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GUIDO: From Blowing Up Parliament to Blowing It

Peter Jukes photo
Peter JukesLONDON (BUT TEMPORARILY LOS ANGELES)
GUIDO: From Blowing Up Parliament to Blowing It
How the iconoclastic Matt Drudge of the British political blogosphere became a party drone

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. 

#WATLAN, #Guido Fawkes, #Online activism, #Citizen Journalism, #GE2015, #British press, #British politics

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john ryan

2 years ago

Uncle Rupe brooks no dissent, you conform to the Murdoch rule of absolute obedience to Murdoch's instruction or your gone,no columnist in Murdoch Papers does anything the Murdoch political line

lisa diver

3 years ago

Well said, Peter. @Guido Ticker- Please, please learn to use paragraphs. And can you, just for clarity, name some of these people who've described you as a great journalist?

Peter Jukes

3 years ago

You've got your two corrections of fact, Paul. Gove appeared on video at your 10th anniversary, and you were drinking with Lynton Crosby the year before. All the others are just your spin

Peter Jukes

3 years ago

Well you have you right of reply right here, Paul. Other people can make up their mind whether any of it undermines the thrust of my commentary

northernheckler

3 years ago

@GuidoTicker - always a good idea when commenting on blogs to make the comment significantly shorter than the article. Thought you'd have known that. Would love to fisk your rebuttal, (oo .. er .. missus) but I can't be arsed reading it all

GuidoTicker

3 years ago

Below is the full rebuttal - listing factual inaccuracies not differences of opinion.

GuidoTicker

3 years ago

Dear Sirs, There are a number of factual inaccuracies in your Byline.com article about our organ “Guido Fawkes”, written by Mr Peter Jukes, (16 April, 2015). We will deal with them in the order in which the errors appear: “Alex Smith kept it going through multiple attacks during that election, mainly from libertarians swarming from the Guido site.” If Mr Jukes is inviting the readers to infer that Paul Staines and Alex Smith did not, or do not, have friendly relations, Mr Jukes would be very wrong. Mr Jukes claims that “as this election has approached, the site has become selective, and very muzzled.” Use of the site’s search box will show numerous stories criticising the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish Nationalist Parties, as well as UKIP. The site frequently publishes criticism of political figures including the Prime Minister and his government. Recent examples of such have made it on to US television. Just last week our criticism of the Prime Minister appeared on The Week Tonight With John Oliver. Where Mr Jukes could have watched it in Los Angeles. Mr Jukes claims “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.” This is simply untrue. Even our most virulent and devoted critics concede we regularly break news stories. Our stories have generated numerous front page newspaper follow-ups in this election cycle. “Wickham described himself as a 'top tabloid journo'.” Mr Wickham has never described himself as such, others have. There is zero proof presented for this assertion. “Staines hosted a champagne dinner in Westminster, attended by various Tory luminaries, including Michael Gove”. Mr Gove did not attend. There is zero proof presented for this assertion. Regarding our Westminster Bureau Chief Mr Harry Cole, “Last time I saw him in Westminster, early evening, his jogging gear. Still disarmingly charming, he looked like a hopeful young Conservative candidate.” Presumably this is based on his ethnicity and gender? Is this kind of stereotyping really acceptable in this day and age? Mr Jukes recalls bumping into Alex Wickham in a pub. Mr Wickham has never met Mr Jukes. For the record, Mr Cole would like it to be pointed out that Mr Jukes only approached him in the pub to ask him to unblock him on the social media network Twitter. Mr Jukes claims that our organ is “a disownable branch of the Conservative Party HQ.” If Mr Jukes had spoken to us - he has not - he would have been told that contrary to his assertion the Conservative Party press office has at times during this election cycle refused to speak us and senior figures believe we are allied to the UK Independence Party press office. The Conservative Party’s Election Campaign Director has instructed press officers to have no dealings with us with regard to UKIP. In reality we remain right-of-centre campaigning journalists. “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.” Mr Staines was a guest, he did not pay for a ticket, his bid was £666. It was a joke bid, those in the room saw it as such, and for obvious reasons it was not welcomed by Mrs May. Mr Staines attends fundraisers held by many parties and campaigns. Mr Staines has only won two auctions at a political fundraising event in the last 5 years, one at Index on Censorship and the other at UKIP’s Gala Dinner. “He was later photographed sipping drinks between the Conservative Party election campaign manager Lynton Crosby, and a wealthy hedge fund donor to the Tories.” He was not. This is factually incorrect as a simple phone call or email would have verified. The photo in question is from a different event where drinks were served. Held a year earlier. “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.” Numerous articles criticising Conservative Party policy and leading figures demonstrate this to be patently untrue. There is zero proof presented for this opinion. “Indeed, the redesign of Fawkes' site looks very similar to the Sun's non-paywall offering.” We find this bizarre as they look very different apart from a logo link to the Guido Fawkes column in The Sun newspaper. SunNation looks more like Buzzfeed . Mr Jukes claims that our organ is “increasingly shrill” with “desperate attempts to destroy the Labour party election campaign” . This has of course in fact been our consistent editorial stance from the outset in 2004, and unrelated to our column in The Sun newspaper since 2013. You claim that your website was set up to fight the decline in quality in the wider media, yet this article by Mr Jukes is clearly littered with inaccurate comment, disguised as factual reporting. This is by no means a full inventory of all the mistakes in the article which was clearly and fatally undermined by having no contact with the subjects ahead of publication for fact checking. We would be grateful if you could please issue a full correction and clarification updating the piece on your website, with due prominence, without delay. In the meantime, we will be placing a copy of this letter in the public domain. Thank you for your time - and good luck! Team Guido

Peter Jukes

3 years ago

Two tiny chronological errors (about Gove being present on video and date of photograph). Otherwise most Guido's responses are msreadings, spin and a basic misunderstanding. This is an opinion piece based on material already out in the public domain. There is no obligation for me to check with Paul Staines first about my opinions

GuidoTicker

3 years ago

We have written to the editor to draw attention to obvious factual errors. See letter here http://www.scribd.com/doc/262568542/Letter-to-Byline-com-regarding-Peter-Jukes

GuidoTicker

3 years ago

This is frankly embarrassingly poorly written and researched rubbish.

GuidoTicker

3 years ago

This is frankly embarrassingly poorly written and researched rubbish.