A threat too far for Marr
Padraig Reidy: Distasteful questions about Gordon Brown's health should not be used as a brickbat to beat the BBC
29 Sep 09

The past few days has seen a hell of a lot of righteous indignation over the BBC’s Andrew Marr’s questioning of Gordon Brown’s medical routine (“A lot of people in this country use prescription painkillers and pills to help them get through; are you one of those people?”).

I should say I found the question pretty distasteful myself. Though many of us do rely on pills to help with physical or psychological ailments, it’s just not something we talk about. Interrogating someone on health, which in Britain is seen very much as a private matter, is just not done.

But of course, invocation of taboo is an easy route for the censor. It’s not hard to convince people that individuals shouldn’t be allowed to talk about the type of things very few are comfortable talking about anyway.

Now, according to Paul Waugh at the Evening Standard, a cabinet minister has said that such questions could endanger the BBC’s licence fee.

While Waugh does not name the minister in question, it’s known that several other Labour figures have raised objections to Marr’s line of questioning. Schools secretary Ed Ball’s was critical of what he saw as Marr’s rehashing of Internet rumours, while Jon Cruddas has reportedly sworn off the idea of being interviewed by Marr ever again.

But threatening the BBC’s very lifeblood is another thing entirely. It’s a straightforward attempt at interference with the BBC’s editorial independence. One cannot trumpet the benefits of a free society and then tell journalists, even state-subsidised journalists, what they can and can’t ask of politicians.

In Egypt, reporters are regularly arrested for questioning President Mubarak’s state of health. Surely not a road we want to go down.

To end on a happier note, Gordon Brown, in his speech at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, has just pledged to scrap compulsory ID cards for UK citizens. Which is nice.

Update: Index chief exec John Kampfner’s not nearly as squeamish about inquiring about people’s health as I am

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.