Monday 13 April 2009

How much was this really a story about the blogosphere?

In some ways, the story of the Damian McBride resignation has been less a story about the blogosphere than is being widely reported and discussed, both in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere itself.

Matt Drudge breaking the Monica Lewinsky story in 1998 was centrally about the difference between old and new media. Drudge's initial report was that Newsweek had pulled the report, and so Drudge broke it. The debate was about whether Newsweek had missed the scoop and could now be trumped by insurgents; whether it was clubbable deference or standards of accuracy which were being swept away; whether and how the mainstream media would or should follow up information which broke online.

That was an animating tension between the traditional and new media which seems to me to be missing from the McBride affair. The online context appears to me perhaps largely incidental to the McBride resignation, and even to the involvement of Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) in it. In many ways this was "old school politics", as Nick Anstead suggests.

Damian McBride resigned because of the content of the emails he sent to Derek Draper. They were discussing creating a 'Red Rag' website. But McBride would certainly have had to resign had the content of those emails been revealed, whatever he had been doing with them. For example, had he been suggesting to an MP that the rumours deserved a wider circulation in the Westminster bars; or had he been suggesting that Charlie Whelan try to push some of them on Private Eye or newspaper diaries. (From what I have seen, some of the content - while indefensible and despicable - is not a million miles beyond that printed in some diary columns, particularly those which use a 'wicked whispers' style approach such as mentioning rumours without attributing them. For example, I am often struck by how surprisingly far the Ephraim Hardcastle column in the Daily Mail will take innuendo, particularly about gay men and women).

Smears and libels are smears and libels wherever you publish them. Planning to publish smears online has no additional ethical or legal significance. (This somewhat reminds me of an editorial meeting when I was at The Observer. There was a story being discussed about suicide pacts on the internet, and had recently been some shock horror reporting of a couple who had - shockingly - planned to sell their child on the internet. You can hear the voice rising at the thought of selling one's child in such an amoral space. Until you remember it is the ethics of selling children which matter, not whether that is done at the local pub, over the phone, or online).

The emails were revealed by Paul Staines, who is a high-profile blogger - as Guido Fawkes. He used his blog to taunt his enemies, and let his readers know that he was about to go on the offensive. (He also did so in his BBC Daily Politics head-to-head with Draper). This is being described as a great scalp for the blogosphere.

Leave aside what most of the blogosphere thinks of Staines. (In short, if you are disgusted by what McBride and Draper were doing, as you should certainly be, then you ought to be similarly disgusted by a good deal of what Staines does. The fact that he is less inept at it is not ethically relevant. The difference in political significance is of course that mainstream political institutions must take responsibility for McBride and for Draper. But, again, that does not undermine the question of ethics).

Note that Staines did not use his blog to publish the story - rather, only to comment on what he had placed in the mainstream media.

Had he wanted to demonstrate the power of the internet, he might have published them on his website and show how that could drive the national news agenda. For whatever reason, he didn't take that risk.

He hawked them around the newspapers, and seems to have placed them with the Sundays. The story then broke on the Saturday. Staines' claim that this was a McBride briefed 'defensive' report, and this appears plausible. (Staines' offered an online briefing on this point to tout le monde, but this was surely incidental to the impact of the developing story).

So the story seems to have broken on a classic mid-90s media handling model, in terms of both attack and defence.

(If there is a new technology angle, there is a stronger case to make that about email, and the relative security of such email; though the cultural lesson there is surely that political life is lived on the record, and increasingly so).

How that then developed seems to have depended primarily on reaction within the political and media class. It has been reported that no Labour MP was willing to publicly defend McBride. It was quite clear to anybody who found out what would be in the Sunday papers that McBride's position would be indefensible: this was a function of both mainstream/establishment political and media reaction.

There was an extensive and futile attempt at rebuttal by Derek Draper, by doing as many conventional news programmes as possible. Iain Dale did offer very extensive online coverage as all of this was going on, in the gaps between a packed schedule of media appearances.

There was some interaction in all of this between the mainstream media and the blogosphere, the role of the latter was in providing context and information to the former, and in allowing some media outlets (notably the Spectator's Coffee House blog (which supplements a weekly magazine which could otherwise offer only post-match analysis) to comment with immediacy and in greater depth in a way which can seek to influence developments. It seems fair to say that it was the mainstream media which drove the political developments; though the scale and context of online information and analysis by the end of Saturday night far outstripped the reporting in Sunday's papers.

