By Zoe Smith
Senior journalists from across the political spectrum have laid into Home Secretary Charles Clarke after he slated editorial standards and called for statutory regulation of the press.
Clarke’s assault on the press came less than 24 hours before the row broke over the release of more than 1,000 foreign prisoners, which prompted him to offer his resignation. At midday on Monday, Clarke took the unusual step of assembling around a dozen home affairs journalists from the national papers to his office, rather than the media briefing room.
He spent half an hour "letting loose" on three journalists: The Observer’s Henry Porter, The Independent’s Simon Carr and The Guardian’s Jenni Russell.
His attack left many of those at the briefing in a "state of bewilderment" that the Home Secretary did not have more pressing engagements than to spend a large chunk of his day "bollocking three journalists".
"It just shows that he certainly has balls to have sat there and bollocked us knowing that in 24 hours he would have us back in the same building admitting to a monumental cock-up, the like of which we have not seen for the last 10 years," one journalist said.
Later that day, in a speech at the London School of Economics, Clarke said he believed that a "pernicious" and even "dangerous poison" was slipping into the media’s view of the world.
Clarke argued that pieces by Carr, Russell and Porter were "symptomatic of a more general intellectual laziness which seeks to slip onto the shoulders of modern democratic states the mantle of dictatorial power".
He urged a "stronger regime" of press regulation and said: "My own view is that the code of conduct operated through the Press Complaints Commission ought to be put on a statutory basis.
"We ought to move towards a regulated regime for the media, where the media regulates it, not the state, but the decisions are actually enforced."
The New Statesman’s political editor, Martin Bright, said: "While he’s attacking the liberal media, dangerous prisoners are being let out of our prisons due to the complete incompetence of his department."
According to Bright, Clarke’s attack stems from the Government’s belief that the media is out of touch with the way that real people live their lives.
In an attempt to appeal to the "real Labour voter" and in response to the realisation that the threat of the far right is a tangible one, Clarke and Blair are keen to make statements which appeal to the authoritarian tendency in the British working class, he claimed.
"How many pages was it that he wrote in response to Simon Carr? He’s clearly spending a lot of time addressing the liberal intelligentsia and some people might say that he should spend more time doing his job," Bright said.
Clarke’s comments have managed to unify the left- and right-wing press in criticism of his comments. The Daily Telegraph’s leader column on Tuesday said the Home Secretary "pines after a polity where the executive does what it likes and the media does what it is told".
The Daily Telegraph’s home affairs editor, Philip Johnston, said: "Even though he [Clarke] strongly denied it, I do strongly detect that the imminence of the local elections may have something to do with getting those particular points out."
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "Clearly the authoritarian regime which Mr Clarke would prefer from his perch in the Home Office lends itself well to calls for statutory regulation of the press.
"Thank goodness most serious politicians will have none of it and understand that the media does a vitally important job, especially when faced by a Government that is stretching civil liberties to the limit."