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

by Stephen Tall on March 17, 2013

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: http://www.libdememails.co.uk/nick

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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.