First, I’d better tell the story, because it’s quite a tale. Marson, the Tory MP for Hertford and Stortford, has a column in her local newspaper, as many MPs do and as the local MP did when I worked for a local newspaper.
I’ve always been rather dubious about the practice, because it provides them with an easy opportunity to blow their own trumpets – which isn’t available to their political opponents. I guess you could argue that a democratically elected MP should have the opportunity to inform their readers and constituents about their activities at Westminster and elsewhere. Not everyone’s on social media, after all.
That is the view of Paul Winspear. He is the editor of the Bishop’s Stortford Independent, and he expressed it in a recent leader column. It was published in lieu of a column from Marson on the subject of Partygate, which Winspear had requested.
His leader appeared under the headline “Our MP on ‘Partygate’: Oh, hang on…” because what she submitted was about, erm, local trains. And hare coursing. Yes, you read that right. Hare coursing.
I can well imagine the reaction when the column arrived. Something like: “What the hell is this?” In some of the newsrooms in which I served, it would have been a good deal less polite than that.
Winspear hadn’t previously made any requests of his columnist, but his decision on this occasion was perfectly justifiable. His readers, Marson’s constituents, are perfectly entitled to ask what their democratically elected representative thinks about a scandal which has dominated the news for weeks now.
They’re talking about it on the Clapham omnibus. It has been all over social media. Even a darts championship crowd was moved to chant “stand up if you hate Boris”, as a result of it. Football crowds have indulged in variations on the theme, but if I were to print some of those I’d get told off by my editor for being too sweary.
Editors have the right, and the responsibility, both to impose standards on, and to make requests of, their writers. That holds true for both in-house columnists, such as myself, and external contributors, such as Marson.
The issues at the heart of this story – of honesty, integrity, respect and decency – threaten to gravely undermine any remnants of public trust, faith and confidence in their political representatives; not just nationally, but locally too.
I should have put the above in quotes because it’s what Marson had to say about the infamous trip to Barnard Castle taken by Boris Johnson’s former BFF and adviser-turned-arch-enemy, Dominic Cummings, during the first lockdown. Those words were part of a 700-word statement Marson’s local paper, published in full. This, again, was greatly to her advantage.
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However, when it came to talking about the allegations of similarly serious nature, the repeated breaking of lockdown rules by her hero Boris Johnson (she’s a big booster of Johnson and named her dog for him), she took a different tack. “Women didn’t get the vote and go into parliament to be dictated to by anyone, including newspaper editors. Try and get it right next time,” she opined. Wait, what?
“I asked my MP colleagues all over the country if local papers ever demanded what they must write about and the answer was no,” she added in a statement to the Hold the Front Page website. “So the normal state of affairs is MPs are free to write on whatever topic they choose. It may be an unwritten rule, but it’s what is happening right now across the country.”
Seriously? A rule? When did that happen? As outbursts of pettiness go, Marson’s is fairly impressive. Mustn’t criticise the dear leader, eh? But consider the context.
At the national level, the Conservative government has indulged in the quite disgraceful bullying of the BBC, in the wholesale dismantling of constitutional norms, in attacks on the courts and on the civil service, and on many other British institutions. It is currently engaged in an attempt to squash the freedom to protest. Tory MPs have even snapped at the independence of juries.
Set against that, Marson’s seeming attempt at bullying her local newspaper for simply doing its job by asking its MP to express a view on an important issue in her column looks rather more sinister to me. The ugly canker of corruption Boris Johnson has sown in the Conservative Party, and in the nation, has spread widely. This episode shows that Tory arrogance runs deep.
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