Sunday, March 09, 2008

RETRACTION: Mark Littlewood, Rentacritic

Following a response by Mark Littlewood on this post, I have been persuaded that the opinions I expressed in the post below were wrong. I do not believe that Mark is motivated to make appearances by the possibility to cause damage to the party, and it was incorrect for me to suggest that his appearances are always critical. I would like to apologise for these comments.

I will not be removing the post or any of the comments it attracted, because I do not believe that it is a healthy or desirable mode of discourse for bloggers to do so when their posts attract criticism.


Just watched last night's Newsnight, in which Nick Clegg was given a good sneering at by Paxman. Nick did OK, I thought, though he would have done well to get in the point that the constitution was an amalgamtion of Maastricht, Nice, Lisbon, etc., and not just Lisbon. Paxman becomes ever more impossible on subjects where he clearly thinks his subjective judgments on things are facts.

But what irked me most was the fact that Mark Littlewood was once again used by a news programme as their "he-used-to-work-for-them-so-if-HE-feels-this-way-it-MUST-mean-something" interviewee. I can't remember how many times I have now seen him featured on programmes like Newsnight, always making comments critical of the party's position or strategy. But no matter how many appearances he has made, I cannot ever remember it being pointed out that he left the party under something of a cloud.

Can anybody point me in the direction of a single media intervention he has made since "resigning" from his job which has been helpful to the party?


Tristan said...

I suspect he's trying to promote liberty (as he does at Progressive Vision) these days, not simply the party.

And why should he be promoting something he feels is wrong now he doesn't work for the party? Slavish devotion to the party is not something I think is good for the party, politics or liberalism

Andy said...

Tristan, I appreciate that slavish devotion to the party is not to be encouraged, in this of all parties. But the point I am making is that I rather suspect in the minds of the producers of segments like the one on Newsnight last night, he is now seen as someone who can reliably be sought out for a critical perspective on the party, not simply an impartial one. If he wants to promote liberty, fair enough to do so within the party, but to be forever (at least, whenever the media pay us any attention at all) contributing to the demolition of our credibility or policy position before the wider public is not, IMO, "trying to promote liberty", unless he feels that the best way to promote liberty is to ensure the continuation of the two party system as it exists today, which would be a bizarre position indeed.

Gavin Whenman said...

So his loyalty should be to the party rather than to the country?

And aren't you just playing the man instead of the ball - what of the substance of what he said (such as having a 3 line whip on the amendment today is silly)?

Andy said...

Sigh. No, I am not saying his loyalty should be to the party, I am not even necessarily disagreeing with this particular set of criticisms. I am simply remarking that he only seems to have any interest in slagging the party off nowadays. It is not any one of the comments he makes that I find objectionable, it is the fact that he is so consistently to be found making them.

Substance wise: No, I'm not convinced by Nick's argument that abstention is the only logical choice, but I have to say, Gavin, I am much more convinced by it than by the argument you just posted on your own blog. But this post wasn't an attempt to deal with the issue of an EU referendum; I have already done so on this blog, and I have no particular desire to retread it. If the title of the piece had suggested I was going to address the question of the 3 line whip, fine, but I made it abundantly clear that I wasn't, and that this was a post about Littlewood.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I don't care what people say to the media as long as they don't claim to be the "voice of the grassroots" (i.e. Ben Ramm).

Mark Littlewood said...

I always find these sort of criticisms a little tiresome. And I never quite know whether to be flattered or disquieted by the accusation that I have the power to cause the party serious damage by appearing - relatively infrequently - on the media.

The first point to make - and this is a fairly basic one - is that the media are completely uninterested in slavishly loyal commentary from ex-apparatchiks. On the occasions where my opinion is identical to the party line, I just don't appear on the box. That's because they can get that line from someone far more senior and interesting than me.

Secondly, the ability of someone like me to get on the box depends on a mixture of relationships with the media and their impression of my past performances. The key thing is to be interesting. There are a few programmes I get invited back onto quite regularly because for some reason they rate my past appearances.

