Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg drew withering criticism last night after describing the press as “self appointed detectives”.
Speaking outside his West London home he called for police who are now investigating allegations against former Lib Dem chief executive Lord Rennard to be allowed to do their job.
He said: “I understand there are many people who appear to want to act as self-appointed detectives trying to piece together events that happened many years ago but the only way that we are going to get to the bottom of the truth, the only way we are going to ensure that the women whose allegations were broadcast on television last week are properly listened to, the only way were are going to establish exactly what happened and who knew what and when, is by allowing the two investigations that I established immediately after the Channel 4 broadcast to do their job and, indeed, to allow the police, whom we have now approached, to do their job as well.”
Rennard stepped down in 2009 and last week three women made allegations of harassment against on Channel 4 News.
The Daily Mail said today in a comment piece: “A pregnant whistleblower was effectively sacked and then gagged. A second insider who contacted the Mail this week was telephoned at home by the Lib Dem peer Lord Stoneham.
“What is most disturbing is the contempt for openness and transparency displayed by Mr Clegg's 'self-appointed detectives' jibe…
“Make a note: the next time Mr Clegg – who risibly claims to be a defender of free speech – advocates statutory regulation of a press that has been free for 300 years, could it be that his real motive is to prevent the 'self-appointed detectives' from revealing the corruption so rife in his own party.”
Questions have been raised about the timing of the current furore, coming as the Lib Dems are fighting a crucial by-election in Eastleigh.
The Guardian's Michael White wrote: “A story which has been lying around for years (so we are now told, though I had never heard it) gets traction when something larger is at stake than knee-fumbling at a Swansea conference in 2003. “
Responding to this, Channel 4 News journalist Cathy Newman said on her blog: “Yes I was tipped off about it myself three years ago, and tried very hard to stand it up at that point. But the women wouldn't go on record or on camera to talk about their allegations. So that was that.
“In January, one of the women I had spoken to back in 2010, approached me again saying she was ready to speak. What had angered her, and – it transpired through my investigations with Firecrest Films – other women, was that Lord Rennard was still playing an active role.”
She said the decision to go ahead with the report was taken in January – before Chris Huhne resigned triggering the Eastleight by-election.
She added: “The story took months of calling, checking, counter-checking – and above all winning the trust of the women we were talking to.
“There were many legal hoops to jump through – a frustrating number of hoops for a former newspaper journalist like myself who's used to rather less stringent constraints. But jump through them we did.
“What happened to the story then, and how Fleet Street followed it, is something that neither we, nor the women who were brave enough to talk, can control.”