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

by Stephen Tall on June 20, 2013

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 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.