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On the line and on the level

Peter Barron | 18:44 UK time, Thursday, 12 June 2008

The phone rings. There's an inquisitive and irrepressible journalist on the line. He appears to have an agenda and seems determined to produce a damaging piece, whatever the facts.

Newsnight logoI'm not talking about Michael Crick's phone call a week ago to Tina Haynes, the former nanny to the Conservative chairman Caroline Spelman. I'm talking about the phone call the London Evening Standard put in to the BBC this week when preparing their story "The Tory MP, her nanny and a BBC witch hunt"

In his article, Keith Dovkants makes a series of allegations against Michael Crick, which boil down to this. Caroline Spelman's unusual expenses arrangements with her nanny wasn't much of a story, so why did Newsnight run it? Crick has a track record of making trouble for Conservative politicians so he, and the BBC, must be biased against the Tories, and - let's use careful language here - "Senior Tories...suspect him of sharp practice" centring on his telephone with Tina Haynes.

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Let's deal with that one first - it's a pretty serious charge. In her statement Tina Haynes said she received a phone call from Michael Crick "stating that he was doing a programme about Mrs Spelman and her family life". The clear implication is that somehow Michael misled Ms Haynes (nee Rawlins) about the nature of the item he was working on.

This - as we made very clear to the Evening Standard - was not accurate. Here is a transcript of the opening exchanges in the telephone conversation.

M Hello, is that Tina Rawlins?

T Yes

M Hello, my name's Michael Crick and I'm from a programme called Newsnight, at the BBC

T Yeah

M I'm sorry to trouble you at work. What it is I'm ringing you about a film we're working on about Caroline Spelman

T Yes

M The Conservative politician. I think you used to work for her didn't you?

T I did yes

M You were working as her nanny I believe

T I was working for her as a nanny for five and a half years

M Right and were you doing political stuff as well

T Erm no I wasn't

M Sort of secretarial work or parliamentary work or...

T No I did obviously sort of like take calls for her obviously in the house if she got phone calls...

And on it went. No sharp practice about the nature of the film, no twisting of her words in reply. Michael asked if she had done political, secretarial or parliamentary work and Ms Haynes volunteered quite openly that she had not, but had taken the odd phone call and posted the occasional letter.

Caroline Spelman outside her homeDid we have a story? On Newsnight we thought so. A day earlier, Giles Chichester, the leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament had resigned over the fact that he had channelled £400,000 of expenses into his family's company. It was announced that the person at Tory HQ who would be charged with cleaning up matters would be the chairman, Caroline Spelman.

Michael had learned some time earlier that Mrs Spelman had had a problem with her expenses involving her nanny some 10 years ago and that there had been row within the party at the time. Now was the time to find out.

So was it much of a story? A good way of judging is to put the words "Spelman" and "Newsnight" into Google News. At the latest count there are more than 40 stories from newspapers and other media organisations about the affair - Telegraph, Mail, ITN, Reuters - oh, and the Evening Standard.

Which brings us to bias. Yes, Michael Crick has done plenty of high profile journalism scrutinising Conservative politicians. It's hardly surprising given that for the first 18 or so years of his career as a political journalist it was the Conservatives who dominated British politics. But, apart from his love of Manchester United, Michael is rigorously un-partisan in his obsessions.

Wherever there is an untold story or questions to be answered Michael will be onto it, whether the subject is Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem or other. Does he give Labour an easy ride? No. David Blunkett's business arrangements, the Smith Institute's relationship with Gordon Brown, Labour electoral fraud in Birmingham - all have had the Crick treatment in recent times.

But don't take my word for, after all as Michael's editor I'm biased. Try this.

"The BBC had not allowed the liberal bias of some of its broadcasters to run riot. Nor had it libelled Conservatives with malicious and demonstrably false accusations. There was no smear and no McCarthyite witch-hunt...All it had done was report, quite accurately, that Caroline Spelman, the Tory Party chairwoman, got the public to pay for her nanny."

Who said that? Nick Cohen, in the Evening Standard.


  • Comment number 1.

    Rather frustratingly I can't play the above recording [Sorry, it is not available at the moment] which, I assume, is of the call from Michael Crick to Tina Haynes.

