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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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.