Paul Staines: not the Messiah, just a very naughty boy

A week ago, Damian McBride was still the Prime Minister’s chief media advisor, and LabourList’s Derek Draper was attempting to laugh off as blokeish banter the emails which implicated Number 10 in smears against senior Tories. But, then, we know what they say about a week in politics.

Paul Staines, sole author of the Guido Fawkes’ blog, has had a good week, given ample, respectable print space to repeat a central point he’s been making for years: that those political journalists who are part of the ‘lobby’ system have failed democracy:

Though the fourth estate may not have a formal constitutional role, its task is real. Journalists are to there to “speak truth unto power”, not trade favours for tittle tattle, not report spin as truth. From the start of this era of spin the lobby pack have been willing accomplices. It is hard to name journalists who can hold their heads high.

He’s right on this. The Independent’s Steve Richards this week recounted a seemingly all-too familiar tale – ‘On one occasion shortly before a presenter was about to interview a cabinet minister McBride texted him with the message: “Ask him about his drinking problem.”’ He then had a (deservedly) tough time on BBC Radio 5 Live defending lobby journalists for failing to call time on such snide behaviour long before the exposures of ‘Smeargate’.

The Times’s Alice Miles explained how the whole complicit system works:

On the one hand, as one victim of hostile Downing Street briefings puts it: “If somebody at No 10 is saying that Harriet Harman is having a mental breakdown, journalists are justified in running it.” On the other hand, as another victim of Mr McBride’s sees it: “It takes two to tango – you need McBride and you need the flopsy-bunny journalists who will just take the line.” I think they should be clearer about where the line is coming from, and why.

Do you see what I did just then? I placed in your head the creeping falsehood that perhaps Ms Harman might be having a mental breakdown; because if someone has suggested that No 10 might be saying it, then perhaps No 10 is saying it, and perhaps it is saying it because it might be true?

And you will remember, long after you forget everything else in this article, that someone once told you that Harriet Harman was mentally ill. And that is precisely how the poisoners operate.

This, then, is the current state of political journalism: to hell with policies and ideas, let’s just spew out the latest titbit of scandal we’ve scoffed, and ignore the trail of vomit we leave.

It’s truly depressing, not least because politics has rarely been this interesting. The banking system last year came close to imploding, with potentially devastating consequences; the US has just elected a liberal Democrat as its first non-white President; the next UK general election will be the most closely-fought since 1992. All of which merits some discussion, the application by journalists of some sceptical intelligence. The public is hungry for a grown-up conversation. The acendancy of Vince Cable is not just because ‘he told us so’, it’s because he never knowingly underestimates the public’s desire to understand, and never knowingly overstates that he has all the answers.

So, political journlists have failed us, are failing us. Does this mean that Paul Staines’ Guido Fawkes blog is the solution? No.

There has been an inherent hypocrisy in the past week’s reporting. Journalists, eagerly tripping over themselves to make amends for their embarrassing failures, have placed Paul on a pedestal. Yet the Guido Fawkes blog is a petri dish of unsubsantiated smears. As Paul Linford points out:

Back in 2007, Guido spent months attempting to convince his blog’s many readers that Gordon Brown had been photographed on a rocking horse wearing a nappy, and to utilise the power of search engine optimisation and Google to spread this ridiculous tale across the entire internet. It even made it onto Wikipedia, and when I tried to remove it, some patsy came along and reverted my edit.

He also gave house-room to a sock puppet called “Stanislav” who suggested, in one particularly disgusting post, that the Prime Minister had been steadily driven mad by the strain of repressing his “homosexuality” over many years – part of a deadly serious attempt by the right to fix the idea of Gordon as a “weirdo” in the public’s mind.

Paul Staines is a libertarian who will happily peddle smears that undermine governments, any government and any political party. That’s his role, and one he is eminently comfortable fulfilling.

But those of us who care about politics, the capacity of government to be a force for good (not least by doing a lot less, and allowing individuals to do a lot more), need more than that. We need the media, both new and old, to focus on what actually matters, to quest for the truth. Smears have no place in public life – and that applies to all, bloggers and journalists alike.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Heigham 18th Apr '09 - 3:33pm

    I do not know Paul Satines, but Guido Fawkes is a delight to disagree with. Over-the-top, absurd. open, human, inconsistent, dogged, with a gift for annoying the crooked, the self-important and the powerful; his attempts at character destruction are never anonymous, often funny and never believable. His straight accusations -as in the McBride case or on MP’s expenses – are signed, often funny and usually believable.

    To imply, as Paul Linford does, that Guido can be part of any concerted “deadly serious” attempt is either a complete failure to appreciate Irishness and/or an inability to grasp the differnce between ‘serious’ snd flight-of-fancy. It is equally a category mistake to call Guido a libertarian: can you see him as a wooden Ayn Rand character religiously seeking a consistent standpoint against the evils of over-government?

    The solution is honest, dogged, investigative jounalism; not Guido. But if a LibDem Guido should arise (I suspect we all are too fair-minded and well-mannered), I would be delighted. No Labour Guido can arise: New Labour is too distrustful and detructive of individual initiative to permit it. permit

  • “Guido and the Tories strategy is the ‘dog whistle’ tactic. Every day, every week, every month put out bad info about your target. Get a negative twist on anything they say, or do, or don’t do.”

    Whatever else that tactic is, “dog whistle” is the wrong terminology.

    Dog whistle campaigns are when you say things that can only be heard by certain groups. A classic example is referring to “limits on immigration” when you want people to hear “fewer asians”

  • Martin Kinsella 19th Apr '09 - 12:41am

    I too have heard the Gordon is Gay rumour. I think whether one believes it or not is irrelevant just as his sexuality does not matter. The fact he may or may not be gay does not affect his total incompetence so I do not think it worth re-hashing.

    As for Guido, good on him. He has broken a great story, caused alot of discomfort for the Lobby journalists and has had a real impact.

    Well done.

  • Yet again the Liberal Democrats completely miss the point. Guido Fawkes is a private individual running a blog. He is not a civil servant working in 10 Downing Street or a politician hoping for our votes. What can’t you understand about the difference between private and ublic life?

  • john miller 19th Apr '09 - 2:45pm

    How condescending.

    Guido Fawkes single-handedly smashes the Labour communications set-up, demolishes a good few reputations – with a few more scalps yet to be taken – and is responsible for Labour taking a 5% hit in the polls.

    Stephen Tall describes him as being merely “a naughty boy”.

    Tells us a bit more about Stephen Tall than it does about Guido Fawkes, I think.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Apr '09 - 10:08pm

    Guido Fawkes single-handedly smashes the Labour communications set-up, demolishes a good few reputations – with a few more scalps yet to be taken – and is responsible for Labour taking a 5% hit in the polls.

    And the reputation of democratic politics as a whole falling by how many percentage?

    What I want to talk about in politics is how we can get things moving, how we can get people what they want, how we can resolve the climate change issue, etc etc etc. Not throwing silly insults at each other. I couldn’t give a piece of crap for Guido Fawkes or any other of these pumped-up nonentities who seem onlt to be interested in silly personal tittle-tattle.

  • I am a regular reader of Guido Fawkes and have been for some time, yet completely fail to recognise either of your stories. Everything that Guido has actually emphasised and made a large play of has been important. Most prolific bloggers could be criticised for some obscure story they have mentioned, yet few could take credit for the sort of material Guido has managed to publicise.

    It reflects badly on you to emphasise Guido’s trivial mistakes, rather than the fine service he has given attacking the unseemly side of politics.

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