Can't write a profile without breaking a few Cleggs: Unpicking the New York Times' take on the 'new' Nick

How to go from laughable ass to earned gravitas with one transatlantic move.

In addiction and recovery circles there’s a concept called “doing a geographic” — it’s when you moved to a new town, city, or even country in an attempt to reboot your life and even create a new character for yourself to inhabit. While ‘doing a geographic’ is a risky solution for an addict, it’s a trick that seems to work very well for politicians.

Nick Clegg did a very highly-paid geographic when he leapt from being the ex-Deputy Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to become the very-much-current political and media consigliere to god-emperor Zuck of Facebook, the authoritarian ruler of the world’s biggest — albeit borderless — country (pop. 1.9 billion). His rebrand has been helped enormously by the American media’s understandably often tenuous grasp of who and what British MPs are.

The decision by the Facebook Oversight Board — a bunch of chickens hired by the fox to politely request that it treat the chicken coop more responsibly — that the suspension of Donald Trump from the platform should be upheld sparked a typically wide-eyed Clegg profile piece from The New York Times.

While the entrails of current British politics are being sorted — you can expect an edition of this newsletter covering media reaction to Labour’s shellacking in the local elections and the hilariously mishandled Hartlepool by-election tomorrow — let’s look at how American journalists write about the second act of a British sort-of-was-but-never-should-have-been…

New York Times headlines are always so boring it’s like watching grey paint drying on a fence that was already painted a different shade of grey. The Clegg profile does not disappoint on that score going with the supremely soporific line — British Political Veteran Steers Facebook’s Trump Decision — when How Donald Trump got Clegged was just waiting to be used.

In introducing Clegg, technology reporters Adam Satariano and Cecilia Kang, really stretch to make bureaucracy and butt-kissing sound dynamic:

When Facebook barred President Donald J. Trump from its service in January, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, defended the decision in a Facebook post the morning after the siege of the Capitol. But the first draft was written the night before by Nick Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister who leads the company’s public affairs.

More than a week later, Mr. Clegg urged Mr. Zuckerberg to let a new outside panel decide whether to let Mr. Trump back on Facebook, employees involved in the deliberations said. Handing over control of one of the most consequential free-speech decisions of the internet age was risky advice, and some in the company wondered if Mr. Zuckerberg would agree.

“I defer to you, Nick,” Mr. Zuckerberg said, according to Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for Facebook who was at the meeting…

… Mr. Clegg played perhaps the biggest behind-the-scenes role in decisions around Mr. Trump’s account, colleagues said, an unlikely position for a British political veteran in such an important moment for American free speech. He developed the main justification used by Mr. Zuckerberg for barring Mr. Trump, and he oversaw the creation of the board, including the selection of its members.

The descriptor “political veteran” makes Clegg sound like some hardscrabble power player who stalked the corridors of Westminster for decades, taking names and making change. In fact, he was elected as a Westminster MP in 2005 — after five years as a middling MEP — and became Lib Dem leader in 2007, before crawling up to be Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition in 2010. He was out of politics by 2017, when he lost his seat.

Spending 12 years in parliament does not make you a veteran. It barely qualifies you as a dilettante. And while the Lib Dems continue to argue that they served as a handbrake on the Conservatives most demonic instincts, Clegg’s greatest strength was in his neck muscles which were hench from nodding all the time.

Clegg, a master of equivocation in his time as Lib Dem leader and DPM, pulled the same trick with The New York Times. While not agreeing to be interviewed himself he made sure that the reporters had friendly voices to chat to who would present him in the best light:

Mr. Clegg, 54, declined to comment for this article. But Facebook made executives available to discuss his role at the company, many on the condition that their names not be published. Mr. Clegg also connected The New York Times with several people outside Facebook to speak favorably of him. The Times also spoke with members of the oversight board, academics, political figures, civil society groups and others familiar with Mr. Clegg’s work.