Thirdly, I think it's entirely reasonable for people to appear on TV to give their honest opinion. If that opinion isn't the same as Nick Clegg's, that's just too bad for Nick Clegg.

Fourthly, I don't think it is in any way remotely reasonable to claim that my recent appearances have been universally critical of the party. Which appearances exactly are you referring to?

Fifthly, the best media advice I can give to the party is that if it wishes to avoid embarrassing media coverage, it should stop doing embarrassing things. The three-line whip on abstaining was a complete fiasco and deserved to be subjected to intense public scrutiny.

Finally, Andy, you really do need to try and understand that someone can be both critical and impartial. I actually want the party to succeed. But I'm afraid that isn't going to prevent me from voicing my opinions when they differ to those of the leadership. The idea that this is contributing to "demolition of our credibility" is just ludicrous. If the party cannot robustly defend and explain their policy positions in wake of my "biting criticisms" then God help them when they are exposed to the scrutiny of a General Election campaign.

Andy said...

Hi Mark. Thanks for the response. I'm afraid I can't say I'm convinced, but I appreciate your position.

Points 3, 4 and 5 are fair enough. But I think the heart of this is points 1 and 2. I don't think you have the ability to single handedly cause the party damage, the key words are "contributing to". "Demolition" was a silly word to use, so sorry about that, I withdraw it.

But look, here's the point. You yourself admit that the only time you will be used is if "for some reason they rate your past performances". Well I can tell you why they rate them, Mark: It's because criticism from people seen as party insiders is always interesting. If you consistently offer them it, they will come back to you. I suspect you understand this as well as I do.

If you want me to name a specific occasion, then I suppose the one which comes to mind is the segment Newsnight (I think - I'm afraid I don't keep a diary of your or anyone else's appearances) ran on the night Clegg became leader, talking to a bunch of party folk asking what advice they would give. You chose to use your time to contribute to the "Lib Dems say different things to different peopele" meme, a point no more true of our party than any other, at a time when you were under no obligation to say something negative to qualify as "interesting".

Lastly, you are probably the best person to answer my question: Can you point me in the direction of an intervention you have made that was at all helpful? If not, I realise this is not because you don't have opinions in line with the party on some issues, but because the media hasn't used them if you express them before a camera. But in the end, that's kind of the point.

Mark Littlewood said...

Andy, I think my displeasure at your remarks is based on a mixture of several things. But your latest post really does show a pretty jaw-dropping lack of understanding about both the workings of the British media and my recent appearances on it.

I don't expect people to follow my media appearances with any great attention to detail (well, perhaps my mother does). But then neither do I expect people to bemoan my supposed "Rentacritic" status on their blog without a little more research.

I still find it ridiculous that critiques of the party made by me are "contributing to" damaging the LibDems. I'm glad you've withdrawn the implication that I'm hell-bent on the demolition of multi-party politics. But the fact that you made such an insinuation in the first place does, I'm afraid, indicate a pretty fragile grip on reality.

You'd be as well to blame the dozen or so LibDem MPs who defied the whip. If they'd just bitten their tongues and abstained with the leadership, Nick would have emerged from this largely unscathed. But you seem to fall into the trap of many LibDems by blaming the media (or commentators on the media) for "damage" rather than its intrinsic cause.

I'm delighted that you feel able to tell me why the media return to me for comment. I'm not aware of your background in media work or the scale of the day-to-day working relationship with senior BBC editors and producers. On first glance, they must be enormously more extensive than I had imagined for you to reach such a trenchant opinion. Or rather, that would be the case, if the conclusion you had reached had not been so completely wrong.

