Andrew Marr has told the House of Lords that the BBC gagged him from disclosing Charles Kennedy’s drink problems.
He made the revelation to a watchdog committee of peers after Dominic Lawson revealed that while editor of the Sunday Telegraph Aidan Barclay had tried to stop him publishing a story about David Blunkett’s personal problems.
Marr, a former editor of the Independent as well as a former political editor of the BBC, and Lawson, were called in to face questions from the peers who are probing the influence proprietors have on the way news is presented by the media.
Marr told the House of Lords Communication Committee that he could give them ‘one example where a story was killed”.
He said the story had been about the ‘nature of the problem’for which Kennedy, then the Liberal Democrat Leader, had been seeking help.
But he said: “The decision was taken at that point that we wouldn’t run it. We had an unequivocal denial and we were the BBC and we had to be very careful about these things.”
Kennedy later resigned when his problems became public.
Recounting his experience during his ten years as editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Lawson said he had intended to publishing a story about Blunkett and the various paternity issues he was facing at the time.
‘Aidan Barclay asked me not to run the story and I asked him, was there a commercial reason? He said David was a very important man and will be around for some time.
‘I replied that I what we do is write about important people who might be around for some time. If I couldn’t do that then I couldn’t do the job. He backed down and the story was run.’He told peers he had been ‘very amazed’by the request at the time.
Lawson said: “In too many countries newspapers are frightened of politicians and what they might do to them. The fact that we have a country where it is the other way around is a much healthier culture.”
Lawson said Conrad Black, who owned the Telegraph before the Barclay brothers, had only interfered once and that it had been to suggest he write a leader replying to a Sunday Times leader describing a Sunday Telegraph circulation jump as bogus.
‘I wouldn’t because I said it wasn’t the business of a leader to engage in commercial spats between groups.”
Lawson said Black was ‘remarkably un-interventionist”.
‘He liked occasionally to create the impression he was and he would tell people that he was, but actually that wasn’t the case.”
Marr said as Independent editor he had not come under any political pressure but had faced commercial pressure from David Montgomery, then chief executive of Mirror Newspapers, on the direction the Independent should take.
But both journalists assured peers that interference in editorial freedom had been very rare.
“I count on the fingers of one badly mutulated hand how many times I had serious intervention by the owners,” Lawson said.
Marr said: “Broadly speaking, if a newspaper is successful and makes money and has a growing circulation, the editor is left alone. If that is not the case, he won’t be.’