Category: Alerts 2014
- Created on 14 October 2014
- 14 October 2014
Picture the scene: No.10 Downing Street, September 16: 'a gentlemen's-club-style reception room, given factitious poshness by two marble pillars'. The event: a book launch party hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron himself to 'mark the publication' of a political novel, 'Head of State', by the BBC's senior interviewer and former political editor, Andrew Marr.
Reporting for the Independent, eyewitness John Walsh saw the significance:
'To see how the establishment operates, you really needed to be at this week's launch party for Andrew Marr's new book.'
Walsh noted that the room was packed with political and media bigwigs:
'Jeremy Hunt, George Osborne, Yvette Cooper. Journalists talked to each other, eyes busily flickering, desperate not to miss anything. Beside the bar stood Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman.'
The BBC's creative director, Alan Yentob, was there. So, too, was Lord Chadlington, or Peter Gummer - brother of John Selwyn Gummer, or Lord Deben, former chairman of the Conservative Party - who 'has long-standing links' to David Cameron, is President of the Prime Minister's Witney Conservative constituency association and 'lives in a manor house that neighbours Mr Cameron's Oxfordshire home'. Chadlington is also chief executive of Huntsworth, a major public relations firm. In 2011, Cameron bought a plot of land from Chadlington for £140,000, the latter having donated £10,000 to Cameron personally to fund his 2005 run for the Conservative leadership.
John Walsh describes Lord Chadlington 'as the link between Marr and David Cameron', adding of Marr's fictional debut:
'It was [Chadlington] who gave Marr the central idea for the plot; his name is on the book's copyright page; there's an introductory note about him by Marr, and another one by himself, delivering his imprimatur.'
If that sounds chummy, so, too, did Cameron, commenting in his speech at the book launch:
'I haven't read Andy's book yet, but I gather it's about political assassination. After the week I've had, that sounds like a very welcome idea...'
One wonders just how favoured Marr must be to receive such gracious treatment from the unlovely Tory grandees he is supposed to be holding to account.
Remarkably, an awkward question managed to breach the bonhomie. Liz Thomson, co-editor of the website 'Book-Brunch', asked Marr if having Cameron host the book launch 'mightn't compromise his position as impartial political interviewer for the BBC'. (Private Eye, Books & Bookmen column, Issue 1376, 19 September - 2 October, 2014)
According to Private Eye magazine, Marr became 'very defensive indeed'. Marr's wife, Jackie Ashley – Guardian columnist and daughter of Lord Ashley of Stoke – buttonholed Thomson, declaring, 'you've ruined my evening'. Ashley subsequently 'resumed the harangue, calling [Thomson] 'despicable' and 'a B-I-T-C-H'.
It says plenty about the state of modern journalism that Ashley was appalled that one of the BBC's most senior political journalists should be asked the one question that cried out to be raised. Or perhaps she would think nothing of her husband having his book launch party hosted by Putin, or Assad, or Maduro. Or, more to the point, of a leading Russian journalist teaming up with Putin in the same way.
Ironically, in his book, 'My Trade', Marr was happy to discuss the issue:
'If you really talk with a politician about their in tray, and the problems of rival departments, or of dodgy past initiatives, it is hard to avoid seeing things their way. The same perspective that gives you insight, also blunts your hostility... then you drift closer to them emotionally and may very well flinch from putting the boot in when they have failed in some way.' (Andrew Marr, 'My Trade - A Short History of British Journalism,' Macmillan, London, 2004, p.184)
Also ironically, the problem was explored in a WikiLeaks cable from the US Embassy in London to Hilary Clinton:
'On the public diplomacy side, I hope you can take some time out to tape an interview with leading British journalist Andrew Marr, to be broadcast on his Sunday morning BBC TV talk show... It would be a powerful way for you to set out our priorities for Afghanistan/Pakistan, and underline our premier partnership with the United Kingdom. Marr is a congenial and knowledgeable interviewer who will offer maximum impact for your investment of time.'
It is not, then, that Marr is biased towards the Conservatives. Indeed, in 2005, the former BBC reporter and producer, Tim Luckhurst, wrote in the Daily Mail:
'Andrew Marr has dismayed licence-payers with apologias for New Labour in general and Tony Blair in particular... Such conscientious rewriting of history deserves a place in George Orwell's 1984, not on a national television station funded by the taxpayer.' (Luckhurst, 'As John Humphrys announces his retirement. The giant the BBC hasn't got the guts to replace,' Daily Mail, May 3, 2005)
A wry comment piece in the Evening Standard was 'amazed' by the launch party: 'we simply had no idea that Marr and Cameron were such close chums'. After all:
'it just doesn't seem that long ago that Marr and his wife... were staunch allies of Cameron's rivals, hosting intimate dinner parties for Labourites Tony Blair, David Miliband and Tessa Jowell. Blair even returned the favour by having the pair over at Chequers, back when he had the keys'.
Historian Walter Karp observed:
'It is a bitter irony of source journalism that the most esteemed journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the "best" sources.' (Quoted Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.199)
True. And notice that the BBC is not owned - no gimlet-eyed media mogul is either available, or required, to pressure Marr to obey rules that are perfectly understood for all that they are unwritten.