"If the tone of newspapers had been different in the last 20 years, we'd have 30,000 fewer prisoners" – Ken Clarke tells Leveson
Marta Cooper: "If the tone of newspapers had been different in the last 20 years, we'd have 30,000 fewer prisoners", Ken Clarke tells Leveson
30 May 12

Twenty-first century politicians have been “obsessed” with newspapers, the Leveson Inquiry heard this afternoon.

“Politics is now a mass media-dominated activity”, justice secretary Ken Clarke said, arguing that the press was now far more powerful than parliament and that many were put off by politics due to the level of exposure.

Clarke singled out former prime minister Gordon Brown as having been “utterly obsessed” by his relations with the media, adding that it “didn’t do him any good at all”. He said Margaret Thatcher “never read a newspaper from one week to the next” and implored his colleagues to pay no attention to the papers if they were upset by their content.

During his calm and measured session at the Inquiry, Clarke said newspaper editors and proprietors “can drive a weak government like a flock of sheep before them” when lobbying on certain topics, and he slammed the idea of currying favour with the press as a “waste of time”.

The politics of the last 15 years had been “dominated” by competition for support from the Sun newspaper, he added. “I don’t think the Sun ever had a significant effect on any election in my lifetime, though it was obviously thought by some to be important.”

He said he held the “more jaundiced view” that the paper and its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, were “good at changing sides when it’s obvious the horse they’re riding is about to collapse”.

He described New Labour as having introduced a level of “control-freakery”, adding that he knew of one journalist who was barred from the Treasury and told she would not be let in again because of stories she had written.

On the topic of criminal justice legislation, Clarke pointed the finger at the popular press, emphasising that newspaper campaigns were often based on partial accounts of high-profile cases. “If the tone of newspapers had been different in the last 20 years, we’d have 30,000 fewer prisoners,”  he said, though he stressed this was not a “scientific” estimation.

He and Lord Justice Leveson discussed at length the future of press regulation, with Clarke admitting he was “deeply suspicious” of government control in a new system. Yet he added he did not have confidence in letting the press regulate itself, stressing that a regulator should be independent of both the industry and the government.

“I always thought PCC was a joke,” Clarke quipped. “I had some friends on it who tried to convince me otherwise. Completely useless.”

“I do think 99 per cent of people in this country genuinely believe in a free press,” he added, suggesting journalists were becoming “almost as sensitive as politicians” who thought no-one loved them anymore.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow with evidence from culture secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson