There has been considerable media coverage over the last week of comments made in December by Ken Clarke which attacked the party line on recognition of marriage in the tax system and suggested that a Cameron Government would be more pro-Europe than the Tory Party has been in opposition.
We covered the stories here and here once they had hit the national media, but noted that both Tim and I had attended the conference where Ken Clarke made those remarks (when he was still a backbencher). Our understanding was the the conference – hosted by the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham – was off the record; indeed, the account which Tim published just after the event was explicitly agreed with Mr Clarke’s office.
However, Rory Baxter, the journalist who published the accounts on PublicService.co.uk, has posted a comment on one of the relevant ConservativeHome threads to explain his actions. Here is what he says:
"My name’s Rory Baxter and I’m
the journalist who attended the Nottingham seminar and picked up Ken’s
comments. I wrote both exclusive pieces on Ken’s views on Obama and
Europe (here’s the original story, not the one the media ran:
http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=11168) and on Ken’s
views on public service spending and marriage.
They have been picked up by virtually every media outlet under the
sun, especially the first piece I did where they attempted to suggest
Ken was calling Cameron a ‘right wing nationalist’. I didn’t get that
impression when I was there and I didn’t write it that way. I can’t
control how the media treat such stories but I do believe they were, as
they say, in the public interest, as we can see by the huge amount of
feedback they have generated.
However, I must take you up on the point about Ken’s comments being
off the record. First of all, the university invited me to the event,
knowing I am a journalist, and Ken Clarke was also invited. Presumably
somebody should have told Ken that journalists would be present. Even
if they hadn’t, you obviously had a discussion with Ken about him not
saying anything controversial. Here’s what you and Ken said at the
event, just after Ken had attacked the married couples allowance:
You: “Before this panel started Ken you told me you weren’t going to
be controversial, now you’ve just trashed one of the flagship policies.”
Ken: “I also said I hope I’m off the … are there any journalists here? This is off the record.”
You: “Might be a bit late Ken!” (much laughter from the audience).
Indeed it was too late, the cats were well and truly out of their bags.
Before anyone accuses me of breaching any journalistic ethics, there
are three things to note here: 1) knowing that there were journalists
present, if Ken was strongly against his comments being reported it
should have been made clear at the beginning (or even when the invites
were sent out), 2) as chairman you could have stressed this point after
he’d made his controversial comments if you thought there was a danger
of them being reported and 3) Ken was being very light-hearted about
the whole thing as he usually is. I’ve interviewed Ken and face to face
he’s told me stuff which he’s prefaced as saying it’s off the record
then accepts later that he can’t really do that and he allows it to
pass. I think it’s fair to say he cares less about these things than
other politicians might.
So it was on this basis that I chose to report what Ken said. You
could ask why other journalists there didn’t report the comments and
the answer might be a) they realised they were controversial and
wouldn’t do Ken any favours if they were reported and they wouldn’t
want to do this because they are the same political hue as him or b)
they didn’t record the whole event like I did. Which brings me to the
point made by Peter Bailey that Ken never said these things and they
are made up. I can send you the WMA file if you like, it’s all there
and much more that I have chosen not to air.
As you yourself have said on here: Ken’s views on Europe and
marriage are legitimate topics for discussion. That’s justification
enough for me.
But I must end by saying that while I realised his comments were
controversial, I did not write the pieces in a ‘Ken bashing’ way. The
various media and commentators that have picked up the story have
chosen to do that. (If you look at my first article it’s headed ‘Brown
is finished’, says Ken Clarke, it isn’t attacking Clarke at all. The
first part is all about the possibility of a hung parliament and the
Obama comments come in the second half of the item). And while my
second article does have the more controversial stuff at the top, its
headline is about what the next government will have to do about public
spending and taxes, it has loads of paragraphs about fiscal stimulus,
Callaghan, tips on policy presentation and how Brown’s public spending
pledges don’t add up, which no newspapers focussed on). I personally
like Ken very much, he’s a great guy and a much needed ‘character’ in
the political world. Indeed, my running his comments has gained him
many supporters who have said it’s great that a politician speaks his
mind and we should have more like him. It’s usually the media that
talks about rifts and party splits and damaging Cameron etc etc.
Indeed, in the week that my articles appeared, the Tories moved further
ahead in the polls, so I don’t buy that at all.
Finally, the fact is, if I’d written the articles in December when I
intended to, there would have been no fuss because Ken was a
backbencher. However, family issues [ie my mother’s very poor health]
meant I got around to them a few weeks later, by which time Ken was on
the front bench and Obama was president. Suddenly the newspapers and
everyone else was interested, but the irony is if I’d done them on time
none of this discussion would be happening. So timing has proved to be
everything in this case.
Finally, finally, Ken can rest assured that there is nothing else to
come out of this seminar. My third and final report from this event
will be about what David Willetts said, which I don’t think will be
reported at all by any newspaper."