Will they never learn? Never put anything in an email that you wouldn’t write on a postcard. After all the email-related rows in politics over the last decade, you’d have thought that the Number Ten ‘director of strategy’, Damian McBride, and the Labour blogger, Derek Draper, would know by now that if you want to talk about something sensitive, lift the phone. Email is not secure.
Remember Labour spin-doctor Jo Moore resigning after suggesting that 11 September was a good day to “bury” bad news? Or Ruth Turner’s emails about Lord Levy during cash for honours? I don’t know how Damian McBride’s puerile smears of senior Tories found their way into the hands of the right-wing blogger Pall Staines aka Guido Fawkes. But it comes as no surprise tha they did. There are people in all big organisations who know how to hack into email. Just ask the home secretary, Jacquie Smith, whose data-retenion law comes into force this week, requiring internet service providers to retain all email traffic so that it can be monitored.
Of course, McBride – one of Gordon Brown’s closest aides who earns a six figure salary – should never have been trading salacious gossip with someone like Derek Draper, a former Mandelson aide who resigned over the cash-for-access scandal in 1998. The only mitigation is that politicians and journalists do this all the time. The stories about the Tory shadow chancellor, George Osborne, spending time with a drug taking prostitute are well known – so well known that they were published in the News of the World in 2005. David Cameron admitted to having visited a sexual disease clinic when he was a student – along with half the male population. The story about the Tory backbencher, Nadine Dorries, leaving a sex aide in a hotel room after a night of passion is typical of the untrue stories that circulate all the time.
Let me give you an example closer to home. In the ten years or so I spent in the Westminster Lobby, the most common piece of gossip concerned Gordon Brown’s alleged homosexuality. Whenever hacks gathered in the liquid dungeons of the Palace, lurid stories were exchanged about the extreme sexual practices allegedly enjoyed by the then chancellor-to-be. So far as I could tell the only basis for these tales was that Brown wasn’t married (then) and that a number of his aides, including Nick Brown the then chief whip, were gay. But the stories were so detailed and elaborate that it was hard not to believe that some of them must be true. This is exactly the kind of material that Brown’s closest aide was seeking to feed into the proposed “Red Flag” website – albeit about Tories.
The other great rumour when I was in Westminster was that the Prime Minister, John Major, had been having an affair with a Number Ten caterer. Everyone knew it was true, until the New Statesman unwisely ran with the story, in 1993, and was nearly bankrupted when Major sued. The amazing thing, of course, was that John Major was actually having an affair with the Tory minister Edwina Currie. This had been going on for years under our very noses, but no one in Westminster twigged. The truth is that journalists think they know what is going on in the inside of politics, but they don’t know the half of it, or even the quarter of it.
But why has all this scum risen to the surface now? Well, because political journalism is entering a new age, the age of the blog – an ugly word for an ugly trade. The internet is littered now with badly written and ill-informed home-made publications by opinionated nerds whose skill with digital technology has suddenly given them the edge over the old media – like, er, me. This new frontier of hackery is not subject to the same standards of accuracy, taste, style and legality that newspapers like the Herald are subject to. It is fashionable to condemn the “dead tree press” for being unreliable and sensationalist, but we are like academic research journals compared to the stuff on the web.
For reasons no one has been able to fully explain, the political right has been adept at this new kind of journalism, led by Guido Fawkes and Iain Dales Diary. The politics of bloggery is intensely personal and Fawkes and Dale had been gunning for McBride and Draper for months over the latter’s suggestion that Dale and Fawkes were racist. This is largely because Dale defended Carol Thatcher after hee “golliwog” gaffe. Fawkes got hold of the offensive communications between McBride and Draper and gave them to the News of the World without, he insists, asking for any money. McBride tried to laugh it off as harmless banter, but when the full text became available, he had to resign.
This was because it was clear that Draper intended to use McBride’s “brilliant” Tory sex smears in a new blog he was hoping to set up to counter Fawkes, called “Red Flag”. The emails discussed how best to “sequence” the stories to give them maximum effect, and McBride had even written them in a sub-Private Eye style, hinting at impropriety without actually spelling it out. Of course, had there been a jot or scintilla of substance to any of these tales they would have been published already in Private Eye, which remains the number one organ of salacious gossip from politics and journalism. But it has been sued so often that it is now one of the most reliable publications on the planet. And of course it isn’t on the internet.
Why is the new journalism of the web so nasty? I really don’t know. Blogging should have been the opportunity for all sorts of interesting people from all walks of life to start provoking debate with original ideas. Whistle-blowers had a new notice board on which to post information the authorities don’t want us to know about. Instead the blogosphere has been hijacked by sociopathic egos with extreme views who spend most of their time attacking each other. There is no quality control on the web and no editorial discretion. And since nothing on the web can be longer than a couple of hundred words, argument and insight has been replaced by bark and bite. Bloggers don’t write, they ejaculate. But then, I’m just a boring old hack so what do I know.