Page last updated at 10:35 GMT, Tuesday, 17 August 2010 11:35 UK
Hastings Pier hopes go up in smoke

Andy Burnham admits he is a 'golf cheat'

By Stephen Smith

A more vulgar column than this one would have no compunction about trumpeting the exclusives it has pulled off in the recent past.

For instance, few who saw it could forget our coverage of the great broad bean shortage of two summers ago.

Andy Burnham
Andy Burnham describes the big society as 'ideological fluff'

When we went on air, the world was in ignorance of this crisis. And yet in the space of a few minutes, we managed to clear up that there was no shortage after all, and it had all been an unfortunate misunderstanding on the part of a certain presenter on his (or her) remote estate.

Yes, we had put the story to bed once and for all before the competition had so much as pulled their boots on!

We were also out on our own with revelations about children's car seats. The European Union wanted to keep young motorists strapped into them well past infancy, possibly into mid-life.

Story revelation

Only an embittered rival could complain that it was never clear from our film whether this epoch-making change would ever happen or not.

But as I say, not a word about this reportage was ever breathed in self-promotion. Now, however, I find myself with a story so hot that my natural instinct for reticence must bow before Newsnight's giant publicity machine.

Diarmuid Gavin
TV gardener Diarmuid Gavin believes we have 'got fat with government'

Are you sitting down? Andy Burnham has cheated at golf!

Yes, you heard right: as a teenager, the future health secretary and Labour leadership hopeful moved his ball into a more favourable lie while taking part in a tournament.

The sports-mad MP 'fessed up of his own volition as he joined Newsnight for a round on the links at Hastings. We were pitting ourselves against a veritable Carnoustie of Crazy Golf on the Sussex seashore.

Mr Burnham has said that no political goal could match turning out at Wembley in Everton's colours, so perhaps we are invited to read his confession as a mark of his competitiveness, or youthful excess.

He also offered his thoughts on the government's "big society" idea, or wish, in which members of the public are asked to volunteer. He was not particularly complimentary - but did that mean he was saying people should just sit on their hands and not take part, we wondered.

Celebrity gardener help

This programme's been entrusted with the upkeep of a traffic island on the prom by the sporting if sceptical people of Hastings.

And talking of competitiveness, we had to get our gardening game on, with the red letter day of the town's carnival drawing ever nearer, and with it, the gaily-coloured floats that would be circling our roundabout.

Stephen Smith's Big Society

Who better to mastermind a makeover, then, than TV gardener Diarmuid Gavin, who entered into the spirit of the thing by gamely giving up his afternoon to dig and plant.

We had put out appeals over the airwaves of the local BBC radio station for the people of Hastings to lend us their flowers - and elbow grease. But how many would come forward?

As for that Burnham golf confession, it doesn't take a seasoned Westminster commentator to tell you that it blows the Labour hustings wide open. Or not in my experience, it doesn't.

In fact, the seasoned Westminster commentators I spoke to told me it would make no difference whatsoever.

A bad case of sour grapes, I thought, as my so-called rivals hooted with envy at my scoop.

Watch the third film in Newsnight's Big Society series on Tuesday 17 August 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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20 Jul 10 |  UK Politics
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