“Now say you're sorry for lying to us”

By Dominic Ponsford and Caitlin Pike

Times
journalists believe they are owed an apology from Charles Kennedy’s
office after being misled over the Liberal Democrat leader’s drinking.

The paper was forced to run a clarification in October 2004 after
columnist Mary Ann Sieghart suggested he had “drunk too much” to attend
the Commons on the morning of the Chancellor’s budget speech.

Times
political editor Philip Webster told Press Gazette: “The view in my
office is that we pretty well deserve an apology, retraction or
clarification because they weren’t straight.

“Voters weren’t told
the truth before the election and some of those are going to feel let
down, not only by the Lib Dems but probably by the press as well.”

But
Webster and other lobby reporters have denied the suggestion that there
was a cover-up from journalists over Kennedy’s apparently long-standing
drink problem.

He said: “Because of the way the Kennedy office
played this it was very difficult for journalists to write it in a
definite manner without incurring a writ because it was denied outright
when it was put to the Kennedy camp straight.

“As a journalist
you really have to see the man in the gutter to say with certainty that
this man has a problem. If he’s denying it and his office is denying
it, it’s very hard to do.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that journalists covered it up – if they’d been able to report it they would have.”

Webster
added that it was unusual in his experience for political spin-doctors
to be so apparently dishonest on a personal story.

He said: “You
never trust a denial on a policy story because you generally find out
it’s almost certain to be true. But a personal story like this, when
you’ve got something fair and square, they will not normally steer you
away from it because they’ve got to deal with you for the rest of their
careers. If they’ve lied to you once, you never trust them again.”

Guardian
assistant editor and former political editor Michael White also denied
that lobby journalists covered up Kennedy’s drinking.

He said:
“No journalist was aware of the full facts as we now know them. There
were plenty of rumours about Mr Kennedy’s drinking, but I never saw him
the worse for wear in 20 years, nothing more incriminating than
drinking a can of Coca Cola in mid morning, admittedly a bad sign.

“But
if Liberal Democrats weren’t prepared to come to journalists and say
‘Charles has a drink problem, we want him out’ then reporters are
caught in the libel trap.”

White added that it was very difficult
to judge when drinking a lot has become a major problem – pointing out
that politicians such as Harold Wilson, Herbert Asquith, Winston
Churchill and William Pitt were all heavy drinkers.

Using a more
recent example, White said he knew of a very senior former Labour
politician of recent years who drank heavily from lunch onwards but got
his work done competently by starting early in the morning.

Kennedy’s
admission at a press conference on Friday that he had problems with
drink was prompted after ITV News put the results of an investigation
into the subject to him.

The timing of his admission ensured that
Sky News and News 24 beat ITV’s 6.30pm news bulletin to the scoop. The
two rival broadcasters did, however, credit ITV with the story. Kennedy
resigned on Saturday afternoon.

ITV political correspondent Daisy
McAndrew, who worked as Kennedy’s press officer from 1999 to 2001, was
closely involved in breaking the story.

An ITV spokesman denied the suggestion that McAndrew “betrayed”

Kennedy,
saying: “There has been a lot of coverage of Daisy’s role in the
Kennedy story, a lot of which has been quite inaccurate. The highest
journalistic standards and integrity were employed to get this story.”

An
ITV insider claimed the story had not “originated” from McAndrew, but
that she had worked on it and stood it up once the tip had come into
the office. ITV News political editor Tom Bradby was away, which meant
McAndrew was the most senior political journalist available at the time.

One senior lobby journalist suggested that if there was any cover-up about Kennedy’s drinking it was by broadcast journalists.

He
said: “Most of my colleagues in the national papers are not really
interested in the Lib Dems. Charles Kennedy would have had more to do
with broadcasting journalists because they have got the legal
obligation to be politically balanced. They would have been more aware
about him not turning up to interviews and that sort of thing.”

But
Sky News political editor Adam Boulton said: “When people say
journalists, either in print or in the electronic media, haven’t drawn
attention to a potential drink problem I think that is simply untrue. I
know that myself and obviously others have asked Kennedy about it on
air.

“There is a difference between somebody maybe liking a drink
and it turning into alcoholism for which they seek clinical treatment.
Whenever that was put to the Lib Dems they denied it.”

He added:
“Until we [broadcast journalists] can actually get talking heads or
people coming out in the clear and saying ‘yes, there is a problem’
then it is much more difficult for us to do.

“Frankly, from
experience, if you stand up and re-tell unattributed gossip people tend
to think: ‘What the hell is he going on about?’ whereas people will
happily consume that in print. “

Boulton suggested that ITV News
would have handled the story better if it had put allegations to
Kennedy in a live interview. He said: “Had they just dropped it cold
they would have had much greater impact or if they had not given
Kennedy the chance to prepare a response and get it together. And as to
what Daisy did, well that is a matter for her conscience.”

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