That move pays off as after an endearingly naive single paragraph dedicated to Clegg’s “fading” political star in the UK, the authors write:

Friends said Mr. Clegg had initially been reluctant to join Facebook, one of the world’s most polarizing corporations. But he wanted to be back at the center of important political and policy debates. In a memo outlining how he envisioned the role, he argued that it was unsustainable for a private company like Facebook, rather than democratically elected governments, to have so much power, especially on speech-related issues.

Ah yes, Nick Clegg, a man famously reluctant to take offers that come with prestige and the pretence of power but really amount to standing next to the person who actually has it.

And who is the first respectable figure that The New York Times magics up — at Clegg’s instigation — why it’s none other than dictator-enabling, war-crimes minimising mullet enthusiast Tony Blair:

“My advice was strongly to go for it,” said Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, whom Mr. Clegg spoke with before taking the job, “because you’re going to be part of one of the most powerful companies in the world at a moment of enormous change in the world, and when technology is at the heart of that change.”

There’s no public record of the call between Clegg and Blair but I think we can reasonably conclude that it went something like this:

Clegg: They’re offering me loads of money but…

Blair: …take the money.

Again the article profile strains every sinew to make Clegg sound like a thrusting international power player and… falls short:

Inside Facebook, where Mr. Zuckerberg leans on a group of friends and early employees for counsel, Mr. Clegg earned the trust of his new boss. At the company’s headquarters, where proximity to Mr. Zuckerberg is power, Mr. Clegg’s desk was placed nearby. He orchestrated a trip through Europe with Mr. Zuckerberg, meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels and President Emmanuel Macron of France in Paris.

So his desk is quite near to Zuckerberg’s and he acted as a special kind of travel agent that introduces you to only the most reprehensible people in each country.

And, surprise, surprise, a profile whose sources are people Nick Clegg knows like him and people who work with Nick Clegg, concludes that all told, Nick Clegg is doing a bang-up job at Facebook:

Since Mr. Clegg’s arrival, Facebook has shifted some of its policy positions. It now appears more accepting of regulation and higher taxes. He overcame reluctance from Mr. Zuckerberg and others in the company to ban political ads in the weeks before Election Day last year. And he was the main internal supporter for recently announced product changes that give users more control over what posts they see in their Facebook feeds.

“He has a track record of knowing what it’s like to work inside a cabinet that needs to make decisions quickly and move at the speed of a country, or in this case a platform,” said Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, who worked with Mr. Clegg on the user-control changes.

Couldn’t another reading of Clegg’s apparent ability to be the Zuck whisperer that Zuckerberg knows he needs to concede in these areas to keep regulators off his back for a little longer and having a patsy there to apply ‘pressure’ means he doesn’t have to look weak? It’s not for nothing that pictures of Zuck and Clegg together tend to show the latter walking three steps behind.

The New York Times writers at least nod to that idea…

Critics say Mr. Clegg’s role is an attempt by Facebook to use a respected global political figure to soften its image. Despite pledges to accept new government regulation, the company continues to fight strong oversight, policymakers said. Others said changes made by Mr. Clegg did not address core problems with the company’s privacy-invading business model, which is optimized to keep people scrolling their Facebook feeds, amplifying divisive and inflammatory content and exaggerating political divisions in society.

… but that paragraph and a subsequent one quoting Conservative MP and former chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Damian Collins, run against the general tone of the piece. Collins’ quote is pleasingly direct and accurate…

Are you sure you’re on the right side here?’ That is the question that will get thrown back at Clegg. He’s taken a lot of money to go work for a company that doesn’t meet the highest ethical standards.

… but if there’s any organisation that fits the description “doesn’t meet the highest ethical standards”, it’s the Conservative Party under the leadership of bonking Boris Johnson.

Finally, the profile comes back to the thing that led to it being commissioned — the Facebook Oversight Board and its decision on President Trump. Satariano and Kang write:

Nowhere has Mr. Clegg’s influence been felt more than in the creation of the oversight board, an idea that had been kicked around internally but gained momentum after he joined.

