That Andrew Marr question: wrong, wrong, wrong

It’s a few weeks since I was emailed an article by John Ward (also sent to a number of other blog-sites), subsequently published at notbornyesterday.org, alleging the Prime Minister suffers from depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, and that these conditions are being treated with prescription pills.

I decided not to publish, or refer at all to the allegations on Lib Dem Voice. As I explained to John in an email at the time, “without named sources for the story it’s not something we could publish on LDV. I appreciate, given the nature of the story, that having sources on the record is difficult, but still.”

The BBC’s Andrew Marr today felt no such compunction, asking Gordon Brown bluntly: “A lot of people in this country use prescription painkillers and pills to help them get through. Are you one of them?” To which the Prime Minister would have been quite entitled to reply – though of course he couldn’t, as Mr Marr would have known – “None of your damned business.”

There are two issues here. First, was the BBC right to pose the question (and I’m sure the line of questioning was cleared at a high level within the Corporation)? And, secondly, should it matter to us what the Prime Minister’s reply was?

Was the BBC right? Absolutely not. It is possible, of course, that Mr Marr has more credible sources to suspect that the Prime Minister is on prescription pills than blogosphere speculation. I certainly hope he does for the sake of his own reputation as a journalist. If he has such credible sources – more than one, and they are people he believes are trustworthy and in a position to know the facts – then that is a plausibly legitimate story for the BBC to report as news. But that is not what the BBC chose to do. Instead of investigating the story, and presenting it in an objective way to the viewers, it was lobbed like a grenade into a live TV interview.

Defenders of Andrew Marr might well point to Jeremy Paxman’s famous Newsnight encounter with Charles Kennedy in 2002, in which he questioned the then Lib Dem leader about his drinking habits. Mr Kennedy denied the rumours, and Mr Paxman was forced to apologise – though we now know his questioning was both accurate and legitimate.

But there is a difference. When asking about his drinking, Mr Paxman made it quite clear who his sources were: “every politician I have spoken to in preparing for this interview has said, ‘You’re interviewing Charles Kennedy – I hope he’s sober.’” In other words, though the sources were not named, there was a clear explanation to the viewer that this was well-placed, oft-quoted Westminster speculation. Andrew Marr made no such attempt to justify his line of questioning.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction among the more rabid right-wing blogosphere has been scarcely concealed glee that the question has been openly asked. The more thoughtful right-wingers have been more cautious, but I’ve yet to see any condemnation of Andrew Marr’s approach.

Two points here. First, I look forward to this episode being air-brushed out of history the moment the Murdoch Empire / Daily Mail / Tim Montgomerie et al want to indulge in some more easy “the BBC is full of lefty liberals” knocking-copy.

Secondly, I want them to consider for a moment how they would be reacting today if Andrew Marr had asked an equivalent question of a Tory Prime Minister. We don’t have to go too far back in history.

There were many rumours in December 1992 concerning the mental health of John Major, based largely (if my memory serves) on the way his hands trembled when reading a statement to the House of Commons announcing the separation of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. This followed three months of intense pressure for Mr Major, including sterling’s ejection from the ERM, the debacle over pit closures, and the forced resignation of close friend David Mellor. There was talk that Mr Major was on the brink of a nervous breakdown and would soon step down (‘do an Anthony Eden’, as Private Eye put it at the time).

So far as I’m aware from the published history now available, little or none of this was true. Today, though, such rumours would swirl round the blogosphere (though probably not the right-wing sites) – and, if today’s any precedent, soon crop up in BBC interviews. And imagine, just imagine, how the right-wing blogosphere would react to the BBC behaving in such a way if it touched one of their own? The malevolant pleasure some right-wing blogs have taken in amping-up the rumours of Mr Brown’s alleged medical problems has been unpleasant and contemptible.

Let’s consider the second question: should it matter to us what the Prime Minister’s reply was? Assuming Mr Brown was telling the truth – that he is not on prescription pills – then it’s a largely redundant question. But what if he is, but did not feel able, or was not willing, to tell all live on television? Would it matter if the Prime Minister were depressed, and being medicated?

It shouldn’t, in my view. It’s estimated that 15% of the population will suffer a severe bout of depression at some point in their lives. I imagine we all know at least one person who has taken prescription pills to help them through their illness – of those I’ve known, it would never have occurred to me to tell them to quit their job in order to help them through their depression, nor have I ever seen their job performance adversely affected by the anti-depressants they’re taking. I would be far more worried if the Prime Minister were refusing to seek help for a known medical condition, than I am by the idea that he may have sought treatment to help deal with it.

Of course, the only people qualified to make the decision to quit, or not to quit, are Mr Brown and his closest family, friends and advisors. If his feelings of depression were linked to his job as Prime Minister, and the only way he could break the link would be to resign his office, then so be it. I imagine we would all respond with sympathy and understanding to such a decision. However, if his depression were nothing to do with the job – perhaps linked to frustrations with his failing eyesight, or the tragic death of his first child – then resigning would make no difference to his depression, indeed may just make it worse.