    If this had been played in its entirety on the show, then I think there would have been a more balanced view of these allegations.

  • Comment number 2.

    Go on Barron.
    I was surprised at the reaction to Michael Crick's handling of this story, and I felt it was well worth "breaking". Delighted to see him get some backing, and look forward to more along these lines, since we all know that perks and expenses in Westminster and the EU are very different from those enjoyed by Shell tanker drivers and policemen, and other people that we actually need. And I don't care whether it was last week or 10 years ago. Go on Michael.

  • Comment number 3.

    Sounds like a perfectly legitimate story to me.

  • Comment number 4.

    My personal view -

    It looks like I was right , about this being a cold call interview.

    Funny as it sounded to me like Ms Haynes was lost for words at the time.

    Do you really think ringing someone up ,out of the blue,at work and asking them their employment duties/contract details of 11 years ago is really fair play ?

    Surly you should have requested an interview with Ms Haynes ?

    Personally I still do not know if any rules had been broken by Mrs Spelman .Maybe I have missed something ?

  • Comment number 5.

    Oh come on - being accused of bias by the Evening Standard is like being accused of political correctness by Bernard Manning, of being over-cautious by Evil Kneivel and of medical malpractice by Doctor Mengele.

    Merely by saying it they prove beyond doubt to me that it isn't true.

  • Comment number 6.

    Your point is well made Steve, but don't you nash your teeth at the way our rulers appear to strain every sinew maximising their take, and then when held to account, deny any 'wrong doing' before being judged by their pals, who find that their actions were 'within the rules?'

  • Comment number 7.

    Re comment 4

    Steve, you seem a bit naive to me. Surely a cold call such as this is a tool of legitimate investigative journalism?

    Should Crick have called up Ms Haynes, suggested he was on to something and given her time to go back to the Conservatives or else give him a considered 'no comment'.

  • Comment number 8.

    The thing that strikes me most about this blog posting is the fact that you call it the '*London* Evening Standard' (emphasis mine). That BBC Trust report really must have hit home! Thank you. You're learning!

  • Comment number 9.

    Come on Mr. Barron. I haven't listened to the tape, but it is clear from the transcript of the beginning of the conversation that Crick got the nanny to commit herself to answering the questions he wanted answered without giving her any information about the nature of the "film" about Spelman. Naively, she answered him. She should rather have come up with questions of her own. Pity she didn't.

    The BBC's behaviour during this whole affair has been disgraceful. You have taken a non event from ten years ago and blown it up out of all proportion - simply because it involves a Tory MP.

    I suppose next you'll tell us that there is a shortage of serious fraud or alleged fraud for you to investigate - like the suspicions against your bosom pal Ken Livingstone, a member of the party you support - Labour, naturally.

    It would be refeshing if the BBC could occasionally admit its faults and move on. Will you ever do this, or is it going to be obfuscation and justification from now till doomsday?

  • Comment number 10.

    This was a tawdry bit of TV journalism. Very opportunistic and rather tired. It brings the BBC into disrepute and appears to be motivated by a significant political bias .
    I suppose Crick hopes for a gong from his mates in the Labour Party for trying to disrupt the opposition. Try finding some current news Michael or is that too much like hard work. Unfortunately it makes the BBC appear to descend into becoming a propaganda tool of the Government and the State.

  • Comment number 11.

    This always was a non story. Not news but history. IF the BBC claim it was not politically motivated which is hard to believe, then it was probably 'petty journalistic scoop mentality'. Look at clever me from the journalist.

    Try and get a real current story next time.

  • Comment number 12.

    My personal views again -

    #4 #7

    I understand where you are coming from , yes I want any fraud or misuse of public money highlighted and prosecution's made if possible .

    I may indeed be naive in these things , but there is one thing I know for certain -
    If someone rang me up (out of the blue)while I was suppose to be working and asked for details of what I was doing 11 year ago on a certain job , I would struggle , tho as my recollection slowly kicked in my answers might (hopefully would) get more accurate.

    Maybe its just me that has this problem tho .