The implication that the BBC is determined to dig up dissent within the LibDem ranks and keeps a record of reliable rentacritics to stir up trouble for the party is, frankly, bizarre. The truth is much more prosaic. Being able to deliver a soundbite to camera within a single take is at least as important as the overall analysis you're putting forward. This may be a downside to the medium of television, but it's also a matter of fact. You make the mistake of seeming to believe that saying something critical (in the true meaning of "critical" - i.e. a critique) or interesting must inevitable be damaging to the wider interests of the party. This is not an uncommon view amongst LibDem members, but it is a distinctly odd one. The damage caused to the party in the media in the last few years has been largely down to personalised, off-the-record attacks on the incumbent leadership. Criticism of the party line or party policy just doesn't compare. In fact, the party positively encourages such criticism within their own policy-making procedures (e.g. conference came close in 2007 to voting for a nuclear weapons policy that the leader, foreign affairs spokesman and defence spokesman would have considered a threat to national security).

You ask to be pointed in the direction of any recent media intervention by me that "was at all helpful" (how I hate that very LibDemmy phrase....public statements are to be measured on the basis of their "helpfulness" not their accuracy, their fairness or their propensity to facilitate the party thinking in new and fresh directions). There are, however, several examples of me being positive about the party in the national media. A few examples that spring to mind:

21st Sept. 2007 Newsnight - in a panel to discuss the political implications of the Northern rock crisis, I argued that recent polls showed the extent of mistrust in the Tories and the LibDems ratings on the economy were superb, thanks to Vince Cable.

15th Oct. 2007 Newsnight - on the night of Ming's resignation I argued that whilst this was a sad day for the party it also presented a great opportunity, but that the new party leader would need to show boldness and an ability to take risks.

15th Oct. 2007 Radio 4 PM programme - I argued that the media's obsession with Ming's age was grossly unfair and had gone far beyond acceptable jousting or caricature.

But there are also other cases where my comments have just been observational. Neither "helpful" nor "unhelpful" to use your terminology. E.g. on the Politics Show on 10th Feb. this year, I argued that the 3 things Nick Clegg should do are: 1. Advocate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan 2. Support a reduction in the overall tax burden 3. Modernise the party's constitution. You can agree or disagree with these suggestions, but they hardly amount to a full frontal assault on the party.

I guess my point is this. A fair analysis of my public statements in recent months shows I've occasionally been critical of the party, sometimes explicitly supportive and sometimes just thinking out of the box and batting out ideas. To caricature my appearances as amounting to being a rentacritic who is wheeled out to slag off the LibDems at the media's behest is hugely unfair and just doesn't square with the facts.

Andy said...


Thankyou for actually giving me some evidence. Having attempted to follow up on this, the only viewable/listenable record I have been able to find of these appearances is this one:

Now, I would have to say, your summary of this appearance is not quite how I would put it, since really the focus of your comments is that the party has not taken the risks you would like to have seen it take (Michael Crick comes across as more sympathetic to the party than you do). However, I accept that what you say here is not as negative towards the party as the appearances of yours that I had in mind. I will therefore be retracting this post shortly (though not deleting it - I never like to try to cover over my mistakes). I hope this will make you happier.

I would just like to say, however, that you have not exactly covered yourself in glory in the way you have responded to me (trying to paint me as having a "slim grip on reality", etc.) I can understand your feeling hard done by from my comments - that's why I am retracting them - but all you needed to do was what you have now done: Point me in the direction of some more positive coverage. Instead, you were obviously irritated enough to write quite extensively in reply to someone who gets an average of 18 readers a day, and a post which about 50 people tops will have read.

You bemoan the "Lib Demmy" view that "public statements are to be measured on the basis of their 'helpfulness' not their accuracy, their fairness or their propensity to facilitate the party thinking in new and fresh directions." I'm pretty sure it's not an especially Lib Dem habit; anyone who belongs to a particular party is always going to evaluate things they see in such terms - it may not be the only way they think: they probably also think about it in all the other ways you mention - but they would be lying if they denied that they do think in terms of the immediate fortunes of the party too.

Similarly, I don't think you have to work in the media to be able to see that certain news programs have their favourite contributors, and they aren't just there for ability to speak on camera - to suggest this would be to accuse the producers of dereliction of the guidelines which govern their editorial decisions.

