Stephen Glover On The Press

I see the spectre of state control

think I can explain why Charles Clarke allowed several hundred foreign ex-prisoners to slip into the unknown. The Home Secretary spends too much time reading newspapers, and working himself into a frenzy of resentment. He then lets off steam by writing long, angry letters to editors.

About a month ago he sent one such bombastic missive to this paper in response to an article by Matthew Norman. Mr Clarke disputed Mr Norman's account of an acrimonious exchange which had taken place in Norwich Cathedral with a cleric, whose daughter had survived last July's London bombings. The details need not detain us now. What caught my eye - apart from Mr Clarke's splutterings - was his pay-off. "It is a comment on the current state of relations between the politicians and the media," he wrote, "that you published such an odious and deceptive opinion piece by a journalist about a politician, without pausing to check the basic 'facts', whereas I doubt that you would publish such a gratuitously offensive piece by a politician about a journalist."

When one had made due allowance for Mr Clarke's capacity for self-pity, something else remained. He evidently regards politicians such as himself as the victims of bullying journalists who have little or no regard for truth.

Last Monday Mr Clarke developed this thesis in a bizarre way. He called a dozen home affairs journalists to his office, and spent half an hour letting fly at three columnists: the Independent's Simon Carr, the Observer's Henry Porter, and Jenni Russell of the Guardian. Later that day, in a speech at the London School of Economics, he said that a "pernicious" and "even dangerous poison" was infecting the media's view of the world. He took exception to these journalists suggesting that this Government has authoritarian tendencies - obviously a very silly idea.

Mr Clarke also attributed phrases to his journalistic critics which they have scarcely, if ever, used, his apparent purpose being to make them sound almost unhinged. "Some commentators routinely use language like 'police state', 'fascist', 'hijacking our democracy', 'creeping authoritarianism', 'destruction of the rule of law', whilst words like 'holocaust', 'gulag' and 'apartheid' are regularly used descriptively of our society".

Mr Carr, who I should say is an old friend of mine, had aggravated Mr Clarke by writing a piece in this paper on 15 April in which he listed 34 "measures and defects" introduced by this government which, in his view, undermine our liberties. Mr Clarke fired off a 14-page rebuttal, which was posted on the Home Office's website. According to Mr Clarke, "of the 34 points Carr raised, 10 are more or less correct, 12 are plain wrong or severely misleading and another 12 fall into a grey area where they are right in parts or wrong in parts". Mr Carr believes this is an uncharitably harsh analysis.

The suggestion of these and other journalists that this Government is slowly eroding many traditional freedoms is one I happen to agree with. So, I imagine, would many Independent readers. The interesting question is why Mr Clarke should have caricatured the views of these three writers, and why he should have written a 14-page letter about a single newspaper article. Was he trying to create a fire-storm to deflect our attention from the row over freeing former convicts, which he knew was about to break? Possibly, but there must be a deeper explanation behind the Home Secretary's outburst that involves the Prime Minister.

New Labour's view of the Press, as adumbrated by the former red-top tabloid journalist Alastair Campbell, is that it is superficial, often inaccurate, confrontational and nasty. But until Mr Clarke weighed in, no one in Government had dared to suggest that anything should be done about it. Now Mr Clarke has taken Mr Campbell's analysis a step further by calling for statutory regulation of the Press. "My own view," he said in his speech at the LSE, "is that the code of conduct operated through the Press Complaints Commission ought to be put on a statutory basis". This means, one may reasonably suppose, that, in Mr Clarke's ideal world, opinion pieces such as those by Mr Norman and Mr Carr which contained information he regarded as wrong would somehow have to be corrected.

Mr Clarke may have no political future, and so many will be tempted to discount his views about statutory regulation of the Press. But I doubt his opinions are purely his own. They certainly reflect Mr Campbell's thinking, and they may well incorporate that of the Prime Minister, who grows increasingly exasperated by the media. So even if Mr Clarke goes, the threat of statutory control of the Press will remain.

Of course newspapers are sometimes inaccurate and beastly. It was ever thus. But Mr Clarke - note well - is not attacking them for being intrusive or threatening people's privacy. His complaint is that some of them - or, at any rate, journalists in some of them - are being unfair in their criticisms of the Government. In an odd way he helps to make the very point his critics have been making against him. Tightening controls on the Press is exactly what one would expect an authoritarian government to do.

Is the 'Spectator' losing it?

Matthew D'Ancona has only been editor of the Spectator for a few weeks, so it is far too early to make any considered assessment. Nonetheless, last week brought some disquieting developments on a magazine where, I should remind readers, I wrote a column until last year.

It was announced that Peter Oborne, for several years the Spectator's outstanding political editor, was standing down. Mr Oborne has not been sacked, but he has decided to take his column to the Daily Mail, which will give him a great deal more money. Might the Spectator have been able to keep him if it had been prepared to treble or quadruple the £500 a week he was receiving? After all, the magazine's sister publication, the Daily Telegraph, pays Boris Johnson more than £4,000 a column.

But no such transaction took place, and Fraser Nelson, a protégé of Andrew Neil, chief executive of the Spectator, has been appointed in Mr Oborne's stead. According to Mr D'Ancona, 'Since Fraser joined the Spectator in February, he has delivered [why not 'written'?] a series of superb articles . . . He is a formidable talent and will continue the Spectator's tradition of setting the agenda and causing controversy at Westminster.' Ugh! Actually Mr Nelson does seem quite good, though perhaps not as good as Mr Oborne.

An even more worrying development was the announcement of a weekly lifestyle section. Surely one of the main attractions of the Spectator has been that, virtually alone in the British Press, it did not have such a section. My spirits rose when I learnt that the new lifestyle editor, Lucia Van der Post, was jumping ship days after her appointment as a result of some contractual wrangle. Unfortunately the magazine has found someone called Sarah Standing to appoint in her place.

In both Mr Nelson's rapid advancement and the introduction of a lifestyle section we can trace the influence of Mr Neil. As I said in a previous column, I don't think he begins to understand the Spectator, though that is considered a snooty thing to say. Whenever he is interviewed, Mr D'Ancona makes a show of his independence from Mr Neil. Perhaps he is already adept at anticipating his master's wishes. In the empty managerial speak of his public announcements - as when referring to that unparalleled genius Fraser Nelson - he is already beginning to sound like him.

scmgox@aol.com

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