed by the Leveson Inquiry. I was surprised and disappointed by this decision, but I am determined not to walk away from the cross-party approach.

The next big moment on this will be on Monday, when the House of Commons will vote on what to do next. This has been a long and painstaking process – it must not be derailed.

This is going to dominate headlines over the weekend, so I’ve made my own contribution by writing an article for [Saturday] morning’s Times [subscription required], where I set out the position I’ve been taking in these negotiations, and what the party will seek to do on Monday.

We need a careful balance. On the one hand, we must vigorously defend our free press. On the other, we must protect people from harassment and bullying by powerful interests in the media.

The Prime Minister is arguing for a Royal Charter, but it falls short of meaningful reform. The other option, backed by some campaigners, is a full legislative approach. I’ve always agreed with them that this approach could work, But on an issue as sensitive as press freedom, we need as much agreement across the parties as possible. So I’ve been working for a middle way, one which I believe supporters of all three parties can back.

It simply takes the Prime Minister’s proposal Royal Charter and strengthens it in five specific ways.

One: editors would not be granted a special veto over the individuals sitting on the regulatory body.

Two: whilst editors, journalists and independent members of a standards committee will hold the pen in drafting any changes to the Press Code, those changes would require the consent of the regulator’s board.

Three: under David Cameron’s proposal, when mistakes are made newspapers would decide how to apologise to the individuals involved. Even if that meant the apology for an offensive front page was just a few sentences hidden away in the paper. Under our proposal, the regulator would ensure apologies are proportionate and fair.

Four: the regulator would have greater discretion in accepting complaints from third parties. So, for example, if a domestic violence charity wanted to voice its concern over the portrayal of a woman in a story about abuse, it would be easier for the regulator to consider that complaint.

Finally, we would put in place an explicit safeguard against future governments playing around with the Royal Charter – a crucial guarantee for both the public and the press.

My article in the Times goes into more detail on all of this, if you want to read more [subscription required].

But what I’d like you to do most of all, is get in touch with your MP and help persuade them to vote for this beefed-up Royal Charter on Monday. The vote is crucial for all of us who want press regulation to really change after the phone hacking scandal. This middle way is the best chance to secure the lasting change we all want.

Best wishes,

Nick Clegg

Do you know someone who would like to get Nick’s weekly email? Forward this message and they can sign up here:

For those Lib Dem members wanting to receive Nick and the party’s emails, Mark Pack has produced a handy guide to help ensure you’re signed up: Why did I not get that email from the Liberal Democrats?

* 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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  • Richard Harris 17th Mar '13 - 4:07pm

    As always just when I see Clegg doing something that makes me think he’s going to actually act in a way I would like him too (i.e. standing up to Cameron on this issue and siding with the opposition) he goes and screws it up with something as daft as publishing a message via Murdoch. With all due respect, the lib Dem leader is just taking the proverbial by publishing his thoughts in the Times. Either he is unbelievably stupid or he thinks his party members are. Or perhaps he just been offered a penny or more for his thoughts.

  • Richard Morris 17th Mar '13 - 4:17pm

    From what I read it appears to me that Nick Clegg and Miliband are going to produce a situation where politicians will have the chance to influence/dictate what the press can say in the future. If politicians have a chance then it will be taken at some point. I can not believe that such an illiberal move is being made. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  • If it is truly his article, why couldn’t he just send party members the text.

    Putting it in any NI title is unbelievably stupid

    I have already written to protest at the very idea if being asked to subsidise the evil empire

  • Not sure it is quite as stupid as the other comments are suggesting, but agree that quoting some extracts would have been more useful as I’m also unable to read the artivcle.

    Publishing it in the Times isn’t enitrely crazy though as 1) of the NI titles The Times is the one which is not slavish to Murdoch’s world view and2)it stops LibDem support for Leveson from being seen as a petulant attack on the press who disagree with the LibDems on many issues. It would simply seem less principled and more self-serving if it was in the Guardian.

  • Richard Harris 18th Mar '13 - 7:54am

    Can anyone in the party confirm that Clegg was not paid (either personally or to party funds) to write the article for the Times? I hope not but would appreciate a definitive answer.

    I take your points, and I don’t truly believe Clegg is stupid. But neither do I think it’s as calculated as you suggest. The points you make are subtle, the message is loud and clear – “Buy the Times”. In politics it will be the stronger message that is communicated. Cleggs track record of mismanaging siuations gets longer by the day.

  • @Richard Harris

    As someone who works in Press/PR/Coms, I’d be shocked if it was not a calculated move not to put in an NI title. Whilst it is annoying it’s behind the paywall, I quite like that it was in the title of a paper that was against what Nick was saying.

    Would also highly doubt Nick or the party would have been paid for the article.



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