There are any number of reasons why the Prime Minister should quit, and just as many again why he deserves to lose the next general election. None of them are related to his health. And in making it an issue on the basis of no evidence, Andrew Marr and the BBC have done a real disservice to serious political reporting.

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35 Comments

  • “Not asking tough questions means you end up with your party being led by a chronic alcoholic who would get so incapable that he would soil himself in his office before PMQs.”

    What a surprise. Guido lowered the level of debate.

  • Such a well thought out post and then you make it all redundant by reporting allegations of fading eyesight as fact. The PM says his eyes are fine, did you have two sources and should it affect his job?

    I can’t see the problem with asking the question, he can ask anything he likes in the non-accusatory way that he did and it doesn’t need support.

  • Change your web site name to Liberal Democrat Belly. Since the Lib Dems have always been Labour’s favourite poodles, guaranteed to help them out on any occasion, you can lie on your back whenever any Labourite comes by and he’ll tickle your tummy.

  • Herbert Brown 27th Sep '09 - 6:14pm

    I suppose you can argue that if it’s just a bit of tittle-tattle it shouldn’t have been raised, but I don’t see how you can argue that it’s not in principle a subject of public interest.

    If the Prime Minister were being treated for a serious psychiatric condition, then I think the public would have a right to know about it.

  • Another sad moment in the continuing moves to prevent mental health issues from losing their stigma. I really wonder about people who think mental health (ignoring the Brown issue) can be sniggered at, sneared at, and used for inuendo and politicing. Perhaps Guido should think about how his use of the word weirdo above will make anyone reading this who grapples daily with mental health issues feel? God forbid he should ever have to deal with any such issues himself.

  • Paul Hughes 27th Sep '09 - 6:20pm

    I’m afraid that Guido is right. It is, of course, wholly pertinent to be concerned if the mental health of the PM is in question. Let’s consider a timeline: The PM begins to become depressed, he spends some weeks / months in an inexplicably and increasingly “down” mood. He eventually decides to seek medical help. He is diagnosed with depression and is prescribed Prozac or similar. Prozac takes six weeks to kick in and we have read that the pills which he is currently alleged to be taking are for those whom prozac can’t help. So, we’re already a few months down the line before the new pills are prescribed. They take a while to kick in. Dosages may have to be adjusted. Blah blah blah. Depression breeds paranoia, it brings listlessness and an inability to function in one’s everyday employment.

    I have seen close family members suffer from depression and so know how entirely debilitating it is. I know that the medication, even if functional, takes time to work and never wholly works. You never feel “normal” whilst on anti-depressants.

    All this time, therefore, the whole nation’s fortunes are dependent on a man whose ability to function is impaired. His judgement was always under suspicion, and that was when he was well… Furthermore, these have hardly been ordinary times. So, yes, I feel it wholly appropriate to ask questions when fairly substantive people begin to question the mental health of a PM whose job it is to ride the storms of an international recession, even if he did make it immeasurably worse for the British, by himself.

    I feel pity for those who are depressed. I feel pity for the blind. I wouldn’t want a blind pilot. I feel pity for amputees. I wouldn’t want a surgeon with one arm. The list goes on. It is possible to feel pity for those who suffer any illness whilst believing that there are certain jobs to which they are not suited whilst so afflicted.

  • Paul Hughes 27th Sep '09 - 6:22pm

    Dom, you don’t have to be mentally ill to be a weirdo. Gordon Brown was always a weirdo. He is now a mentally ill weirdo.

  • Paul Hughes 27th Sep '09 - 6:33pm

    Sorry, neither do you have to be a weirdo if you are mentally ill…..

  • Paul Hughes 27th Sep '09 - 6:44pm

    Yes, I know. A post too far. Still, I didn’t want to be misunderstood and shouted down as a brute. Nice photo, by the way…

  • Neil Bradbury 27th Sep '09 - 6:45pm

    Paul Staines talks about this post as though it was accusing him. As far as I can read, it doesn’t. The public don’t want horrible personal attacks on individuals. Let’s keep out of the gutter Lib Dems and attack Gordon and the Labour party on their policies. Good post.

  • So the tories arent a nazi, sorry, nasty party anymore ? why does anyone take GF seriously ?

  • @paul hughes – but the point is guido used the phrase while talking explicitly about mental health

  • Enough already. Surely we should appreciate that anybody who chooses to try and lead the current Labour Party is entitled/needs to be on anti-depressants!!! Leave the poor man alone.

