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May 19, 2014

Guardian readers’ editor wishes paper had ‘passed’ on Chris Huhne’s Constance Briscoe column

By William Turvill

The Guardian readers’ editor has said he believes the newspaper shouldn't have published former MP Chris Huhne’s column on the jailing Constance Briscoe.

Chris Elliott has revealed that the paper received 65 letters critical of the column. His office, meanwhile, received 20 complaints, and the online article got 1,500 comments, the “overwhelming majority" of which were negative. 

Elliott said that since Huhne was given a year-long contract last September, The Guardian has received a number of complaints. He suggested that some of these were prompted by the fact Huhne was a Liberal Democrat MP, the party backed by The Guardian in the last general election.

Elliott wrote: “Huhne's column, The crooked judge and I, published on 5 May 2014, generated the most complaints so far.

“In it he gave his view of the role of Constance Briscoe (pictured below: Reuters) in his own arrest and conviction, after she was jailed for 16 months for perverting the course of justice.”

One reader’s complaint read: "It is not clear to me why the Guardian allows Chris Huhne space for such a self-serving and deluded article as his column on 5 May…

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“Mr Huhne's lack of contrition is extraordinary, as is the Guardian's willingness to give him a platform. Shame on you both!"

Huhne told Elliott in response to the complaints: "When I started doing the column, the view from the editors was that the first one ought to be a personal column explaining what had happened. The difficulty is that I couldn't tell the whole story because of the [impending] Briscoe trial as it would have been contempt of court.

"This column is a continuation of that first column as I couldn't explain why I had been so keen to carry on to resist this [charge].

"The idea that I am guilty and anything else is uninteresting is bizarre. I do accept responsibility for what I did, but there is never only one cause to something. The reality is that there are chains of causality in a story."

Asked if he would be writing about it again, Huhne said: "I wouldn't have thought so. It is not in my interests to do so. I have tried to avoid doing anything on the case or on prison: I don't want to be a Jonathan Aitken."

Freedland said: "When you have a columnist at the heart of a news story it would almost be perverse not to have him write on it… Once you have taken the decision that he writes on that topic, it is not surprising that the column strikes some as self-serving: he was making his own case."

But Elliott disagreed with Freedland, writing: “I understand that when you have a protagonist in the midst of a major scandal the most obvious decision is to run with it, but I agree with the readers: I wished the Guardian had passed on this one. The problem, I think, is not that it is a partial account – opinion pieces are. But any insight into the case is crowded by a degree of animus that undermines the account.”

Before his career in politics, Huhne was a staff journalist for The Guardian with stints as economics editor and as a leader writer. He also worked for The Economist, Independent and Liverpool Daily Post.

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

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