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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006, 12:18 GMT
Leaving secrets to lie
News that Charles Kennedy had a "drink problem" was no surprise to some journalists. Should BBC News have done more to establish the truth of the matter before last week's dramatic announcement? Today editor Kevin Marsh takes a considered view.

It was on the evening of Thursday, 5 January that ordinary listeners, viewers and voters found out what Westminster politicians and political journalists had known for some time.

Charles Kennedy had an alcohol problem. He had had treatment for it. He had been, by turns and semi-publicly, cajoled, urged and, more or less politely, threatened that he should "raise his game" or stand down.

It was another two days before he conceded that he had to go - though in the end it wasn't the alcohol, or at least not that alone, that did for him. It was the effect on that most potent political agency, confidence.

Not the confidence of his party in the country, but that of the few dozen in the Westminster hothouse.

Political insiders

Some lobby correspondents - the charmed and privileged cohort of political insiders whose job it is to tell us what we need to know about those who wield the power we give them - have been more frank in hindsight than others.

Our own political editor, Nick Robinson, was the most blunt. The day after Mr Kennedy enlightened the wider world about his drinking, Nick told Today: "Listeners are now hearing... what we reporters have been hearing for months and years and have chosen not to tell in full."

Many Liberal Democrat members and activists are both angry and confused. They're angry that their own party bigwigs at Westminster can assassinate their leader without a by-your-leave.

Gentlemen's club

And they're confused about why they didn't know in West Hartlepool and West Bromwich what, apparently, everyone knew in Westminster - so that they could make up their own minds about whether Charles Kennedy should continue to lead them.

The obvious question, of course, is this: who "chose not to tell"? And why?

Was it only the lobby journalists, observing the modes and manners of the gentlemen's club that many claim Parliament still is? Did it spring from the mindset that still forbids one MP calling another drunk on the floor of the House? Or from the belief that a man's commitment to conviviality is a private matter?

Or had journalists made a judgement that Liberal Democrats think was theirs to make; that Charles Kennedy - in spite of his alcoholism - was capable and getting on with the job?

Apology from BBC

That was more or less the view of the Guardian political editor, Michael White, when he appeared on Today two days after Mr Kennedy's revelation. He wondered whether it was the job of the press to ask a politician how much he drinks - if it's not affecting how he does his job.

Today programme editor Kevin Marsh
Today and Newsnight exist to get at the truth on behalf of their audiences
Kevin Marsh
Editor, Today
The BBC took a similar view when, in July 2002, it apologised to Mr Kennedy for "one question too many" about drink from Jeremy Paxman.

The late Robin Cook, then Leader of the House, told MPs that the interview showed the BBC was competing at "the bottom end of the market". While another Labour MP asked: "Is there to be no limit to questions from interviews?"

And this is the BBC's dilemma.

Programmes like Today and Newsnight exist to get at the truth on behalf of their audiences. Those audiences will - during an election campaign - include voters who are trying to decide who would make the best Prime Minister; or - the rest of the time - members of a party who need to know whether they can continue to trust their leader.


In all other matters, our audiences expect us to report the facts as we know them - or fashion questions to get at the facts. And then let listeners and viewers decide.

Who are we, then, to decide whether or not a party leader seems to be getting on just fine - in spite of reports and rumours of private alcoholic excess? Who are we to decide that we shouldn't pursue the truth of those reports with the vigour we would pursue other questions of policy, propriety or competence?

The other horn of that dilemma, of course, is that if we DO report on a leader's drinking habits (or medical condition or any other aspect that would normally be considered private) we are either assumed to have pre-judged the case and decided that the private matter IS affecting his leadership abilities - or to have joined the scandal-mongers in the tabloid press.

Worse, if we try to steer a middle way and raise the question in interviews - but not too insistently (as we often did with Charles Kennedy) - and he denies there's a problem (as he invariably did) then are we not complicit in what is at best a cover-up, at worst a lie?

All about trust

There's no doubt that the BBC's critics - as well as those with a self-interest in non-disclosure - will argue that interviewers shouldn't rough up MPs and party leaders over any aspect of their private lives; and that even in Charles Kennedy's case, that there was nothing to be gained from pressing him more often and with more persistence than he was comfortable with.

But I wonder. In the end, it's all about trust - and trust comes from openness, even in those areas, like a politician's drinking habits, that make some squeamish.

And it's clear that many Liberal Democrats - and the wider general public - would have appreciated more frankness from Charles Kennedy earlier; more pressure from interviewers to that end; and less omerta on the part of the lobby - who, after all, knew what was going on all along.

Not "broken, beaten or cowed"
10 Oct 05 |  Notes
How will history judge Kennedy?
08 Jan 06 |  UK Politics
The Charles Kennedy story
09 Jan 06 |  UK Politics


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