Sir Stuart Bell, the MP who the Teesside Evening Gazette tried to contact 100 times without success, surfaced on the national stage today to put his side of the story across.
In the process, I can’t help but think he actually made himself look even more ridiculous – and made Jeremy Vine, the former Newsnight presenter turned Radio 2 lunchtime host, look quite daft too.
Tony Blair used to be scorned for opting for the breakfast TV sofa over Newsnight for his interviews. Whether Sir Stuart knew he’d get such an easy ride on Vine’s show is anyone’s guess, but that’s what he got.
Sir Stuart still hasn’t been able to explain why, despite employing three people at the taxpayers’ expense, one of whom is his wife, 100 phone calls during office hours went unanswered. This is the same MP who hasn’t held a constituency surgery in the town for 14 hours because he fears being attacked by one man.
Dealing with my beef with Vine first. As soft interviews go, this was right up there. Most worrying was as Sir Stuart dismissed the story, there was no attempt to offer the Evening Gazette a right of reply. Here’s an MP saying the story was wrong, yet the BBC didn’t feel the need to address this with the paper involved?
It was actually the involvement of listener emails – crowdsourcing of a sort, I suppose – which made the interview worthwhile. One made the point that the police had offered to attend Sir Stuart’s surgeries to offer security, if he wished to hold them again. It was a point Sir Stuart failed to address, and certainly wasn’t challenged on.
Sir Stuart insists he does hold surgeries, but they are one-to-one surgeries, pre-booked, where he goes to people’s houses. Now, I might be being daft here, but shouldn’t an MP fearful for his safety actually be more worried about going to people’s own homes, than inviting them to attend pre-arranged surgeries which are entirely in his control?
The Evening Gazette stands by its story, and has presented both sides of the story very fairly, reporting at length quotes given by Sir Stuart on BBC Radio Tees yesterday. It also found people who supported the way he operated, although given the volume of comments on the Gazette’s site against Sir Stuart, it’s fair to say supporters are in the minority at the moment.
So many questions remain to be answered: If an office of three can’t manage to answer one of 100 phone calls, what chance do you have of getting an appointment with Sir Stuart? If he believes in accountability, which he says he does, why won’t he answer questions fielded from the public in the Gazette, as the other local MPs do? Why does he think he’s doing well to speak in 12 debates in a year, when most MPs do far more? And if no-one has ever complained after not being able to get hold of Sir Stuart, why are people coming out thick and fast in the Gazette now to say the opposite?
Indeed, on BBC Radio Tees, Sir Stuart says: “Nobody has a problem with me.” That quite clearly isn’t the case. He also says there were errors in the Gazette’s investigation. Two BBC interviews on, and we’re still none the wiser to what those errors are.
Lets hope the Labour Party is prepared to be a bit more thorough than some journalists have been when it comes to examining Sir Stuart’s justification for being accountable on his own terms alone.