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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals