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Coffee House

In praise of self-appointed detectives

26 February 2013

8:23 PM

26 February 2013

8:23 PM

So Nick Clegg is annoyed with those ‘self-appointed detectives’ who are ‘trying to piece together events that happened many years ago’ on the Lord Rennard allegations. It’s not a surprise, really, that the Lib Dem leader is annoyed with journalists at the moment: after all, if it hadn’t been for Cathy Newman’s report last week, the Lib Dems wouldn’t be in this awkward position of having to piece the allegations together themselves through an inquiry. Which says something interesting about the party’s attitude towards the allegations themselves, does it not, given the women involved, irritated by the party’s response to the complaints they say they tried to make, decided that only a journalist, not an HR officer or a party colleague, could improve the situation.

One of those women, Alison Smith, expressed her own irritation with Clegg’s comments this afternoon, but his camp are arguing that the Lib Dem leader didn’t mean the press when he was talking about detectives. Which does beg the question of who did he mean?

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The party has now responded to those annoying news reports by setting up two separate inquiries, and Lord Rennard, who continues to deny all accusations of impropriety, will give evidence when the time comes. That is good, but let’s remember that it was a journalist who sparked this, not a high-minded Lib Dem. Simon Hughes’ dark mutterings yesterday about the ‘timing’ of the report underlined this attitude: this story is an inconvenience, not a suggestion that perhaps even the saintly Lib Dems can get things wrong.

They’re not the only ones in parliament who think that way: George Eustice, who campaigned for statutory underpinning of press regulation, said in a debate last month that journalists should give ‘politicians the credit for doing what they do most of the time, which is to say what it is that they actually believe’. A press that trusts politicians, or a political class that trusts the press is not good for democracy, actually, and it’s those sorts of cosy relationships of trust that those pushing for press reform should want, not encourage. Too much trust meant the public didn’t know about the way MPs abused the expenses system until 2009, after all. Incidentally, Eustice wrote in The Guardian this morning that he backed the government’s plan for a Royal Charter to underpin the new independent press regulator, which will come as a relief to Oliver Letwin, whose brainchild it is. Defenders of Leveson are bound to point out, though, that the first story in this scandal came from a broadcaster, not a newspaper. But the point is that politicians don’t like journalists in any sector, sometimes because they behave in an unacceptable fashion, but often because they behave in an inconvenient fashion.

Goodness knows journalists have made some terrible mistakes in recent years, but making life uncomfortable for people in public office by holding them to account isn’t one of them.

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