Clegg said what?!
Thanks to a fascinating claim in David Cameron's memoirs, we now understand how the Government could have backed a most wretched policy on press freedom
All the headlines from the David Cameron memoirs have understandably concentrated on his attitudes to Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and how he failed to get a Remain vote through the 2016 Referendum.
There are, however, a few other small pearls hidden amongst the silage.
Perhaps the most startling is the claim by Cameron that it was the then leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Nick Clegg, deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition administration, who threatened to bring down the government if he did not get his way on statutory regulation of the press.
Sir Nick was perfectly happy to renege completely on a Lib Dem manifesto commitment not to introduce fees for university students but was prepared “to f*** up all the other legislation in order to get what I want on this” – statutory regulation.
What a liberal stance to adopt on freedom of expression but at least it helps to explain how he could so effortlessly transition to become a super PR man and international apologist for one of the most serious threats to the financing of a free press anywhere, and by default serious journalism – Facebook.
Cameron believed, quite rightly, that the impact of statutory regulation would be far greater than preventing phone hacking but would soon be used to “control content.”
With Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour taking a similar position, Cameron said he thought he had no option but to agree despite the two men almost coming to blows over the issue which the Prime Minister thought “a step too far.”
Now for the first time we understand how the Government could have backed one of the most wretched pieces of policy since the Dangerous Dogs Act – changing the law to make newspapers liable for libel costs even when they won, unless they signed up to a new regulator established by Royal Charter.
The regulator has of course been established but no newspaper of any significance has become a member. The Leveson-inspired double costs jeopardy fell away (however they remain on statute book, but are not implemented), as did calls for a Leveson 2 and the whole issue was relegated to non-league status in the face of many more serious issues facing the UK such a paralysed Parliament deprived of the power to govern.
Prime Minister Cameron described the outcome of the Clegg deal as “a messy muddling through” and then added the telling words that the debate now seemed “almost archaic” as little thought had been given to regulating the internet.
Wise words, but of course threats to press freedom are never very far away with lobbying groups like Hacked Off ready to spring back to life in an instant given half a chance.
The organisation took full advantage recently when two highly “controversial” - to put it at its mildest - pieces of tabloid behaviour hit the headlines.
By chance two unrelated news incidents came to the surface at the same time and both involved sporting heroes – one from rugby and the other cricket.
The issues covered were decades old and involved dredging up information that was of no detriment to the direct protagonists in the drama.
Both may have involved The Sun newspaper, although that is not entirely clear.
The most difficult of the two to decipher is how Ben Stokes, the hero of the third Ashes test match win over Australia at Headingly, was treated.
The Sun’s decision to splash with the story that 31 years ago, and before Ben was born, his mother’s ex-husband killed their two children and took his own life, provoked near universal condemnation.
Stokes himself described the story as “immoral” and “disgusting” and that his high public profile did not justify such an invasion of his family’s privacy.
The BBC decided after an internal debate to cover the story, after Stokes had issued a long statement, but decided to mention only a family tragedy without mentioning any of the details.
An odd decision given that the details were probably on the internet within seconds of publication of The Sun story leaving many BBC listeners perplexed.
Perfectly sensible journalists said they did not want to know what had happened and argued that The Sun should not have done it.
Three senior editors, including a tabloid editor, appearing at a Mediatel News' Media Leaders Lunch soon after were all of the view that they would not have published the story.
One said that following Leveson so many more checks were carried out and more thought given to where the appropriate balance lay between public interest and invasion of privacy. And context is now considered more important.
On balance The Sun should not have printed the story, or at least found a different way of doing so, perhaps in a more considered feature or biography of Stokes.
But before anyone reaches for the statutory regulation button it is worth remembering that the basic facts of the multiple murder story were obviously true and received front-page coverage in New Zealand at the time.
Can such public information be never referred to in public again because they might be upsetting?
Is there a creeping right for unpleasant things to be forgotten in an echo of the EU right to be forgotten policy?
Tell that to biographers and historians.
The threatened outing of the HIV status of Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas by a tabloid newspaper is much more clear-cut.
More than a decade ago Thomas came out as gay and is now married to his male partner.
However, a tabloid journalist revealed his HIV positive status to his parents before he had told them himself, something that is impossible to justify.
Thomas refused to name the newspaper but added “everyone will know especially of late” a comment that some have suggested points to The Sun, which has declined to comment.
Out of an injustice some good has come. There has been a sympathetic interview in the Sunday Mirror and a BBC Wales documentary.
There has also been a large increase in men going for HIV tests as a result of the publicity.
But the main thing that either case fails to justify is statutory regulation of the press as David Cameron realised.
Another small positive point this week. The EU’s top court has decided that Google does not have to extend the right to be forgotten, which allows individuals to delete links to examples of their shady past from the public electronic record, outside the 28 countries of the European Union.
In such a world as this we must be grateful for small mercies.