Why Ian Hislop was absolutely right to ‘out’ Andrew Marr.

Andrew Marr’s private life may finally explain why he asked Gordon Brown about prescription painkillers, not anti-depressants.

On hearing the news of Andrew Marr’s exact transgression on Monday afternoon, my immediate reaction was, ‘Is that it?’ Surely Ian Hislop of Private Eye was being unnecessarily prurient to want such a non-story out there in the public domain?

But the ways of ‘public interest’ are many and mysterious. One very important factor in whether a journalist should reveal personal stuff is, and has always been, whether the situation – sexual, mental, illegal, or all those things – might affect a person’s ability to do an important job. It was this that led me to run the original notbornyesterday story in September 2009, speculating about the possibility that Gordon Brown was taking anti-depressants and losing his eyesight. And it’s here that two revelatory stories collide, because Marr then became infamous for asking Brown The Big Question.

Contrary to the version given out to the media by Krishnan Guru-Murthy soon after the story broke, I didn’t just bump into one drunk at a party and then write the piece ‘with no proof’. Of course there was no ‘proof’, but Whitehall (and the senior echelons of the Tory Party) had been aware for years that Brown often displayed, shall we say, manic and obsessively compulsive behaviour over time. Not for nothing did Frank Field say to Blair about Gordon’s possible accession to the Throne, “Tony, please don’t let Mrs Rochester out of the attic”. And the list of Brown’s allegedly proscribed foods was very powerful evidence in favour of him taking MAOI anti-depressants.

The story had been on the boil for just over a fortnight when Andrew Marr decided to interview Gordon Brown on his Sunday show. I watched the session, certain that nobody at the Beeb would dare raise the matter, but suddenly Marr asked the bloke if he took prescription painkillers. Not one person – myself or anyone else in the Westminster village – had ever talked about anything other than anti-depressants. But the question enabled the Prime Minister to give an emphatic denial – and then spout some pompous hypocrisy about ‘the lexicon of political reporting’ – this from the greatest source of below-the-belt leaks in Parliamentary history.

I wasn’t the only one to wonder why Marr had done this: the Daily Telegraph’s religious correspondent Damian Thompson took up the story in his column the following day, but for obvious reasons couldn’t explicitly say what many folk thought: that Marr let Brown off the hook for political reasons, believing the story to be nothing more than a vindictive accusation.

However, the news confirming when Marr took the injunction out against publication of his extra-marital affair – just under three years ago – offers a much more credible explanation of the left-field pill-addiction chosen by the TV presenter. Andrew must, at the time, have felt very raw indeed on the subject of  ‘unwarranted’ privacy invasion by the press: and it strikes me that he felt sympathy – political or otherwise – for Brown as a fellow-human being on the ropes. So he gave Brown an out. Allegedly.

I know for a fact (from one of his production staff) that Andrew Marr’s decision to pop the pill question was taken before he turned up for work that day, and that his crew knew to go for the close-up after his question….but that the show’s anchor asked Brown without discussing it with anyone in the Beeb’s management. I’ve always thought that suspicious: was he in turn fearful of the Beeb censoring the question, or – even worse – insisting he be more searching in the line of questioning? Nobody can be sure: but there is a strong suggestion here that, pretty directly, Marr’s behaviour in his private life adversely affected his objectivity as a high-profile journalist – on a topic that was politically explosive at the time.

Thus, on even a narrow definition of ‘public interest’,  Hislop was entirely justified in continuing to go after Marr – whom, he justifiably felt, wanted one law for himself as a celebrity, but another for those with less money and influence. And Andrew Marr himself was wrong to take out the injunction – as, being a decent egg, he has since admitted.

Objectivity from the media Establishment never, of course, so much as entered the saga anyway. Guru-Murthy’s ‘no proof’ basis for rubbishing the story was so disingenuous, as a rule of thumb it would’ve kept any speculation about anything out of the press forever. Marr himself is on the record anyway as referring to bloggers as “inadequate, pimpled and single”, a claim for which he has no proof whatsoever….but which probably did stop him ever reading the original nby piece. The day after the story broke, both Mandelson and Balls wrote me off as a “far Right extremist”, a ridiculous lie which the BBC dutifully reported in full – and live. Ben Bradshaw then repeated the slander on BBC’s Question Time, but got a rollicking from the studio audience for doing so – and some withering comments from the panel. The gist was that New Labour was being hoist by its own rather grubby patade.

As for the veracity of the piece, it evoked an on the record denial from Number Ten about Brown’s eyesight problems – a denial which later turned out to be entirely false, following a ludicrous duck-and-dive by Brown and his henchmen in and out of Southfields eye hospital. The anti-depressant story descended into farce when a lady in the Number Ten press office offered me an “off the record denial”, which was and remains unique in my experience – rather akin to running a secret front-page lead. But as his mercifully brief Premiership drew to a close, Brown unravelled in precisely the way I’d suggested he would: only a series of spectacularly missed goals by the Cameroons (and one good TV performance by Nick Clegg) stopped Labour being completely routed the following May. It took me five months – not one drinks party – to gather stuff for the article, and I stand by everything in it…including the fact that senior Tories know of Brown’s mental state, and colluded in keeping him where he was.

For me personally, the story was a professional disaster. What had been a good relationship with the Guardian’s Comment is Free page as a blogger was abruptly severed. I have tried under four different identities since then to comment-thread at the paper, but my ‘commenting privileges’ are always removed after a week or so – and I have never been given any explanation for that. The site notbornyesterday.org itself became the target of unbelievably vicious briefing in the ensuing weeks, including a deliberate attempt to ‘confuse’ me with the allegedly neo-Nazi blogger John M. Ward…a ‘mistake’ that five seconds of looking at the site would’ve corrected – to any visitor with an open mind. Not surprisingly, I still get this bonkers slander thrown at me when writing something controversial about the Left: when I’m attacking the Glazer family, Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers and David Cameron, of course the charge is absent.

Thus after four years of meticulously building up a brand, I moved the site to Blogger, and changed its name to The Slog. There was further jiggery-pokery there when I began writing awkward things about Google….and so here I am today at WordPress, occasionally in the sin-bin – but on the whole once more regarded as reputable. The dishonesty, and vengeance, of those in the public eye, however, means it would never do to be  respectable; too often these days, it’s a euphemism for mouthpiece.