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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories