This time it's personal

What has Andrew Marr, the BBC's political new boy, done to deserve the Daily Mail? And what can possibly be the cause of the paper's venom towards him and his reporting?
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The Independent Online

If the BBC's new political editor, Andrew Marr, had time in the middle of the fuel crisis to study the Daily Mail last Wednesday, he might have felt a frisson of alarm. The Ephraim Hardcastle column contained a snider than usual paragraph which asked if Marr was proving "a more enthusiastic Government supporter" than his predecessor Robin Oakley. Saying that Marr was suggesting the fuel blockade "could be a triumph for Mr Blair," it went on to ask: "Are his enormous ears receiving direct satellite guidance from Labour spin doctors?"

If the BBC's new political editor, Andrew Marr, had time in the middle of the fuel crisis to study the Daily Mail last Wednesday, he might have felt a frisson of alarm. The Ephraim Hardcastle column contained a snider than usual paragraph which asked if Marr was proving "a more enthusiastic Government supporter" than his predecessor Robin Oakley. Saying that Marr was suggesting the fuel blockade "could be a triumph for Mr Blair," it went on to ask: "Are his enormous ears receiving direct satellite guidance from Labour spin doctors?"

Marr may have had that moment's alarm because the Ephraim Hardcastle diary, while edited by Peter McKay (a matinee idol with perfectly formed ears) invariably reflects the likes and more often dislikes of Mail editor Paul Dacre.

Sure enough, the next day saw the page eight lead headlined "BBC man who saw it as a Blair victory" with a strap announcing "Questions over the corporation's coverage..." The report underneath was a particularly vicious and damaging one. It was bylined Steve Doughty, social affairs correspondent, but that may not be too relevant. Mail sources say, rather worryingly for the BBC, that both the story and the preceding diary item are part of an "editorial policy."

Doughty's story said that everyone saw the blockade as the worst crisis of Tony Blair's premiership, "apart from the BBC's new political editor." This was Andrew Marr's first big test and he "chose to picture events as a triumph in the making for the Prime Minister." BBC staff were being abused by pickets because of Marr's story, it added. And then it spelt out the real message: "Mr Marr was recruited by BBC director-general Greg Dyke, who has contributed more than £50,000 to the Labour Party."

None of this is true. A look at Marr's actual words in his television report last week shows that he never said what the Mail accuses him of. It's also the case, despite repeated assertions by the Mail, that Greg Dyke did not appoint Marr.

Mark Damazer, assistant director, BBC News, told me yesterday: "I can absolutely say that Greg first knew of this when he was told of the appointment by me and my boss Tony Hall. When Andy was appointed, numerous Conservative politicians stated that he was a journalist who always gave them a fair hearing."

But more important is the Mail's damaging distortion of Marr's first major reports. I have studied a transcript of his reports. In no way are they a hymn of praise to Blair. Marr makes sophisticated points - he might need to reflect on the dangers of trying to be too sophisticated in the soundbite news culture - but the report is full of caveats.

Last Monday, he actually began his nine o'clock news report, "It's been a pretty grim day for Mr Blair." On Tuesday, Marr said that it was "the most serious domestic crisis of [Blair's] premiership by far."

The Mail: "[Marr] said Tuesday night's developments promised a 'coup' for Tony Blair, compared the Prime Minister to Margaret Thatcher and suggested the crisis has left Mr Blair 'undamaged.'"

The words Marr actually said were: "If Mr. Blair has really de- fused his most serious domestic crisis, it's a coup for his style of crisis management." Marr then with unmistakable sledgehammer emphasis repeated the word "IF."

The Mail must have felt the force of the sledgehammer, saying "Even the repetition of 'if' did not obscure the message of success in the face of great difficulty."

As for the Margaret Thatcher reference, Marr said: "Today has seen Mr Blair as a command Prime Minister, behaving more like Margaret Thatcher than a traditional Labour leader. Whether it's a brilliant stroke or one confrontation too far will be clear in days."

Perhaps this is a little kind; but the phrase "a confrontation too far" does not sit easily with the Mail's accusation of Blairite reporting.

What is really firing this campaign by the Mail against Marr? Partly, of course, the BBC has long been a target for the paper, desperate to prove the perception of it as left of centre, politically and culturally.

There is, crucially, another aspect to the anti-Marr campaign. And it's personal. Mr Dacre does not like Mr Marr. It goes back to 1996 when Marr was editing this newspaper.

Then, The Independent and now Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee discovered that Mail reporters were investigating her private life. She wrote a furious tirade, accusing the Daily Mail of "dirty raincoat journalism." This was followed by a piece from Marr as editor attacking tabloid harassment and intrusion.

A few days later, Mail editor Paul Dacre responded in the media section of The Guardian.

Mr Dacre gave Mr Marr a little advice: "Every morning," he wrote, "he should look in his shaving glass and recite the following mantra... 'My salary and my staff's mortgages and my loss-making newspaper are subsidised by the profits produced by the Mirror, Sunday Mirror and the People newspapers [ The Independent was then part-owned by the Mirror Group] which, when it comes to yellow journalism, make the Daily Mail seem like a church gazette. I enjoy the luxury of indulging in uncommercial journalism and shall therefore try to be a little less self-righteous today.'"

It is not recorded whether Andrew Marr took Mr Dacre's advice. But as far as one can establish, his shaving routine remains unchanged. What was clear from that article though, is that the Mail editor had been stung.

Now the Mail has Andrew Marr in its sights. Even for someone as experienced as he is in political journalism, that will be a disturbing additional pressure.

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