    Still the Parliamentary Standards people are involved now and will hopefully come to some public conclusion.

  • Comment number 13.

    Re #12.
    I think you're being scrupulously fair to our politicians S-L. My problem is that they're anything but, towards us in return, witness the Dodgey Dossier/ WMD's/Cash for Honours/Derek Conway/Giles Chichester/
    Wed's horse-trading to secure the 42 day vote, etc etc. So sadly, devious means tend to be needed if we're to find out what they're up to.
    I really hope you're right that Parliamentary Standards will act effectively, but when the last man in that post, Alistair Graham was consistently critical of the Govt., he was ditched. We live in hope Steve.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    Well done Michael Crick.

    We need the media to keep politicians honest.

  • Comment number 16.

    I'd like to be able to believe you but there have been so many times when the angle you've taken on a story seems to have been dictated by Labour spin doctors that I can no longer trust you. If I look at this story with my antennae, instincts and commonsense fully engaged I can see that there's an awful lot wrong with it.

  • Comment number 17.

    I wonder how many questions you answered to the journalist over the phone.

    TO be honest if someone rings me at hime I never answer ANY questions. I never admit to who I am until I find out who they are.

    What the real issue is here is how the BBC made this the TOP story for 2 or 3 days, yet Peter Hain has been forgotten about by the BBC.

    There was a story about Michael Cashman and his expenses this week in the papers. Yet no mention on the BBC. Could it be because he is a gay Nu Labour ex beeboid by chance?

    I thought the BBC didn't use single source stories? For Crick to run an entite story based on one telephone call without any real evidence to back it up was pathetic.

    How about running a story about Gordon Browns ex employee's to see if they did all they were paid for?

    I can't imagine the BBC ever doing that.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.


    You say "apart from his love of Manchester United, Michael is rigorously un-partisan in his obsessions".

    I think this is disingenuous.

    All the biographical articles I've read on Crick state that his main interest after graduating was Labour politics - and that he was in fact offered the safe Labour seat of Bootle before deciding on a career in journalism.

    Perhaps there are just so many Labour placemen at the beeb it just slipped your mind.

  • Comment number 20.

    Legitimate story, unfair "interview" -"leading", unfair questioning, etc.

    Just because it's the BBC doesn't mean that interviewees should not be subject to fair dealing, especially people who are not politicians / media professionals. You should have allowed her time to think about the issue, recollect the facts etc.

    Is this approach allowed under the BBC's Producers and Editorial Guidelines (or whatever they are called these days)?

  • Comment number 21.

    I thought that the BBC have guidelines about this sort of stuff?

  • Comment number 22.

    Nick Cohen of the Obserever and New Statesman let's get the quote correct !

  • Comment number 23.

    May we now ask Michael Crick to supply full details of his BBC expenses since 1997?

    As a rigorous tribune of the people, I am sure he won't object to this scrutiny of his use of the public purse.

  • Comment number 24.

    Fact: nearly all those from the BBC that have moved into politics – or those that have moved in the opposite direction have ended up – or come from - the Liberal or Labour parties.

    Your comments are coloured by this undeniable fact quite apart from Crick’s Labour Party connections.

  • Comment number 25.

    To say that Michael Crick is bias towards New Labour is as ridiculous as saying that David Davis believes in freedom and democracy over his bi-election stunt in protest over the 42 day vote.

    To understand where Crick's bias lies just cast back to the 80's and 90;s throughout the advent of New Labour by Kinnock and Mandelson. He was a leading journalist in misrepresenting what was then the Militant Tendency all of which eventually led to the defeat of the real left in Labour.

    Nowadays with credit crunches, bank bail outs and war where the left should feature prominetly on the political agenda, journalists like Crick, having achieved their fundamental role, haven't got a lot to do but report on petty scandals and personalities which are all amplified as major political headlines to conceal the underlying fact that there's no difference whatsoever between the two main parties apart from what they call themselves!

  • Comment number 26.

    To be fair it seems Mr Crick is not holding grudges these days he sports a fine beige linen suit so similar to the one Jeffrey Archer wears on his web-site so Keith should have mentioned that in his report.



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