Having re-thought this, I do still think it would be fair to say that you are consistently wheeled out to provide, if not an assault on the party, then what might be described as the "Lib Dems are generally the authors of their own fortune or misfortune" line on things. Would you feel this is any fairer?

Mark Littlewood said...

I appreciate your retraction of your initial post. I hope you will allow we a few words on your latest comments - especially as you end with asking me a specific question.

I'm sorry (I think?!) that your blog has such a small readerships, but I take quite a traditionalist "matter of record" approach to these sort of things. I would - for example - have taken the same care over replying to your accusations if they had been in the form of private correspondence rather than as a blog. I should also say it does sounds a little odd for the editor of a blog to query someone making an extensive contribution - especially if that person is the very subject of the whole initial article - on the apparent grounds that so few people read it anyway.

And I also remain a little bemused by some of the other remarks in your most recent posting.

Please - under no circumstances - should you retract your initial remarks in order to "make me happier" or because I'm "irritated" or feel "hard done by". You don't quite say that is the reason for your retraction, but there is certainly an implication in this direction.

I'm a pretty tough old bird, so you really don't need to worry about the depths of my personal torment or scale of my angst. I implore you only to retract your previous remarks if you no longer believe them to be true - or, I guess, if you've had legal advice to withdraw them (although I can promise you that I'm not a litigious sort of chap!!!).

I don't quite understand what you mean when you say I haven't "covered [myself] in glory". It certainly wasn't my aim to cover myself, you or anybody else in anything at all. Your aside is even more mystifying when you then immediately say that "all [I] needed to do was what [I] have done now".

I believe the nature of your accusations - and the remarkable level of their inaccuracy - demanded more than just 2 lines of examples of my alternative, less critical, media appearances. I also feel your readers are entitled to this - however thin on the ground such readers may be.

It wasn't just that you or others needed to be "pointed in the direction" of some more media coverage, but - to be blunt - because the whole thrust of your analysis was so misguided, I think it fell to me dissect it thoroughly.

On three final points:

1. I stand by my view that measures of "helpfulness" on the media are pretty peculiar to the LibDems. I'm sure members of other parties do indeed concern themselves with the impact of media coverage on their electoral fortunes but not, in my experience, through quite the same bizarre methodology.

A fair number of LibDems ascribe to what I'd call the "reverse Voltaire" doctrine (i.e. "I agree with everything you say, but I'll fight to the death against your right to say it!"). You fell guilty of this sin when you said "It is not any one of the comments he makes that I find objectionable, it is the fact that he is so consistently to be found making them."

I don't think you need to reflect very long or hard on this sentence to realise how truly strange it sounds, particularly coming from a liberal.

2. You say that news programmes have their favourite contributors and this isn't JUST down to on-camera delivery. You're right here, of course - but I never suggested that on-screen performance was the ONLY factor.

My point was to contradict your earlier assertion that the media will continually roll out "rentacritics" to fuel some cooked-up anti-LibDem agenda.

A whole mixture of things come in to play - e.g. content, credibility, delivery and character. I reckon I probably tick these boxes pretty well for a programme like Newsnight - which is combatitive, enjoys dry wit and is often iconoclastic. But I'd probably be a disaster as a guest spokesman on something like Today in Parliament.

3. I'd really like to answer the final question that you sign off with, but I am struggling to even understand it.

I simply do not recognise the sentence "Lib Dems are generally the authors of their own fortune or misfortune" as constituting "a line on things"!

Such a "line" seems so banal as to be not worth making. Certainly, I can assure you that I have NEVER had a conversation with any TV or radio programme in which my presence has been requested because of my unique angle is that the Liberal Democrats are masters of their own destiny!

It may be "fairer" to say this about my appearances in the media than your rather acerbic initial accusations - but to be honest, it isn't much more accurate.

I'd just like to sign off by saying that whilst I did find the content of much of your above posts highly irksome and grossly unfair, I've enjoyed our recent exchange. It's certainly helped me crystallise and refine my own "defence" - which I have no doubt I'll have to roll out on some other blog or in private conversation to other LibDems at some point soon. So, for this at least, many thanks.