So, he didn’t come up with the idea, he just played an ill-defined role in it “gaining momentum”. And part of that role was playing political matchmaker by getting one of his old pals on board:

In September 2019, Mr. Clegg introduced Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former prime minister of Denmark, to Mr. Zuckerberg to recruit her as a co-chair of the oversight board. The two former politicians had been friends for decades after meeting during graduate school at the College of Europe in Belgium.

The next part is interesting because it seems that the New York Times reporters are not willing to accurately define shiftiness on Clegg’s part:

Mr. Clegg also took steps to protect the board from criticism. After a parallel organization, the Real Facebook Oversight Board, was created by a group that wanted to raise alarms about the company’s ad-driven business model, an aide to Mr. Clegg contacted Martin Tisné, managing director of a London foundation funding the group, asking the critics, unsuccessfully, to back off.

That’s not taking “steps to protect the board from criticism”, it’s Clegg cosplaying ineffectually as one of The Sopranos in a shakedown effort that failed.

As is very common in US journalistic style — and increasingly copied in British political reporting — the story is told in declarative statements that don’t give a sense of where the facts behind them come from. The storytelling and the source of the story points are not linked:

After the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Mr. Clegg argued to indefinitely suspend Mr. Trump’s account because, he said, the president’s posts constituted an incitement of violence in violation of the company’s policies, and then suggested sending the decision to the oversight board for a ruling.

Who said he did that? Clegg himself? Well, he declined to take part so we assume it’s someone within Facebook speaking off the record. But why do they get that off-the-record protection here? Because it’s convenient to Facebook.

Once again there’s a little head nod towards criticism — this time from within Facebook — but it’s quickly dismissed to get back on track with the portrait of Clegg the Changemaker:

Critics said the referral to the board was a dodge, allowing Facebook to avoid responsibility for a critical free-speech question. But Mr. Clegg said the Trump decision would give the board credibility with the public, even if it led to criticism because it could demonstrate the board’s independence.

Unable to get Clegg himself on the record, The New York Times essentially allows him to use Facebook colleagues as puppets to parrot his positions:

“People would prefer we’re not making those decisions,” Mr. Clegg told colleagues, according to Mr. Bounds, the Facebook spokesman.

The profile ends on a classic piece of on-the-one-hand/on-the-other emptiness from The New York Times…

Mr. Clegg had hoped Wednesday’s judgment would be the final word on Mr. Trump’s ban. Instead, the oversight board said Facebook must find a permanent solution on its own, effectively kicking a final decision back to Facebook’s executives. The person who Facebook said would lead that decision-making process? Mr. Clegg.

… the paper specialises in this kind of analysis where the reader is left with no sense of what the writers think of the profile subject. Instead, by talking to sources within Facebook and others picked by Clegg, alongside a sprinkling of cynics, they deliver something that really gives us his perspective.

While Kang is based in Washington, Satariano is The New York Times’ tech reporter in London, yet the piece betrays no special knowledge of the UK or how British politics works. Instead, Clegg is given the stolid going over US political operators can expect from the paper.

Clegg is treated as a wise old veteran rather than the former leader of a party that shrank to the size of a walnut under his watch, whose political legacy is the dimly remembered slogan “I agree with Nick” and a nagging awareness that he provided David Cameron with the thinnest of liberal fig leaves for an austerity government in return for such triumphs as the plastic bag tax.

In 1887, Oscar Wilde wrote of a character in The Canterville Ghost…

Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.

… and that quip remains relevant to the gulf between American and British political journalism. While the hacks in the UK struggle to take anything seriously and essentially deliver gussied up gossip columns, political journalists in the US are all too often the vehicles for dry and lifeless analysis.

And that’s how you end up with a profile of Nick Clegg (Nick Clegg!?!) which presents him as the Yoda-like guide to Jedi Zuckerberg, rather than an English-accented admiral in the Imperial Navy, just waiting to be force strangled by Darth Zuck when he ceases to be useful.

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