It has been widely and rightly recognised that Ed Miliband has shown real leadership in recent days. He has forced the pace on phonehacking, and the broader issues of media practices and culture which the Leveson Inquiry will now investigare. It has been equally widely recognised that David Cameron has had a very bad crisis, in which his judgement, character and leadership skills have all rightly been called into question.
Now, if you are sitting comfortably and not prone to fainting, I am going to do something I have not done for – oh well, probably ever – namely offer a few words of praise for Nick Clegg.
Here’s why … the following extract from Labour’s media monitoring report this morning.
‘Clegg calls for far-reaching overhaul of laws on media ownership’ (Guard p5) – ‘Family’s grip on BSkyB may be threatened, warns Clegg’ (Tele p6) – Clegg has proposed new rules on media plurality and cross-media ownership as part of a shake-up of press regulation in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. The DPM said the PCC had ‘failed’ and shld be replaced by ‘independent regulation, insulated from vested interests within the media and free from govt interference too’. Clegg outlined a series of proposed reforms to press regulation, but he promised the end result should do nothing to stifle a ‘raucous, probing’ press, which he said was a cornerstone of liberal democracy. However, he said that press regulators would need to have ‘proper sanctions at their disposal, including financial penalties’ that could be levied on editors, journalists and proprietors who breached the code of conduct. He also announced a review of the law on the illicit use of personal data and whether such an offence – which now only attracts a fine – should carry a prison sentence. Clegg said the judge-led inquiry would also consider issues of media plurality…. There wld also be a review of competition law, giving the authorities ‘the power to report on public interest issues, which could include media plurality, in the same way as [they] can now for mergers’.
I think most reasonable people will find it hard to disagree with much of that.
As the current frenzy calms (unlikely until Tuesday at the earliest), and the debate about policy changes develops, it is right that politicians continue to want to support a system of regulation independent of government, but also free from the kind of vested interests that made the PCC a poodle of the Murdochs and Dacres of this world.
That has to be the approach – fight for a free press, but a free and honest press, as the lawyer Mark Lewis has been putting it.
Clegg seems to have learned the lessons of the early days of government, when he allowed Cameron and George ‘Invisible’ Osborne to manouevre him into becoming a human shield for very bad policies. He put himself out there as the defender of the indefensible.
Now it is Cameron who has been defending the indefensible – the decision to hire Andy Coulson, his entrapment by News International, personal relationships which clouded his political judgement and got him way behind the curve – and Clegg who must force him to do the right thing.
It will require a mix of public and private agitation. But it looks to me that he has learned that he will do better if he agitates more in private, and let’s others make the judgements of any success in public.
Meanwhile, before Lib Dem visitors get carried away, I have to point out that as a result of the aforementioned policy disasters, yesterday alone provided evidence that burglaries and NHS waiting lists are soaring.
Once the press regulation issue is resolved, the economy, jobs, crime, schools and hospitals will reassert themselves as the main issues for the public.
And on these, Nick Clegg still has a lot to answer for, and Ed Miliband a lot more to gain now that he has established a sense of leadership and authority recognised even by his critics.