Marr's unfinest hour

Andrew Marr should realise the danger of giving voice to internet smears

Guest Post

Pressure is mounting on the BBC journalist Andrew Marr to apologise after he asked the Prime Minister whether he had been taking any "prescription painkillers and pills" under stress.

I can exclusively reveal that, in addition to widespread condemnation, several Labour ministers and hopefuls have declared their intention to boycott the show until he apologies.

Marr has come in for heavy criticism because he has been seen as legitimising, as Peter Mandelson said, internet smears and rumours by "extreme right-wing people". The narrative that Brown is "bonkers" or "mental" and therefore unfit to lead the country uses prejudice against mentally ill people to take down the Prime Minister through character assassination.

At the Labour party conference fury at Marr's question was everywhere. Jon Cruddas, a leading lefty, described it as "absolutely disgraceful" and said he would happily boycott the show until Marr apologised.

David Lammy, the minister for higher education, joined the chorus of boycotters, saying he was disgusted by the breach of professionalism. Ian Martin, another minister, also put his name to the list. He had earlier been snapped engaging in an angry exchange with Marr. The Labour PPC for Streatham, Chuka Umunna, also intends to boycott the show, we can reveal.

Peter Mandelson only said he "would consider" the idea of a boycott, but condemned Marr in very strong terms.

What is unprecedented about the backlash is that so many journalists have also chosen to criticise the BBC interviewer.

David Hencke, the former Guardian Westminster correspondent who is now at Tribune, said it was "below the belt". Cathy Newman, political correspondent for Channel 4 News, said: "Journalists should be dealing in facts, not rumours."

Adam Boulton of Sky News argued that Brown had already been asked whether he was taking any pills by lobby journalists, and a denial made it difficult to justify further questions without new evidence.

On the principal point as to "Should interviewers be able to ask questions about the physical state or health of the Prime Minister?" I think they should. So in that sense I don't think it's gratuitous. My personal view is that on that specific point, I felt, and I think most of us working at Westminster felt, that question had been asked and answered, and we all felt that on [the grounds] that it had been denied, and on the level of evidence we had, there was no basis to take that further.

The most stinging rebuke came from a former colleague of Marr's at the BBC, Nick Assinder, who has worked in the press lobby and across the media industry covering politics. He said:

So, here is a classic example of a dark, unsubstantiated rumour about the Prime Minister's personal life that owes its existence entirely to a single blog. The fact that it fitted the narrative about Brown's character only ensured it gained even greater exposure . . . No one is suggesting this was a deliberate plot like Smeargate. If anything, it shows such co-ordinated campaigns are unnecessary: a single blog posting can do the trick. Nonetheless, Damian McBride would have been proud.

The Spectator magazine's political editor, James Forsyth, also called it an "inappropriate question".

In his defence, Andrew Marr told the Guardian: "It was a tough question and I clearly thought carefully before asking it. I decided it was a fair question to ask or I wouldn't have asked it."

He said he had no intention of apologising, particularly as no one from the government had registered a complaint.

But his question, asked abruptly, clearly surprised Gordon Brown, who said: "No. I think this is the sort of questioning which is all too often entering the lexicon of British politics."

But with more than a hundred complaints from viewers to the BBC over the incident, a growing chorus of MPs joining a boycott, and disgust from across the media, Marr may yet realise that giving voice to unsubstantiated internet smears was perhaps not his finest hour.

Sunny Hundal is the editor of Liberal Conspiracy and Pickled Politics

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.