  • No one has so far mentioned Churchill’s “Black dog”, Roosevelt’s polio or Wilson or Reagan’s Alzheimers. Whether a political leader suffers a chronic or debilitating mental or physical illness should in no way impinge on their ability to do their job properly. If we always paint people who suffer from such conditions as weirdos then how can we ever have any empathy with other human beings?

  • Herbert Brown 28th Sep '09 - 10:42am

    “No one has so far mentioned Churchill’s “Black dog”, Roosevelt’s polio or Wilson or Reagan’s Alzheimers. Whether a political leader suffers a chronic or debilitating mental or physical illness should in no way impinge on their ability to do their job properly.”

    You are not seriously suggesting that it wouldn’t be a legitimate matter of public concern if the Prime Minister had Alzheimer’s Disease?

  • sanbikinoraion 28th Sep '09 - 12:07pm

    Whether or not the PM is depressed is utterly irrelevant; he should be judged based on the job he is doing which is, by all accounts, a bad one. It matters not whether it’s because he is depressed or because he is simply useless – either way he’s going to be out on his ear in May.

    Imagine the opposite situation, in which the PM is doing a great job that everyone approves of, but is rumoured to be taking anti-depressants. Would it *then* matter if they were on drugs, and that those drugs were actually *helping* them do their job? No, they should still be assessed on whether they’re actually doing the job well or not.

  • I’m really not sure why the right-wing bloggers are focussing on this when there’s so much going against Brown anyway that they really don’t need to get so personal!

    Fundamentally, I think Marr got this wrong, just as Paxman did with Kennedy. Frankly, both should have been judged on the basis of the job they’re doing, and not on their health.

  • Foregone Conclusion 28th Sep '09 - 12:31pm

    And, of course, there was Abraham Lincoln’s depression as well, and John F. Kennedy’s chronic health problems. Kennedy may have made some mistakes, but they weren’t because of his Addison’s Disease or back problems.

    The fact is that the ‘evidence’ that Brown is on antidepressants anyway is so flimsy that no-one whose mind was not so diseased by hate or partisanship would not give them a second thought. He can’t eat wine or cheese (or, to be more precise, chianti). So… he possibly suffers from migraines. Or doesn’t like cheese and chianti. That’s always a possibility. He picks his nose in public… so do I. Disgusting habit, I know. Well, there goes my political career. Hardly one of the famous indicators of mental illness, though.

    Fact is, I could alledge that Brown is in fact an android. Consider the facts:

    – The man appears mechanical in public (never mind that he’s apparently charming in private). He is obviously an android.
    – He can’t eat wine or cheese. In fact, he cannot eat any food except Wheatabix mashed up with WD40. I know this, because a random guy in the street told me.
    – He picks his nose. Erm… this must signify something. Android!

    It reminds me rather of those stories that Barack Obama was born in Kenya – google ‘birther’ if you don’t know what I mean – in it’s complete ignorance of the facts or plausibility. Politics is about far more important things, and the people peddling this crap should grow up.

    (To answer the usual tedious Tory diatribe about us being another wing of the Labour Party, I would point out that I would be similarly disgusted if this allegation was used against a prominent Tory).

  • Libdem Guru 4th Oct '09 - 4:53pm

    stop getting so offended at nothing, ya goon
    it was an innocent question with a sense of humour from a very intelligent man
    some of you libdems really need to get a life and get out more!!!

  • Libdem Guru 4th Oct '09 - 5:16pm

    and yes the libdem conference was car crash tv….who are these joker pr people advising nick from saatchis and so called other reputable companies? they are attacking dr cable in the press as well and no-one stands up and defends him!

    THEY ARE A JOKE!

  • Simon Thomson 8th Oct '09 - 4:50pm

    I understand why the mental health of political leaders (right, left or centre) is questioned (Richard Nixon anyone?), however, for consistency I hope if a similar issue arises in future regarding a Conservative party leader or cabinet member no right wing blogger will object to questions being asked. Also, if these questions are to be asked, then surely it is only right and proper to ask David Cameron about his alleged usage of class A drugs in the past. If he wants people to trust him then he should be honest with the answer he gives rather than articulating the mealy mouthed view that all politicians have a right to a life before poitics. One can imagine the furore if this was a Liberal Democrat or Labour leader.

2 Trackbacks

  • By To be fair … on Fri 2nd October 2009 at 12:02 am.

    […] I made clear my view on Sunday that the BBC’s Andrew Marr was bang out-of-order to ask Gordon Brown whether he uses prescription drugs seemingly on the basis of nothing more than Internet rumour: … in making it an issue on the basis of no evidence, Andrew Marr and the BBC have done a real disservice to serious political reporting. […]

  • By The LDV Friday Five (ish): 2/10/09 on Fri 2nd October 2009 at 7:24 pm.

    […] That Andrew Marr question: wrong, wrong, wrong (32) by Stephen Tall 2. Opinion: The disaster of Bournemouth was avoidable (26) by William le […]

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