Andrew? Marred: The departing BBC presenter long ago gave politicians his cheat codes
There will be endless praise for a "legend" of broadcasting, but like all legends the retellings of Andrew Marr's story will be partial.
Andrew Marr is leaving the BBC at the end of this year after 21 years at the corporation. For 16 of those years, he’s been the presenter of his own Sunday morning politics programme The Andrew Marr Show (which began in 2005 as Sunday AM). He replaced David Frost who’d beeen hosting Breakfast with David Frost in the slot for the previous 12 years. Marr has lasted longer. But perhaps he shouldn’t have…
In The Thick of It special The Rise of the Nutters (2012), arrogant, Curly Wurley-guzzling junior minister Ben Swain — later rechristened ‘Blinky Ben’ — blithely dismisses the threat posed by a Jeremy Paxman1 interview on Newsnight:
Yeah, look, we all know the cheat codes for Paxman now. That aggressive style is just old school. All you do is play the honest Joe, just trying to humbly get your point across.
Of course, he ends up absolutely ripped to shreds by Paxman before being told by Malcolm Tucker’s equally psychotic sidekick Jamie that “he doesn’t deserve to live”. But the notion that Paxman — then into year 23 of his 25 year stint as the main host of Newsnight — had become predictable was fair.
In August 2015, just over a year after Paxman relinquished the Newsnight chair, his replacement Evan Davis — perhaps emboldened by the reduced likelihood of bumping into his former colleague in the lift — described the combative style of interviewing as “overdone, worn out… [and] not a particular public service”. He continued:
Politicians get better defences as interviewers get better attack techniques. Politicians now sound defensive and boring instead of making gaffes.
Anyone who regularly listens to Davis’ performances on PM might wish that as I do for him to have a little of the acid of Paxman or the sardonic menace of the previous PM host, Eddie Mair. Politicians don’t really need to know Davis’ cheat codes as he seems intent on letting them play on easy mode anyway.
Davis wasn’t the first to “take a pop at the champ” that year — after checking, of course, that the champ wasn’t nearby — as Andrew Marr had given Paxman a dig at the London School of Economics’ Polis Journalism Conference that May. Referring to Paxman’s election interviews with Ed Miliband and David Cameron which had been broadcast the week before, Marr said:
Replacing a [head-to-head debate] with a good ‘Paxmaning’ for both of them, while entertaining was not a good replacement… the thing about Jeremy is that he is a genuinely tortured, angry individual — and you get the real Jeremy. He looks disdainful and contemptuous and furious with his guests because he, by and large is.
Paxman has described himself as a “one nation Tory” since he left the BBC and was a member of the Labour Party club who described himself as a socialist as a student at Cambridge. Listening to his podcast, The Lock In, its clear that he is far more sympathetic to social and cultural conservatives than he is to anyone to the left of Franco.
But it’s hard to argue that Paxman, the man who once asked Michael Howard the same question (“Did you threaten to overrule him?”) 12 times and gleefully-quoted Louis Heren’s maxim “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” to describe his approach to questioning politicians, didn’t take an equal opportunities appoach to rhetorically kicking the shit out of interviewees.
In his 2015 LSE appearance, Marr continued:
In our trade we become too aggressive, we become sort of feral, partly because of our fury at a lack of answers, so we get more and more aggressive. Politicians note this and find ways of blocking us, usually by obfuscating using dull language to get round this. So we get more aggressive still. So they obfuscate us some more. Nobody watches. Then you have to find a way out of that.
I have never believed that the right approach to a political interview is to say to the interviewee, in effect, “You’re a scoundrel, you’re a liar, and I’m going to treat you like that.”
The best I can do is to ask intelligent questions… and if they’re not answered, ask them again. And if they’re not answered then, just make it clear to everybody that X or Y has not answered the question and move on.
Marr’s belief that “asking intelligent questions” — how ‘intelligent’ his usually Westminster narrative-obsessed questions actually are or were is up for debate — would protect him from evasive politicians or accusations of aggression was most recently disproved by his interview with Boris Johnson at this year’s Conservative Party Conference.
Angry briefings from No.10 and howling objections of ‘senior’ Tories, including the newly-installed Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, passed on by the right-wing press followed Marr interrupting Johnson — in an attempt to get the Prime Minister to answer the questions put to him — and his assertion that the PM was incorrect to claim that wages had grow (that bit was basically a 1-1 draw according to fact-checkers).
Marr — who has written essays for The Daily Mail to promote his books in recent years — defended himself not in the virtual pages of The Independent (the paper he edited back when it still made use of dead trees) or the centrist New Statesman but in a diary for The Spectator. Under the headline The true enemy of political interviews, he wrote:
The new Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, told Iain Dale of LBC that she didn’t think I was impartial. Well, there is literally nobody on this little blue planet who doesn’t have opinions. At the BBC we do our level best to leave them at the door but if you don’t have some opinions you aren’t thinking, and if you aren’t thinking, how useful a political interviewer could you be? Also, BBC-bashing is the safest sport in the country fairground. How can I put this? The BBC is not, as an organisation, exactly robust in talking back.
The Tories are Britain’s biggest gang of cry-bullies. Despite having a former Conservative local council candidate (Tim Davie) serving as Director General and a Tory donor and mentor to Rishi Sunak (Richard Sharpe) installed as BBC Chairman, they endlessly complain that the BBC is biased against them.
When presenters and correspondents — like, say, Laura Kuenssberg — frame stories in their favour or simply swallow their briefings that’s “balance” but even the mildest pushback — Marr expecting his questions to be answered or Nick Robinson telling the Prime Minister to “be quiet” — is held up as evidence that Broadcasting House is stuffed from top to bottom with rabid Marxists.
The Tories and their outriders in the right-wing press has situational amnesia when it comes to the BBC and figures like Marr. They have erased from their memories, for example, the time he asked Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, if he was “one of those people who take prescription drugs to help them get by”. 2
The source of the rumours that led Marr to put the “when did you stop beating your wife?”-style question to Brown was an obscure blog called Not Born Yesterday, written by a retired advertising executive, John Ward who claimed that he had been told by a senior civil servant at a “drinks party for the great and good” that the Prime Minister was forbidden from eating a number of foods and drinking certain types of red wine. He then said he had spoken to other “senior players” and concluded that Brown’s diet was restricted because he was taking anti-depressants but that there was a cover-up over the Prime Minister’s mental health going on.3
Ward’s claims were picked up by Simon Heffer — Beaker’s evil cousin — in The Daily Telegraph, then repeated by Matthew Parris in The Times and Matthew Norman in The Independent before noted drink-driving enthusiast Paul Staines published a blog post headlined Who Will Ask The Prime Minister?. It was illustrated with an image of the Brown mocked up in clown makeup with the caption: “Is Brown Bonkers?”. The post began4:
Last night Guido was on a panel chaired by Jeremy Vine when the subject of Gordon Brown’s alleged anti-depressant pill popping came up. Jeremy had read Simon Heffer’s article the night before (on his iPhone in bed) and thought that this blog had ran the story.
Guido had not, but on Monday this blog ran a cartoon that referenced the rumour that everyone in the Westminster Village has heard. The Prime Minister is said to be taking powerful mood altering anti-depressants, specifically Mono Amine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs) which are very rarely prescribed since the arrival of Prozac derivatives, used only sparingly when dealing with severely depressed patients.
Two weeks after Staines published his blog post, Marr answered the question from its headline. Who would ask the Prime Minister? Andrew Marr would. The answer was “no”, but the idea was out there and one of the BBC’s top political interviewers had laundered a rumour created by a tiny blog and magnified by the right-wing press after being prodded by Guido Fawkes.
Asked about what he called “the pills question” during his appearance before the Leveson Inquiry in May 2012, Marr said he did not feel the question was inappropriate but regretted asking it because it distracted from serious policy points addressed during Brown’s appearance:
I felt we got a lot out of that interview with some important concessions made on the economy and other things. But the headlines were all about the pills question. It wasn’t worth it.
On another occasion when Marr was happy with an interview — the 11th February 2018 to be precise — he was caught on mic telling then-Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, “that was very good”. The show’s editor, Rob Burley, defended Marr saying he was “being polite”.
Of course, you could argue that there are bound to be examples of less than perfect performance across a 21 year career at the BBC and that’s true. But the problem lies in that Marr was in the hot seat for so long. He has spent so long insulated in the world of Westminster and of the BBC that it’s not surprising he said he was “keen to get my own voice back” in his statement today.
But I don’t think Marr has been using some mythical ‘impartial’ voice in his time at the BBC. Instead, I think he — like many other correspondents — wears the trappings of that BBC voice but actually and unavoidably shows his own feelings and biases all the time.
BBC Politics @BBCPoliticsAndrew Marr to leave BBC after 21 years to "get my own voice back" https://t.co/1FK0PK2YEd
Political journalists are inclined towards the status quo, in part because it means they don’t have to restablish their access to the main players and in part because they come to like people they report on; they are closer to politicians, advisors, and civil servants than they ever are to their audiences, whatever cod philosophising they do about “serving the viewers and listeners”.
