Media: A stand-up argument

The sacking of a left-wing Guardian writer has sparked protests about the paper's politics. By Paul McCann
As demonstrations go, this was was a very peculiar one: a small group of striking Liverpool dockers picketed the offices of The Guardian newspaper yesterday. Why? Because the paper had dismissed one of its columnists, a man whose support for the dockers - and for other unfashionable left- wing causes - has been unflinching.

The stand-up comedian Mark Steel has been contributing a weekly political column for the comment pages of The Guardian for two-and-a-half years. Espousing Old Labour causes, his writing is trenchant and witty. In fact, the day that his first column appeared, the foreign secretary Robin Cook called Steel and asked if he would write gags for him.

His columns have since caused ruffles among The Guardian's senior executives - in particular, one supporting the strikers on London Underground's Jubilee Line "made them very cross", says Steel. New Labour also found Steel's hard line difficult to swallow.

Bill Morris of the TUC objected to a column that Steel wrote about the union movement's treatment of the Liverpool dockers. (Steel wrote that Morris's version of trade unionism was little more use than the Yellow Pages, as they both seem to be able to help you get insurance and credit cards: "If your union cannot defend you against a ruthless employer, there is no point ringing Direct Line," he wrote.)

He quoted Morris's complaint that the journalist John Pilger had given the dockers "false hope" by claiming they could win, and accused him of being defeatist: "If Bill Morris had been at Agincourt his stirring speech would have been, `I wouldn't bother going into the breach, boys. Have you seen the size of some of them French? Anyway, it's illegal to flare your nostrils'."

George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, was even more unhappy with Steel's opinions of the Government's bombing of Iraq in December last year. When the comedian wrote that Robertson was "stupid enough to believe his own bullshit", he was, he explains, pointing out that Robertson has said that Saddam Hussein's planes could carry 300 litres of deadly anthrax: "Well," wrote Steel, "300 empty wine bottles could also carry 300 litres of deadly anthrax, if you put anthrax in them."

Steel now says that he feared something was up last September, when the paper seemed hesitant about renewing his contract and talked about reducing the frequency of his contributions. He then wrote a piece of reportage for The Independent, which prompted The Guardian to offer him another six-month contract as long as he never wrote for The Independent again.

In January this year, David Leigh, the paper's comment editor, met Steel for 80 minutes at the Waldorf Hotel in London to tell him his services were no longer needed. "I remember him telling me that the paper was preparing to realign itself politically," Steel says of that meeting. "One of the problems with The Guardian is that it believes Tony Blair - that we're all becoming middle class." Leigh's coup de grace was, according to Steel, to tell him that "there are people at The Guardian who consider you vulgar".

When news of Steel's ousting began to circulate, his supporters sent a letter of protest to The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger. This missive was not simply the work of activists and disenfranchised dockers: it included the names of regular and well-respected contributors to The Guardian and its sister paper The Observer, including Francis Wheen, John Pilger and Nick Cohen, together with Channel 4's Jon Snow and comedians Jo Brand, Phil Jupitus and Mark Lamarr. Even the general secretary of National Union of Journalists has become involved in the issue.

Unfortunately, The Guardian decided that the list of signatories on the letter protesting about Steel's dismissal did not merit its publication.

Last week, the newspaper tried to head off criticism by telling the Evening Standard's media diary that Steel would be replaced by the equally left- wing comedian Jeremy Hardy. This came as something of a surprise to Steel as Hardy was a very old friend from the stand-up comedy circuit, one of the signatories of the original letter, and, what's more, already a Guardian columnist.

It also came as something of a surprise to Hardy, who, it is believed, has now told The Guardian that he doesn't want the Steel slot.

The Guardian, however, rebuts Steel's version of events. A spokeswoman for the newspaper explained: "There had been a discussion about the tone and style of a particular Mark Steel column. This was at the time when his contract was up for renewal, and inevitably we moved on to discuss that. At the same time, Mark asked us if he could do some pieces for The Independent's sports pages. We said that was fine, as there was no conflict. But his pieces appeared in The Independent's comment section [they were actually on our features pages] and we felt he had misled us. It is a surprise to us," she added, pointedly, "that he has organised this protest."

For those who marched on The Guardian's headquarters yesterday, it was not just about solidarity for a like-minded individual. They wanted reassurance that sacking Steel didn't mean that The Guardian was turning its back on the old left.