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Sunday 1 May 2011

Top hack has only himself to blame for current suffering

Andrew Marr's troubles have helped bring about a debate on privacy versus press freedom, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Journalists are warned against becoming the story, but last week Andrew Marr -- probably the UK's best-known and most respected member of the press -- did just that.

To prevent the Daily Mail from exposing an old affair, in 2008 he gagged it legally. Another famous journo, Have I Got News for You star Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, spent tens of thousands challenging his injunction. Marr's photo is all over the newspapers and TV now, and not in a nice way.

Being an honest hack, I hereby declare my interest. I've known Andrew Marr for more than 20 years -- he's given a couple of my books great reviews and even launched one of them; he once offered me a job when he edited this newspaper's sister, the UK Independent; and he's pleasant, interesting company. I greatly admire his intelligence, his curiosity, his decency and his enthusiasm for his trade, so I'm really sorry he's suffering the way he is. But I fear he brought it on himself.

Six years ago, when he was the BBC's political editor, Marr had a one-night stand; later the lady told him he had made her pregnant. He was, he said later, 'pursued with ferocity' by her lawyers and agreed to make financial provision for the baby. Fleet Street being Fleet Street, this became a subject of red-hot gossip, not least because the baby's mother was a well-known right-wing columnist on a British national newspaper, and Marr's wife and the mother of his three children is the equally distinguished left-wing Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley.

There was much chuckling, for there are many ignoble hacks who resent Marr's talent, his success and his £600,000 (€673,000) salary, but no newspaper broke the story. Enter British-born Irish citizen and resident, one-time Progressive Democrat Paul Staines, better known as the political blogger Guido Fawkes, hounder of the liberal elite. In an angry blog in 2008, he thundered: "If an actress on EastEnders had an affair with an actor on Coronation Street who was married to the star of Emmerdale which resulted in a love child it would be front-page news on every newspaper." He named the three journalists, who he said "were at the heart of the politico-media nexus that constitutes the new ruling class" which was protecting its own.

The Daily Mail, which hates and is hated by liberal media, decided to break the story and Marr panicked. His marriage had hit a rocky patch: "I wanted to do what was best for the baby and the mother of the child, and also to protect my own family", he explained later. The result was a super-injunction that completely gagged the press but intensified the gossip and set the blogosphere alight.

Marr's best friends wouldn't call him handsome (indeed, defensively he sometimes signs himself 'Jug Ears') and innumerable nasty postings dwelt on his appearance. It was understandable that he told an audience at a literary festival: "A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basement and ranting."

As rumours developed about other less cerebral sinners -- mostly footballers -- who had subsequently sought super-injunctions, Marr came to regret what he had done.

Then, last year, the whole episode descended into farce when a DNA test showed he was not the baby's father. Hislop's relentless legal challenge ultimately gave Marr the opportunity to come clean and fess up. "I did not come into journalism to go around gagging journalists," he said. "Am I embarrassed by it? Yes. Am I uneasy about it? Yes."

One daft unintended consequence is that although the press are still injuncted from giving the name of the baby's mother, her reputation is being merrily trashed. A better consequence is that Marr's misfortunes have helped bring about the long-overdue serious debate about privacy versus press freedom. Others may decide it's easier in the long run to face the music rather than try to hide the truth, even if it is no one else's business. Another journalist, Boris Johnson, has been brazening it out ever since the press revealed his infidelity: he is now Mayor of London.

Marr should have done likewise, but -- as any of us might do -- he made a stupid decision for reasons that were only partly selfish. Still, I have to leave the last word to the ineffable Julie Burchill, who does not believe in giving a sucker an even break. It made her feel sick, she explained, that a journalist should get involved in this sort of deceit.

"Sure, we are a dirty lot, but we're good-bad, not evil. We drink, gamble, adulterise -- but we don't tend to go around flashing our money at judges and whining for them to muzzle our exes." Quite.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards