This week marks a new beginning for Andrew Marr.
After two decades at the BBC, the veteran political journalist has cut himself loose from a news organisation that defines itself by impartiality to start “speaking my mind”.
“I rose in journalism as a reporter and commentator in the fiercely competitive commercial world, where you could say anything you liked,” says Marr. “You had to then live with consequences. But in a way it was a high-wire act and an exciting thing to do.
“And, in my 60s, I want to go back to where I was in my 20s. I want the notebook in my back pocket. And I want to be hurtling along the street. Listening to people’s conversations. Going and talking to people who are interesting and surprising and all of that.”
Marr, 62, started his new job as political editor and commentator at Press Gazette sister title the New Statesman this week.
He is also recruiting journalists for a new political show on LBC. Plus, Marr will soon begin penning a monthly “letter from London” column for the New York Times.
Marr announced his departure from the BBC in November after handing in his notice to Tim Davie, the broadcaster’s director general. At the time, he said that leaving the corporation would allow him to “get my own voice back”.
So, after 21 years as a Westminster journalist at the BBC – the first five as political editor, the next 16 as host of the Andrew Marr Show – what does he have to say for himself?
“I’m not going to be an apoplectically angry, partisan, ranting voice,” Marr tells me over a telephone call. “Anyone who’s expecting that is going to be sorely disappointed. I’m really not that kind of person, not that kind of journalist.”
‘I never really switch off’
Glasgow born and Cambridge educated, Marr started his career at the Scotsman newspaper. After developing a political specialism, he went on to work for the Independent (where he rose to become editor), the Economist, the Express and the Observer.
In 2000, he swapped Fleet Street for Broadcasting House to become the BBC’s political editor. He held the post – one of the most coveted and heavily scrutinised in British journalism – for five years.
In 2005, Marr took over the BBC’s Sunday morning political slot, previously known as Frost on Sunday. Balancing the Andrew Marr Show with Radio 4’s Start The Week, he describes his former schedule as “pretty relentless”.
“I never really switched off,” says Marr when I ask him about his average week. Monday to Thursday “you’re hunching over all the papers and all the outlets trying to think about the shape of the show on Sunday. I was also usually reading three books for Start The Week on a Monday morning.”
He’d also spend the early days of the week having coffees and lunches with politicians and colleagues before starting “detailed discussions about the shape of the programme” on Fridays and Saturdays.
This would include forming thorough interview plans with his research team. “If I ask this or that about the vaccine passport, they will say ‘x’. And I then come back with ‘y’. If they claim so and so, I’ve got this quote from 18 months ago. It’s all that kind of stuff. We did that in some detail.
“And I know from personal conversations that politicians who are likely to be on the show are doing exactly the same thing in reverse at the same time. So there’s a lot of rehearsing going on.”
Marr would bid his family good night between 8-9pm on a Saturday before heading into the office before 6am on Sunday for rehearsals, conversations with guests, make-up and wiring.
After the show? “I limp off home and I fall asleep for one hour. Always one hour. No longer. For some reason, I manage to be able to do that and then wake up, look around, and then start the week again. And it goes on.”
Marr suffered a stroke in 2013. It left him with limited movement on the left side of his body but did nothing to dent his productivity.
He’s an accomplished and exhibited artist, and his literary output includes: A History of Modern Britain (2007), The Making of Modern Britain (2009), The Diamond Queen (2011), History of the World (2012), A Short Book about Painting (2017) and Elizabethans: A History of How Britain Was Forged (2020). He’s also written two novels, Head of State (2014) and Children of the Master (2015).
Reflecting on his career at the BBC, Marr says his best interview was with Barack Obama. “A day after Osama Bin Laden had been seized in Pakistan. That was a big moment, a big interview to do. And he was a fascinating interviewee because he is so intelligent, so bright. Forward guessing every question with humour and grace, but tough.”
He lists his biggest mistake as asking Gordon Brown, while he was prime minister, whether he took “prescription painkillers and pills” to help “get through”.
When I ask him to name the most genuine politician he’s interviewed, Marr sounds puzzled. “Genuine? I’ve no idea. I don’t really know what that means, I’m afraid. I assume that most of them are doing their best to tell the truth and have genuine human experiences to bring to it…most of them are genuine, I think.”
So politicians are mostly honest people, in your experience? “I guess so. Who can tell, really? You’re asking me to be something between a psychiatrist and a seer.
“If there are windows into men’s and women’s souls, then they’re generally speaking too murky in the context of television interviews to peer through.”
‘I don’t want to be a bed blocker’
Marr was only part-way through a two-year contract when he decided to quit. Why leave now?
“I was increasingly thinking to myself they’re not going to want me forever,” says Marr. “I am sitting in one of the best seats in the BBC journalism arena. I don’t want to be a bed blocker. There are younger, perhaps brighter, energetic people desperate to do this job, and it’s just unfair of me to sit there for ever. So that was a big part of it.
“As I said, I relish the chance to speak out a bit more. And after 17 years, candidly, I needed new challenges. New things to do. Everybody can get stale doing the same job for that long.
“I didn’t want to get stale. I didn’t want to leave at a period where people were saying, ‘Oh my God. Old Marr’s past his best. He’s been going on for far too long. Would somebody please tell him to go!’
“That hasn’t, so far as I know, happened. Maybe that’s what they’re all saying in the background. But they didn’t say it to my face.”
How does a star presenter at the BBC hand in their notice?
“I phoned the director-general, who was surprised, I think. But not overly distressed, I hope. We had a very amicable, frank conversation about it and doing it sensibly and properly with respect on both sides…
“I think, when I explained to them what I was doing and why, I think I’m quite sure that Tim thought that was a sensible and grown-up thing to be wanting to do. I hope so.”
Boris Johnson’s ‘temperament’ not suited to Covid crisis
What can we expect from the newly-opinionated Marr at the New Statesman and elsewhere?
In a New Statesman diary entry last week, Marr told readers he would not be “much of a shouter”. He said the job of a journalist should be to “listen intently and explain clearly – and by doing that, to give readers a more convincing map of the way power is working”.
“My job is to try to predict, to look at the game, and tell people where the ball is going to bounce next,” he tells me. “And also to try to always relate it to our lives. It’s not a game… and it’s not pure theatre. It’s the exercise of power as it affects all of us in a mature and perhaps rather aging democracy. I do sound really pompous now.”
I ask Marr about Boris Johnson, who is currently engulfed in a lockdown party crisis. How much longer will Johnson be Prime Minister?
“I can’t tell. One thing we know about Boris Johnson is that he will fight utterly ferociously, using every trick in the book, to keep his job.”
How disappointed will Johnson be that Covid-19 has dominated, and will likely come to define, his time in office?
“I think he will be feeling absolutely wretched about this. And, in a sense, I hope so. Because he’s done it to himself. When we all make mistakes, we need to feel personal remorse. And I hope he feels remorse too and doesn’t just blame it on other people.”
What should he feel remorse for?
“Almost everything in the last two weeks, I would say at the moment,” says Marr. (We spoke on 21 January.) “I don’t want to get drawn into this – as it were, writing a column about Boris Johnson – at the moment.”
But Marr does have a bit more to add on Johnson.
“I think it’s hard to imagine a character less innately suited by temperament and personality to lead a country through a Covid crisis, which requires tough public health measures, personal restraint, careful, continent behaviour by everybody. It’s very hard to imagine anybody less suited than Boris Johnson was for that.”
I try to push my line of inquiry a little further – is Johnson a competent PM? Is he honest? “I’ve had enough of Boris Johnson. I’m not writing a political column, Will. I’m doing an interview about journalism. Or I thought I was.”
Then, the day before this interview was published, Marr’s first cover story in his new role at the New Statesman went out, headlined: “Why Boris Johnson is beyond saving.”
