I don’t know whether is it was just some Fleet Street thing: Nick Clegg and the danger of morality doorstepping
June 22, 2013 1 Comment
By John Newton
Nick Clegg has been accused of making a gaffe after appearing to down play the seriousness of domestic violence on his LBC Call Clegg programme. Newspapers reported that the Deputy Prime Minister had described an incident involving Charles Saatchi putting his hands around his wife, Nigella Lawson’s throat as “fleeting”. However, what Clegg said and the response it elicited point to interesting currents at play in the relationship between politicians and the media.
Modern politics is sometimes a depressingly stage managed affair, with entire departments of well qualified and savvy media operators working manically to ensure that in every contact with the press or the public our politicians come across as normal, decent human beings.
This is actually surprisingly difficult, so naturally when the assiduously conceived mask slips and the plausible ‘hard working public servant’ goes off script, the press seize it gratefully and run with it, often with opposing parties providing supporting cover down the wings.
There have been Ken Clarke’s infamous comments questioning the legitimacy of date-rape on BBC Radio 5live, which prompted Labour leader Ed Miliband to call for his resignation, or Gordon Brown’s much vaunted ‘bigot’ remarks in the run-up to the 2010 election.
Both of these things were legitimate sources of news as they provided pertinent and substantial insights into the views of the politicians involved. Ken Clarke was at the time he made his comments on the Victoria Derbyshire programme the Justice Secretary. This clearly provided a disturbing perspective on the way he would act as a Minister.
Similarly, during the 2010 general election campaign, a key issue for the Gordon Brown’s government was a collapse in support amongst traditional working class Labour voters over issues like immigration policy. By accusing Gillian Duffy of being a “bigot” on a microphone which had been mistakenly left on, Brown seemed to show a lack of understanding of the views and fears of one of his party’s core demographics.
In the case of Nick Clegg’s comments however, it seems that while the response was one of unequivocal condemnation, the narrative is much more nuanced.
Clegg’s words were not elegant or inspiring. It can safely be assumed that a more wizened political operator would have quietly stressed they couldn’t comment on an individual case and loudly condemned domestic violence.
The Liberal Democrat leader in fact seemed to do the opposite. Asked if he would have personally intervened in the particular incident depicted between Saatchi and Lawson, he initially said:
“What a difficult question…I find it so difficult to imagine. So you see a couple…I’m like you, I don’t know what happened. When you see a couple having an argument, most people you know, just assume the couple will just resolve it themselves. If something descends into outright violence then that’s something different. I just don’t know.
“There was this one photograph. I don’t know whether that was just a fleeting thing or…I’m really sorry … I’m at a loss to be able to put myself in that position without knowing.”
Only then adding when asked to comment more generally: “I hope everyone’s instincts would be…to try and protect the weaker person. To try and protect the person who might be hurt.”
This is clearly not a well constructed or rousing condemnation of what is generally perceived as a wide-spread but clandestine crime. Rather reasonably, that is because that is not what Mr Clegg was asked to comment on. The caller asked him specifically about what was shown in the pictures of Lawson and Saatchi and whether that would have prompted him to intervene. Having only seen one of the pictures, Clegg said he didn’t know how he would have responded. As it appeared that Clegg was unaware that Saatchi had accepted a police caution for the incident, it seems he strove not to tread too heavily on possibly libelous ground by making any direct statement a about a case he seemed to know little about.
Within an hour of the programme going out, the Telegraph’s James Kirkup claimed in a blog post that the Deputy Prime Minister should “be ashamed of his comments this morning”. Kirkup notably picked up on the word “fleeting” which seemed to be the focal point for the subsequent criticism of Clegg’s comments. Vey early on this conflated the issue of whether Clegg was talking about the incident itself or positing the difficulties in deciding to intervene in an argument you know little about in a restaurant.
Listening to the broadcast, it is relatively clear the latter is the case. Once this conflation had been introduced however, torrents of condemnation followed.
Conservative MP Sarah Woollastone tweeted “So just don’t ‘call Clegg’ if your partner likes to grab you by the throat to emphasise a point”.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper released a statement attacking Mr Clegg for revealing “how little he understands about violence against women” as “too often violence against women is dismissed as fleeting or unimportant”.
Inevitably Mr Clegg’s office rushed out a statement clarifying that the politician unsurprisingly “completely condemned all forms of domestic violence”.
However, it seemed that Clegg’s reticence on the issue had provided a political open goal.
In an interview in Saturday’s Guardian, Labour leader Ed Miliband went further, bringing the focus back to the pictures themselves and the question of intervention. He said:
“Honestly, if you are passing by something like that happening – our duty is to intervene. If I had been in that situation, passing by in those circumstances, the right thing to do is to go up to somebody involved in that and say ‘What’s going on?’”
This was the immediate precursor to a difficult acknowledgement about the limits of Labour’s spending commitments, were the party to win the next election. The article’s topline remained the comments about the incident in the restaurant.
Using such a serious a complicated issue, like domestic violence, which is so often hidden from view, to make political capital is truly reprehensible. Obviously domestic abuse will not be solved by MPs rushing about restaurants demanding to know “What’s going on?”. The Labour party should know better than to treat the issue so cheaply.
The media tactics at play seem akin to ‘morality doorstepping’. Doorstepping refers to the practice of, typically, waiting outside someone’s home to fire questions at them on a particular topic as they make their way from the front step to the waiting car. It’s a favourite ploy for use on disgraced ministers and celebrities, where getting an actual comment is only slightly preferable to getting footage of a dogged figure refusing to answer a question.
When applied to serious and complex issues of morality and in this case as it has transpired criminality, a lack of comment seems tantamount to an endorsement, with which the press can then run with as a gaffe.
In this case in particular the conflation and lack of substance to the stories trivialise the issue as reporters pore over transcripts looking for a ‘smoking gun’ which could be used against Clegg.
The danger inherent in this method of journalism is that politicians will be presented with a stream of ‘what would you do if’, scenarios to respond to. In the main, politicians would welcome this as, with adequate preparation it gives them the chance to talk about themselves and promote a positive image. What is less desirable however is the onus placed on the personality of the politician rather than the gravity of the issue, giving the process a competitive element as political figures vie to give the ‘right’ answer.
Both before and after hearing Clegg’s comments and despite disagreeing with him on almost every conceivable level on politics and policy, I am pretty sure he doesn’t aim to condone or downplay instances of domestic violence.
By using these comments as a political weapon, conversely, politicians and the press have trivialised and distracted from the issues at hand.
The Citizens’ Advice Bureau and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, have both pointed to Government cuts to welfare meaning that victims of domestic abuse often have fewer options for escaping violent relationships, as women disproportionately lose out from changes to benefits.
By using the pictures of the incident the press has shown how it can highlight issues like domestic abuse, raising awareness and starting much-needed debates. However by turning the issue into a party political point-scoring exercise or a moratorium on Nick Clegg’s media relations skills this vital opportunity is squandered. This does not just constitute lazy journalism, it is actively damaging.