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Westminster's worst kept secret?

Nick Robinson | 16:50 UK time, Friday, 6 January 2006

It was - people say - Westminster's worst kept secret. I refer, of course, to Charles Kennedy's drinking.

The implication, therefore, is that we political reporters conspired to keep it that way - a secret. Hold on a second. Not so fast. There is a big, big difference between knowing that Charles Kennedy drank a lot and knowing that he had a drink problem and was undergoing treatment.

I knew the first but certainly did not know the second. The same is true of all the political reporters I know and all but Charles Kennedy's closest circle. I knew that Mr Kennedy sometimes drank more than he should. I could see that for myself and I heard it from those who worked closely with him.

I took the view that until and unless he failed to perform his public duties properly, or his own MPs decided his drinking was a reason to rebel, this would remain just Westminster chatter. Plenty of people in politics - and let's face it in the media too - drink more than they should.

More importantly, Mr Kennedy himself and some of his aides - and let's not mince words here - lied when asked about this.

Jeremy Paxman was famously the first to ask - he was met not just with a denial but a furious row about intruding into a politician's private life. When Mr Kennedy missed the budget debate in 2004 and sweated his way anxiously through a party speech, I interviewed him and asked him about his drinking. I was fobbed off.

Last summer something changed. The BBC received information that Mr Kennedy was undergoing treatment for an alcohol problem. This was put to Mr Kennedy's office who issued a flat denial. With that - and without independent evidence - the BBC decided it could not run the story.

In November, Charles Kennedy pulled out of a speech in Newcastle. His press secretary rang round to tell me and others that this was because his son was ill, but pleaded that we respected the privacy of the family. It has since emerged that at that time some of Mr Kennedy's colleagues thought he was unfit to appear in public.

It was only yesterday when he was faced both with a parliamentary revolt and a warning that ITN were to run anonymous allegations that he was undergoing treatment that Charles Kennedy confirmed that he did indeed have a problem and was receiving help.

Believe me, until then, that wasn't simply a secret we'd not thought it right to tell you. It was a secret that left me and many in Westminster open-mouthed. If you look at the pictures from last night's news conference you'll see that for yourself.


  • 1.
  • At 05:13 PM on 06 Jan 2006,
  • Peter D Smith wrote:

Westminster's worst kept secret, the cynic in me cries oh yea!
Prove me wrong Nick print Westminster's 2nd and 3rd worst kept secrets.

  • 2.
  • At 05:21 PM on 06 Jan 2006,
  • Richard Laming wrote:

Is a gentleman required to answer truthfully questions that should not properly be asked?

  • 3.
  • At 05:30 PM on 06 Jan 2006,
  • Rob Parker wrote:

I note that ITN refers to Kennedy as being an alcoholic, or a recovering alcoholic. Yet the BBC still insists on saying that he had a drink problem and that he's now cured.

Is this deliberate BBC policy?

  • 4.
  • At 05:38 PM on 06 Jan 2006,
  • Michael wrote:

Its pretty clear to me - not a party member but perhaps a sympathiser - that Mr Kennedy has lost credibility in his party. And that alcohol affected or not, he can't quite get back on top of things. I think if he wants a career in politics he should (a) STOP: continue as an MP which is a busy enough life for someone coping with alcohol and a young family and then (b) in a few years when he has clearly been alcohol free and his home life gives a bit nore time he should accept a shadow cabinet job, and (c) who knows. But he's in a hole now and he should stop digging while he still retains some public sympathy.

  • 5.
  • At 05:42 PM on 06 Jan 2006,
  • Laurence Hunt wrote:

Kennedy's "lying" about his drinking is not a reflection of his overall honesty as a leader, but a sad reflection of the stigmatism by society associated with this disease. If he were to have admitted publicly to it when probed (which, as Richard Laming points out, he should not need to do), it would have severely dented his credibility as leader of his party, but quite wrongly so.

But did the drinking affect his leadership skills? I think the delivery of the most successful election results for the Lib Dems in living memory are sufficient answer to that.

There are many other 'secrets' about politicians the media knows about but does not disclose, usually because they would be instantly actionable, either because they cannot (yet) be proved - eg Kennedy's alcohol problem - or because they breach privacy codes on family life. Reporters are not in the business of withholding secrets in some cabal with politicians to keep genuine and valid news from the public.

Let me also defend Nick's use of the word 'liar.' Yes, a symptom of alcoholism is a failure to acknowledge it, but Kennedy told us that he had been dealing with it for the last 18 months, so when he denied it throughout 2005, he was not in denial - he had acknowledged it to himself and was seeking treatment - but was lying.