Marr has also, in those 21 years at the BBC, moved further and further from the status of humble hack and into the realm of celebrity. The power that comes with having a show that bears your name for 16 years will cause that. The one ring has been a little too close to Marr’s skin for too long and the distorting effect of celebrity is precisely what led him to taking out a super-injunction — which he’s since said he regretted — to stop the press reporting on an affair.
Marr was extremely lucky that he retained his BBC position after those legal manoueverings became public. To me it’s the political journalist equivalent of Angus Deaton being forced to leave Have I Got News For You after it was revealed that he had indulged exactly the kind of behaviour for which he had long mocked and castigated politicians. Marr was apparently seeking the truth from politicians while attempting to muzzle other journalists, part of the business that he called in the title of one of his books “my trade”.
Mindful of the recent criticisms levelled at this newsletter by Tory Lord, Times columnist and committed sea lion Daniel Finkelstein, I will note that I’m not suggesting that Andrew Marr’s career is entirely meritless. But unlike the streams of sycophantic media voices under Marr’s tweet, I come to bury ‘Andy’, not to praise him
And to do that I’ll conclude this edition with two clips. One from February 1996, from before Marr was a BBC employee, and one from April 9 2003, early on in his tenure there.
Four years before Marr joined the corporation as political editor, he interviewed Noam Chomsky for a BBC series called The Big Idea. Marr presented himself as the media’s defender and Chomsky as an enemy of it.
“How do you know that I’m self-censoring?” Marr asked Chomsky, who replied:
“I’m not saying you’re self-censoring; I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
Marr is suggesting that he will no longer “censor” himself when he joins LBC and Classic FM on a hefty contract with Global next year and in the newspaper pieces he promises to write. But as I said last time I wrote about him here, the UK is not a country where radicals are paid six-figure salaries.
Marr knows the things he’s not ‘meant’ to say and he’ll continue not saying them. The only difference will be that LBC has a different set of live rails to the BBC and is more amenable to the Daily Mail which will no doubt welcome his copy as it has missives from ex-BBC stars including John Humphrys and Jenni Murray.
The second clip is from April 9, 2003 when Marr, then the BBC’s Political Editor, was asked by Huw Edwards on News at Ten to reflect on that day’s events and their effect on Tony Blair’s standing. The speech he gave was far from “impartial”, far from free of his “own voice”:
He and his advisors have been watching this and all the usual caveats apply — there could be some ghastly scenes in the future, there could be terrorist attacks, all sorts of things could go wrong — but frankly Huw, the main mood is unbridled relief. I’ve been watching ministers wander around with smiles like split watermelons… I think this does one thing: It draws a line under what had been before this war, a period when a faint air of pointlessness almost was hanging over Downing Street, there were all these slightly tawdry arguments and scandals, that is now history.
Mr Blair is well aware that all his critics out there in the party and beyond aren’t going to thank him — because they’re only human — for being right when they’re been wrong, and he knows there might be trouble ahead as I’ve said. But I think this is a very, very important moment for him. It gives him a new freedom and a new self-confidence. He confronted many critics.
I don’t think that anybody after this is going to be able to say of Tony Blair that he is someone who is driven by the drift of public opinion or focus groups or opinion polls. He took all of those on. He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath and that, in the end, the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger Prime Minister as a result.
The only part of that grinning, ghoulish analysis that was proved right comes near the beginning in Marr’s arse-covering aside (“… there could be some ghastly scenes in the future…”) and there were. But just three weeks after the war had begun, Marr confidently predicted that Blair had been “proved right” and that “even his critics” had to agree.
In tomorrow’s newspapers the accounts of Andrew Marr’s time at the BBC will glide over that moment if they touch on it at all. We’ll be told that he was and is one of the greats; no difficult questions. You know, like appearing on The Andrew Marr Show.
Sadly, unlike Richard Bacon, Paxman didn’t cameo on the show. The Newsnight interview was put together with archive footage and new clips of Swain (played by Justin Edwards)
You’ll notice the video below bears a “Tory Bear” watermark, that was the blog written by The Sun’s Harry Cole before he got his start at Guido Fawkes.
Incidentally this was turned into a plot line in The Thick of It where ‘Tom’, the unseen successor to the Prime Minister, has similar rumours spread about him.
Most of the newspaper columns have been memory holed but the Guido Fawkes post remains.