Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Shirley Williams: Nick Clegg is above all the victim of the Rennard scandal coverage

A crime reporter friend enjoys telling the story of his first black eye at the local Magistrates’ Court. Like so many, it occurred as he was leaving, and bumped into a convicted defendant. The conversation ran along these lines:

Man convicted of awkward crime: You’re not putting this in the paper, are you? You can’t do this, it’ll ruin my business.
Reporter, in his first job and in a chippy mood: You should have thought about then when you did it, mate.
Man convicted of awkward crime’s right fist makes contact with reporter’s eye.

I remembered this story this evening as the Lib Dems started their party’s spring conference in Brighton with a rally for International Women’s Day. Awkward timing for the party, given the claims that the leadership managed to ignore allegations about Lord Rennard when he was its chief executive. Nick Clegg did the right thing by opening the rally with an address on the allegations and what the party was now doing about them. ‘We let people down,’ he said. ‘Liberal Democrats, that’s not acceptable to me.’

The party has set up two inquiries in the aftermath of the allegations, which Rennard strenuously denies. But if Clegg’s decision to address the scandal head-on soothed frayed nerves in the party, the next speaker didn’t exactly rub in the balm.

Shirley Williams is beloved by Lib Dem activists, and normally conducts herself with a magnificent elder stateswoman manner. She spoke to the conference about the by-election, about the NHS, about Chris Huhne… and about Lord Rennard. And it was her words that reminded me of that altercation outside the magistrates’ court. She said:

‘Journalism is a great profession, but it’s a profession that can demean itself. In the last couple of months, I think it has truly demeaned itself at least in some parts.

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