And to Richard Laming (comment 2 on this story), asking Kennedy about his drinking was not improper when anyone could see it affected his performance in a number of prominent speeches and appearances (or non-appearances) in the last year or so. It was affecting his ability to do the job and was therefore a proper and relevant subject.

  • 7.
  • At 05:46 PM on 06 Jan 2006,
  • Olly Hatch wrote:

What this story really shows - apart from the Charles Kennedy stuff, is the degree to which political journalists are drawn in and become complicit in the 'Westminster Bubble'. To an extent Nick, you have to be to do your job, but at what point is bar or lobby tittle-tattle a story to be told to us? Given the briefings about Kennedy have gone on for months now, I think we should have been told something earlier. I accept this story was a very tough call, but you're in Westminster to tell us how it is, not just to hear the salacious stories and keep quiet.

  • 8.
  • At 05:48 PM on 06 Jan 2006,
  • Matthew Lloyd wrote:

A question that should not properly be asked? Of course it should be asked. At least Cameron answered similar questions (questions which were far less defensible) without lying.

If Kennedy had been dry for 5 years his protestations that he is fit for office would be plausible. Dry for 8 weeks? Get real.

  • 9.
  • At 05:53 PM on 06 Jan 2006,
  • Alex wrote:

"I took the view that until and unless he failed to perform his public duties properly,"... "this would remain just Westminster chatter."

This sounds like, as far as you can tell, Kennedy's drinks problem didn't actually make him unfit for office.

The next point against him, his lying to the media, is frankly to be expected - a poor situation, true, but these days it's a surprise when a politician owns up to a skeleton in the closet. Look at Cameron's evasion over drugs - all that trouble, for something that finished years ago!

If these aren't the real problems, that leaves me wondering something: just why don't his MPs have confidence in him? Do you know? Are you allowed to give an (unsubstantiated) opinion?

Liars can never be classed as gentlemen, no matter how much they may pretend to be such. It's a contradiction in terms.

  • 11.
  • At 05:58 PM on 06 Jan 2006,
  • steve wrote:

The feeding frenzy surrounding Charles Kennedy is horrific. Here's the truth. He has a medical problem, an illnes if you like. He has taken the major steps in addressing that problem - admitted there is one and sought professional help. Yet his westminster colleagues are treating him like foxhounds treat a fox. What if his medical problem was cancer? Would they respond in the same way? Or would they, as they did with Menzies Campbell, treat him with respect and dignity.
Charles Kennedy is my MP and he's a good one too. He has been very kind and helpful to me on more than one occassion and certainly does not deserve his parriah status.
If he is forced to go the every MP who drinks too much or who has a significant physical or mental health problem should go too. If not then they are hypocrits, in which case they haave no place in Parliament anyway!

In response to Rob Parker's question above, the BBC News website's politics team has tended to avoid the term alcoholic. Mr Kennedy referred in his statement ( )to a drink problem, but has not said he is an alcoholic. We have looked at the issue of heavy drinking and the more serious alcohol dependency in the article at this address:

  • 13.
  • At 12:30 PM on 08 Jan 2006,
  • Malcolm Morris wrote:

Is this finally the fallout from Hutton? Evidence beyond doubt should not be necessary for political editors. Were that the case, Nixon would have served out 2 terms. Charles Kennedy would have never dared sue the BBC for libel, and the BBC should have know it.

  • 14.
  • At 12:52 AM on 09 Jan 2006,
  • Saj wrote:

Can I quickly say how much I'm enjoying this blog and the many intelligent responses to it.

I just have a quick question and forgive me if I've misunderstood. Why was Nick left "open-mouthed" by CK's admission if the BBC had already received information that he was being treated for his drink problem? Did they not have confidence in their source?

Which leads me to another question, actually, (sorry): can a journalist ever have confidence in potentially damaging information about the leader of a party if it comes from a source within his or her party?

  • 15.
  • At 01:13 AM on 09 Jan 2006,
  • gavin barrass wrote:

I was reading some of the quotes on the BBC from Charles Kennedy when he responded to the drinking allegations and I did not read one lie. I believe it is widely understood that the last person to know about alcoholism is the alcoholic; denial is a major part of the problem. People seem to forget that a lie mean to make ‘an intentionally false statement’. Secondly how many people would respond positively to that sort of allegation however they are it's deeply embarrassing anyone in public office or in my view anyone at all should be open but politicians are by and large extremely admirable people but to many people ask to much from them.

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