GUIDO: From Blowing Up Parliament to Blowing It

16 April 2015

Back in 2009, having spent several years on US blogs during the Obama campaign and nomination  I got interested in UK politics again – mainly because the 30 year consensus about the economy seemed to have been broken by the credit crunch. I started looking for the British equivalents of activist sites such as the liberal Daily Kos or republican Red State in the run up to a General Election. There was precious little around… 

One site, however, already dominated the British blogosphere: the Guido Fawkes site. It was brash, ugly, and the comments section was so toxic and unpleasant that wading through it required a HazMat suit. But it was worth visiting, on occasion, because it broke stories that the mainstream media wouldn’t touch.

During the MPs expenses scandal that year, the proprietor, Paul Staines, seemed to be claiming a legitimate mantle of anti-Westminster dissent, even if framed in right wing libertarian rhetoric. He wanted to blow up Parliament. Or at least sections of it.  

Staines was clearly anti Gordon Brown (and his site a promulgator of unfounded smears about the then Prime Minister’s mental health – a favourite subject of his) but also willing to publish stories that would embarrass Cameron’s conservative party.  

In those days Staines was a classic muckraker. There’s a place for scurrilous journalism if it is thoroughly scurrilous, without fear or favour.

Like maggots used for medical purposes, the gnawing negativity of the free press can feed on any dead flesh on the British body politic, and achieve a cleansing effect. 

A classic example of this is Guido’s breaking of the Red Rag scandal in April 2009, when (not through his own site for legal reasons) he revealed an email exchange from January that year between Gordon Brown’s long-term special advisor Damien McBride and a former aide to Lord Mandelson, Derek Draper, mooting ideas for a negative web site to spread personal gossip about senior Tories. 

“Like maggots used for medical purposes, the gnawing negativity of the free press can feed on any dead flesh on the British body politic, and achieve a cleansing effect.”

Notwithstanding the fact this site sounded a lot like a Labour-friendly version of Guido Fawkes; and ignoring the fact Staines never explained how he came by these personal emails (or why he destroyed his hard drive soon afterwards) this was still a tremendous scoop. 

McBride’s subsequent resignation was described as something akin to “a death in the family” for Number 10. In his recent book, Power Trip, McBride has rued the extent he was involved in private briefings against Brown’s rivals.

(Inadvertently, Staines also lmost managed to almost to destroy one of the few fledging sites from the left in the run up to the 2010 General Election. McBride’s correspondent Derek Draper had just set up Labourlist in 2009. Miraculously, the Labour friendly site survived: despite the demise of its founder. Alex Smith kept it going through multiple attacks during that election, mainly from libertarians swarming from the Guido site. Mark Ferguson has sustained it over the last five years, and taken Labourlist from strength to strength.) 

At the time of his scoop, Staines made great claims about breaking the world of secret briefings, partisan sources and spin. As he wrote in 2009 in on his blog ‘The Lobby’s Shame and Complicity in McPoison’s Reign of Terror’ (also quoted in Lance Price’s magisterial book on the press and politics Where the Power Lies). 

“Journalists are to there to “speak truth unto power”.  Not trade favours for tittle tattle, not report spin as truth… That is not journalism, that is copy-taking.” 

Five years on, where did all the righteous anger go?  

Despite the right wing bias (or maybe because of it) Guido has still caused problems for the Coalition, and Cameron’s modernising project.But something changed around the time the Fawkes team was hired by the Sun on Sunday to replace the lost venom of the defunct News of the World.

There was still the same Viz-style toilet humour and graphics. But as this election has approached, the bite has become selective, and very muzzled.

The only claim to feral impartiality over the last few years, and really the only story the Fawkes blog has broken rather than rushed to publication or stolen from somewhere else, was entrapping a Tory MP, Brooks Newmark, in a sexting scandal. 

Alex Wickham, the site’s junior reporter, posed as an attractive Tory PR girl online, and managed – in a series of provactive sex messages – to get the minister to put his plonker on the table. Watergate it wasn’t. It wasn’t even Breitbart’s capture of a cock-shot from rising democratic star Anthony Weiner. At least he knew who he was sending it to. 

Published in the Sunday Mirror, the story was investigated by the new regulator IPSO. Guido was slightly confused with this brush with officialdom. First he condemned ISPO as a Kangaroo Court and said Wickham wouldn’t be talking to the new press regulator. Then they crowed about IPSO’s ruling and an award nomination. Wickham described himself as a ‘top tabloid journo’. The lines were blurring.  

Half in, half out. A bit like the honourable member. 

But the clear turning point was the celebration of the tenth year of the blog earlier this year, when Staines hosted a champagne dinner in Westminster, attended by various Tory luminaries, including Michael Gove (on a video) and Boris Johnson in the flesh, the latter praising them for “bombing their way to Pall Mall.”  

What a falling off was there. I recall bumping into Harry Cole (and presumably Alex Wickham) at a pub in Clerkenwell three years ago. Cole was affable, and still sported his Boris buffon hair at that point. Last time I saw him in Westminster, early one evening, Cole was in jogging gear. Still disarmingly charming, he looked svelte and glossy, like a hopeful young Conservative candidate.  

In this election cycle, it’s clear that’s what the Guido Fawkes blog has become: a disownable branch of the Conservative Party HQ.   

Staines also attended a fundraising dinner for the Tory party earlier this year, during which he apparently bid for a shopping trip with the home secretary Theresa May. The year before (Staines claims below) , but at his anniversary celebrations according to the Daily Mail, he was photographed sipping drinks betweenn the Conservative Party election campaign manager Lynton Crosby, and a wealthy hedge fund donor to the Tories. 

Who knows what deals or favours have been cooked up in the background to swing Guido fully behind the Conservative re-election campaign in 2015 – but it’s certainly happened. His mask as am anti-establishment Guy Fawkes has been ripped off in the process. His tone and his blokey jokiness have been copied by News UK’s failing ‘Sun Nation’ site. Indeed, the redesign of Fawkes’ site looks very similar to the Sun’s non-paywall offering.  

Both have engaged in increasingly shrill and desperate attempts to destroy the Labour party election campaign, and push all the Conservative campaign’s talking points. Any sense of independence has gone.  

Maybe Fawkes and his blog may still have a role in some future Tory leadership meltdown in years to come. But they can no longer claim any anti-establishment iconoclastic identity. More likely his employees will become further absorbed into the declining tabloid world, and lose traction because of it. I’m sure Staines will not be badly off. Retiring to well-padded obscurity in Ireland to raise his family is hardly a disaster. 

But whatever happens, these words should be hung around his neck:

“Journalists are there to “speak truth unto power”.  Not trade favours for tittle tattle, not report spin as truth… That is not journalism, that is copy-taking.” 

Staines has become the thing he most despised. Rather than speaking truth to power, he’s a mouthpiece for power. He has traded favours for tittle tattle, and reports spin as verity. He’s not a journalist. He’s a copy-taker.