It is unlikely that this story shifted many newspapers on Easter Sunday out there to the great British public; it is very likely that it drove much more online traffic among both the political blog anoraks, the media themselves and a small slice of the more general audience than would otherwise have been distracted from the Easter eggs.

Of course, this is also a story about the political blogosphere more broadly. It gives it a much higher profile. At a result, there will be both more understanding and more mythical misunderstanding of the impact that the blogosphere has. And that opportunity could be used constructively too, depending on what we all decide to do with it.

The reality and mythology of what Paul Staines can do as Guido Fawkes will be a big part of that. It may again drive this idea of the internet as a lawless frontier zone. But the (restrictive) libel laws are the same out here as anywhere else, while there are even fewer resources to deal with aggressive threats of litigation intended to intimidate when they have no merit.

The Derek Draper end of this story is about the blogosphere, shining a sharp and unflattering light on how the Labour party has understood (and misunderstood) the internet, and how it is changing, particularly (as I have already argued) in the mindset that believes that what the left needs is a Red Guido.

It is a story about the internet because the "blog war" response of Draper and McBride was to sink to the level of the worst part of the political blogosphere and, in attempting to emulate it, shot themselves in the foot and so offered an enormous scalp to the forces they somehow thought they were challenging.

Yet the antidote - the cultural change which Labour needs online - is only possible if part of a broader cultural change in the party. Though the internet sharply alters the odds - it changes the rewards for doing it, and the risks of not doing it, and may even come close to ruling out (in time) the option of not doing it.

So, yes, this has indeed been a story about the internet and the blogosphere. But perhaps much less than people think.

UPDATE (Monday): Janet Daly made a similar point about the Sunday papers in a blog post on Sunday. (I expect others may have done so too. I managed to spend ten hours away from the internet on Sunday).


Doubting Richard said...

What Paul Staines publishes almost always turns out to be true stories about politicians. He also writes about both sides. It is also usually relevant and in the public interest. He does so openly, as an independent individual not affiliated with any party.

What parallels can possibly be drawn with the attempt to publish lies about politicians and their wives, a tribal attack aimed at the perceived threats to Gordon Brown? Remember the idea was to use a blog that claimed to be independent, but was actually controlled by Gordon Brown's people. You slander Paul Staines by the comparrison.

Angry Drinker said...

Richard makes a fair point. Sunder can you be explicit: what exactly Guido has lied or been wrong about?

He is nasty, there's no doubt about it, but that isn't the same as making stuff up.

Angry Drinker said...

...but admittedly, that wasn't the point of the article. Sunder is right, the content of "smeargate" has been exactly the same as it would have been in the newspapers.

And he doesn't want a Red Guido.

Fine but Sunder, what do you want from the blogoshpere? Do you want anyone to actually read blogs? Do you want think tanks to just publish windbag essays?

I enjoyed yours, but i haven't got all day...

No institution or political organisation could or should "go guido" because organisations are ethically bound...they have a consititution, they have standards... so red staines...

but the left needs something to set the net on needs something people want to read...because frankly you guys are getting left behind

Sunder Katwala said...

I am surprised by Richard's suggestion that it slanders Paul Staines to suggest he engages in behaviour of a similar ethical standard to that of McBridge - particularly inventing innuendo or smears.

I am sure others will have many more examples. Let me mention a couple.

Staines played a key role in putting out the Mark Oaten scandal (that he slept with a male prostitute) with the News of the World. But he also published a podcast in which he and the Recess Monkey blogger joked about Oaten being a paedophile. (This would appear to be simply based on the idea that anybody gay or bisexual is a paedophilia risk).

Staines often engages in homophobic banter and innuendo, including implying that Gordon Brown is gay in a similar tone to the mcbride emails (which seem modelled on a guido-ish style). Here is a 'Gordon wants Beckham' post.

He has been constantly pushing a 'meme' that the prime minister is bonkers. This included passing on that it had been "seriously suggested" by an unknown source that Brown has Aspergers. Staines wrote "It is low politics to hurl cheap abuse at opponents, but this is not borne of malice towards Brown". (That is similar to a mental health smear).

There have been much nastier smears that I am not going to mention.

I think it was wrong in every respect to sink to that level. But Staines is certainly in the gutter. He has said so himself on several occasions. Anybody disgusted by McBride should be disgusted by Staines.

dublinstreams said...

well said, all the media attacking the internet and bloggers, leave it the professionals with editors they say, as if that ever stopped them before, all involved weren't just amateur bloggers but political activists/ public relations people who worked for the partys at one time.