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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

No, Nick Clegg has NOT cocked up over page 3

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has today been accused on Lib Dem Voice of having "cocked-up" over his refusal to sign a petition calling for an end to topless women appearing on Page 3 of The Sun.

Daisy Cooper, arguing that Nick Clegg should "sign the petition now", feels that by not signing it, and through defending this decision on Radio 5 Live, the Deputy Prime Minister has undermined Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson, who are both supportive of the campaign.

Some background would perhaps be useful.  The campaign, @NoMorePage3, has been campaigning for the cessation of Page 3 for understandable reasons: the objectification and dehumanisation of women and the inappropriateness of such images in a "family newspaper".  It has been openly supported by a few Liberal Democrat MPs, namely Featherstone, Swinson and Tom Brake.  The main weapon in the campaign's armoury has been an online petition whose aim is to convince The Sun that Page 3 girls should be confined to history.

Actually, I agree with these aims.

Indeed, I have signed the petition.

I am not at all offended by photographs of topless women.  In fact, as a photographer, I've taken quite a few.  Generally more artistic than what appears in The Sun each day, but you get the point.  Nudity is not offensive.  There are many places that are appropriate for such images, but The Sun is not one of them.  The wider political issue is actually very complicated and in a liberal society it's important to value the choices people make as individuals.  However, I agree with Daisy Cooper and Jo Swinson on the signals that axing Page 3 would send out - like Swinson I am equally concerned about the impact images of "beautiful bodies" have on the quest for perfection, and the often negative consequences - something I recently discussed in an article for Gay Star News.  And while Page 3 is merely the tip of the iceberg as far as near-perfect images of women (and men), often airbrushed, are concerned I agree there would be many positives to The Sun, and other newspapers, calling time on it.

That said, I don't see how Nick Clegg has "cocked up" by refusing to sign the petition.  In fact, the vast majority of Lib Dem MPs have not.  Clegg qualified his decision by arguing that the government has no role in determining the content of newspapers.  On this he is quite right.  And, as a member of the government, he should not be seen to interfere with the freedom of the press.

Copper suggests that, as the petition is not aimed at the government but the editor of The Sun, this defence is redundant.  She then goes on to criticise Clegg's comments, which she states have been used to undermine Lynne Featherstone in particular.

She is right on one count  -someone did attempt to undermine Lynne Featherstone.  But it wasn't Nick Clegg. It was The Sun.  Predictably, the newspaper was keen to play up the significance of Clegg's more relaxed stance and his assertion that "if [people] don't like it, they shouldn't buy it".  Equally as predictably, The Sun was keen to name MPs who are taking the opposite view. How is that Nick Clegg's fault?

Let's put this another way.  Imagine that Nick Clegg had signed the petition.  The fact that it was aimed at The Sun, rather than the government, would be minor detail as far as the newspaper was concerned.  He would be inevitably portrayed as against the freedom of the press and a greater controversy about freedoms and the nature of Clegg's liberalism would have been sparked.  Clegg has the integrity and dignity of his office to consider - he really would have "cocked up" if he'd allowed himself to be undermined by adding his signature to a petition.

The Sun takes no prisoners.  If Clegg had signed the petition it would have mercilessly pilloried him and openly raised questions about his commitment to press freedom.  He would have been presented as some kind of control-freak politician, interfering in business that should be no concern of the government.  This would have done little to aid his personal standing or that of the party.

I actually think Nick has acted wisely.  And, much I support the broad aim of the campaign, I don't disagree with anything he said on Radio 5 Live.

I'm also sure that Lynne Featherstone is neither surprised nor particularly perturbed by The Sun's behaviour towards her.  In fact, if I were her, I'd take it as a back-handed compliment.  She's obviously rattled The Sun - which is surely a key objective?

What is concerning is the near puritanical stance of those who would criticise Clegg over this.  They need to see the bigger picture.  Effective leadership is not about simply supporting populist causes.  On this case, Clegg has reinforced his liberal credentials (the only answer he could give when asked if he believed in a ban is "no"), skilfully giving the media no room to undermine him while simultaneously neither distancing himself from the campaign nor offering it personal support.

And so, I would suggest to Daisy Cooper and my fellow Liberal Democrats involved in this campaign this: the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.   That is not Nick Clegg, and quite what these criticism achieve I'm not sure.  I would also ask them to remember that we are a liberal party.

It is sometimes appropriate to question Nick Clegg's performance in government, his leadership qualities, his strategy, his stance on policy issues or his inter-personal relationships with Conservative colleagues.  But on this issue, Clegg has performed as well as anyone can have expected him to and deserves credit for the way he's handled the media.

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