‘Operation Red Meat’ and the BBC
Moving on, is Marr concerned about the future of the BBC? Johnson’s government last month indicated that it wants to bring an end to the corporation’s funding model.
“Yes, I am,” he says. “I think that there is clearly a big and serious issue about the future of the licence fee: Is it any longer an effective or fair way of paying for the BBC?
“But I don’t think you can announce it’s going until you have got a proper debate on what’s going to replace it.
“And the timing. The timing of this decision does look very much as if the BBC is being – it’s an attempt to, as it were, cow or bully the BBC, or get a short-term political hit to protect the Prime Minister.
“It feels more like Operation Red Meat, as they call it, than it does like a coherent, balanced, long-term approach to reshaping British broadcasting. My great worry is that we see further cuts to BBC news and current affairs, which cannot happen. They really need to reinvest in that.”
The move by Johnson’s government to threaten the licence fee has been on the cards for a while. How was this pressure felt within the BBC? Did it affect Marr’s journalism?
“I tried very hard to make sure that it did not,” he says. “When you’re having people kind of wave a fist at you, or menace you in any way – and I’m talking about the most subtle verbal bash, not physically obviously – then one’s instinct is to be tougher on ministers rather than less tough.
“In other words, to show that it’s not going to affect you. And that too is a form of bias. So it’s really hard. You just have to try to put it out of your mind every time you do an interview, and go back to basics, saying: What are the things my viewers most want to know from this person at this time that they might remotely be able to say?
“So, in other words, what can I get out of this man or this woman this Sunday morning that’s going to interest my viewers most? And nothing else really should be in your mind at all. It’s difficult. But you learn to do it.”
The New Statesman is my ‘spiritual home’
I first emailed Marr asking him to do this interview in December, shortly after his New Statesman appointment was announced. He wrote back that he was “hugely excited to be joining the NS – I think it will be in some ways my spiritual home”.
In his youth, Marr earned the nickname “Red Andy”. How left-wing is he now? “Not very,” he says. “I describe myself as a fairly centrist social democrat, probably.
“It’s my spiritual home in a way because of the quality of the writing. I think anyone who joins the organisation in which you encounter HG Wells, George Orwell, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and many more as their writers, you think these are hallowed steps, or a hallowed building, or a hallowed organisation.”
Still, some critics of the BBC are likely to use Marr’s new job at a left-leaning publication to attack his former employer. Is this a concern?
“I don’t think people are going to read or hear what I say and be surprised or use that in a way that could be used to attack the BBC,” he says. “Andrew Marr outside the BBC is still Andrew Marr. People know who I am, I think. And that’s what they’re going to get.”
Marr is clearly a workaholic. He has not left the BBC to retire and feels he has at least another decade of journalism to come. But has his work-life balance improved over the past decade?
“I’m certainly a lot calmer,” he says. “I do a lot of walking. I do a lot of painting and drawing. I read a lot. And I spend a lot more time with family, just kicking back.
“But I have been cursed, or blessed, with a very, very short attention span and a huge capacity for impatience and boredom. And so I’ve always worked hard and I think I always will work hard.
“And certainly, looking forward to the next ten years, they will be good years or not good years dependent on doing good work.
“I wouldn’t say I’m born to work, but it’s certainly always been an important part of me. And I’m never happier than when I’m writing something or breaking a story or finding something out that people didn’t already know.
“That moves me, keeps me going. And I think that will always be the case.”
Quickfire questions with Andrew Marr
Favourite film? Doctor Zhivago
Music? Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony
Book? War and Peace
Newspaper? “Pass. I read all of them. I wouldn’t want to offend anyone.”
TV show? Around the World in 80 Days
Editor? Andreas Whittam Smith
If you had to spend an evening in the pub with one politician, who would you choose? “Oh, God. I don’t know. He probably wouldn’t come into the pub with me, but maybe Neil Kinnock.”
Picture: Reuters/Stefan Rousseau/Pool