Simon Carr: Thankfully, media hackers, thieves and blackmailers can always rely on Ken Clarke


Click to follow
The Independent Online

That nice young Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has a refined, elevated and dignified soul. Actually, he has a small tonsorial baldness at the top of his hair – it may be how he communicates with higher powers (Rupert Murdoch, we thought).

He was turned upside down and flushed in News International's most executive toilet – but he bears no sign of bitterness. Unless you think it sinister the way he kept saying that no one wanted "statutory regulation of content in newspapers". He said it two or three times. Or, as a sketch might say: "I don't know how many times he said it. On and on he went about how he wasn't going to legislate what we could put in papers."

Heaven only knows what the state would insist on in a sketch. Balanced abuse. Positive sarcasm. A legal requirement to have regard to the nobility of politics. And a scratch-card game. And a free kitten for younger readers. He and Ken are quite right, there are things the state has no business making its business.

Maybe that sort of talk was to make Hunt's preferred option sound more reasonable. He wants us in newspapers to be like the medical profession (sic) with all publications (yet to be defined) signing up to a code of ethics in order that they can be "classified as newspapers for the purpose of regulation". And those that don't sign up are to be classified as something that attracts VAT.

Ken Clarke held most of the stage most of the time, still able to say more interesting things than most of his colleagues. The public interest? "I think I know what I mean when I talk about it," he said diffidently (no one expected that). But how a draftsman would draft the line that legally separates the right to privacy from the public interest – he'd never seen it done yet.

So George Eustice, who applies pretty consistent pressure for a Privacy Act, gets gently brushed aside. "No one's made a clear case for a new law," Clarke says, and adds with colourful incomprehension that no one knows what such a law would have in it. He gave a spirited defence of journalistic practices of bribery, blackmail, phone hacking and mail theft. The "cricket case" wasn't exposed using "strictly lawful means but no one thought to prosecute the journalist". And the House of Commons expenses – "it's quite possible they bribed someone to get that information".

He also denied a higher age of journalism in times gone by referring to "what Lord Northcote was like in the First World War" and, to prolonged laughter, "if I thought everything had gone to the dogs I'd be in the House of Lords" (the committee is half peers). In all, it's wait and see what Leveson comes up with. Oh, and what the joint committee thinks too, naturally. "As we're sitting here in front of you," they didn't quite say.