Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Ashcroft mystery

If money talks, then £1.3 million plonked into the nascent political blogosphere by the Conservative deputy party chairman might say rather a lot. But what it is saying? Some present Lord Ashcroft as 'the man who bought the blogosphere' (or tried to); others suggest that the shy Belize-based billionaire has bought ConservativeHome and PoliticsHome too with no selfish or strategic interest whatsover.

Still, both classical and behavioural economists might agree that he must have some motivation. What might it be? I don't think that has yet been addressed in much depth. So I have been asking those who have asked me for my view of the affair that in return. Here are some of the early water cooler theories in the Westminster village

(Please do add your own explanations and ideas in the thread: any information worth looking into can be sent to though I certainly do not guarantee to publish every theory!)

Could it be the money? Well, Ashcroft is a billionaire already so he doesn't need the money. Neither site has an income stream. And nobody got rich yet from funding political websites, or niche political magazines. With some people, you might wonder if there were tax advantages: that is rather complicated in this case! So it probably isn't the money.

So is it about power? So, "follow the power" might be the better explanation this time.

How secure is Michael Ashcroft's power base with Tory high command - and how secure does he feel that it is?

That might seem a strange question: Ashcroft is bankrolling much of the party's campaign, especially that in the marginal seats. He has built a network of emerging Tories with good reason to be grateful for his largesse. What could he have to worry about? Well, next year that might not be quite the same thing.

Paying for election campaigns may not guarantee influence on the government which results - ask the unions!

Those with more expertise on the subtle balances of power in the Tory inner circle will be best placed to judge - but Ashcroft may well think that an "outside" strategy of building up the movement and his personal stock within it would make him harder to marginalise if David Cameron or George Osborne wanted a little more distance from him in future. It is probably a smart long-term bet too.

Influence, not control?

Iain Dale stresses that Lord Ashcroft does not seek to influence the TotalPolitics editorial line. That seems to me a fair account of Total Politics. Iain has tried to make sure that things like the blogging poll are organised in a way which increase their cross-partisan credibility.

But clever propreitors don't often act like Bob Maxwell approach. The propreitor has a presence and an influence - often by osmosis. There are some things that happen and some things that don't.

Tim Montgomerie is also confident that he will have editorial independence for ConservativeHome- but then I imagine Lord Ashcroft can also be confident in Montgomerie's public ideological commitments and highly impressive track record as to what that will mean. It is being reported in The Times that "the site had already made clear that it would become less critical of the leadership as an election approaches, in order to give Mr Cameron the best chance of winning". Maintaining its grassroots credibility may involve some political dexterity. But I expect the site will also find ways to demonstrate that its readers want it to push the Conservative party to be bolder - mainly by asking them that question. It has an important influence on debates from tax and spend to Europe - watch what happens after the Irish referendum to see how that now makes it a significant voice.

To take a different case, TotalPolitics can run political features in a non-partisan way but there are some things it can't and won't do. It isn't going to run major features on how we fund our politics or an enormous investigation into the financing of the Conservative Party, for example, or carry an independent or critical analysis of the rise of Michael Ashcroft as the power behind the Conservative movement. Anybody who has been inside a newspaper or magazine will recognise that there are many subtle decisions about whether or not to do a particular interview or feature.

Moreover, were I a Conservative billionaire, I would invest in Iain Dale - and probably not to put out a propaganda sheet either. Iain has established himself as both a key public voice for the right, and (as an early mover with a large audience) an independent expect on the blogosphere. This makes him an important public asset for the right, in terms of these emerging political spaces. If Iain were not editing an independent political magazine, he might well have to earn a crust doing something else. His current role has turned out to be an excellent platform from which Iain manages to be almost ominpresent in the broadcast media (though no doubt this involves a lot of plate juggling to keep it all going), and a key voice 'framing' public debates from his perspective. There is nothing wrong with that. That is good for Iain, who puts a lot of energy into it; there are good synergies for Total Politics, which seeks to be the independent source of information on blogging and where Iain hardly hides his own political engagement. And, ahead of the election, I think it will prove to be good for the Conservatives too

Or perhaps it is just altruism?.

Perhaps Michael Ashcroft strongly believes in more media - albeit not more media pluralism. Perhaps he subscribes to The Spectator but just feels that there should be more political media out there - and keeps this entirely separate from his partisan political involvement.

It is a very nice thought - but it not one which the ownership structure of the new company encourages one to believe in. And it is not yet clear what the plan for the "online newspaper" of the right, linked to ConservativeHome, means. Will this have nothing whatsoever to do with PoliticsHome, or will there be shared infrastructure and resources?

But what would you do if you were a shy billionaire who was aghast at all of this interest in your benign motives?

Firstly, I think you would be much more wary of the 'apples and oranges' problem. There is a clear reputational risk to combining 'above politics' institutions in the same media company as deeply partisan ones. It can be a cynical world, after all.
And if Ashcroft were to, before Christmas, buy the Institute of Fiscal Studies, and then make clear that he would guarantee its editorial independence, then many of us might ask why. If PoliticsHome wants to be the key, neutral independent news portal in an election year, then it needs a similar level of integrity. The measures it put in place at the start are no longer operative.

Secondly, I think you would have to do more than offer assurances of good faith. PoliticsHome now seems to me to need something like a Scott Trust style structure of guaranteed editorial independence if it wants to fulfil its mission with trust on all sides.

Thirdly, the partisan grassroots movement issues are more of an issue for those on that side of the political spectrum. But I wonder whether the smart thing to do would be to give the power back to the grassroots - through some sort of trust model which would make ConservativeHome a new FC Barcelona of the right.

If you were a shy billionaire who just loved to help facilitate political discussion, perhaps that is what you would do.

There would only be one downside: it might make it rather harder to get what you want - whatever that might be.


More developments and comments:

Martin Bright, who recruited most of the left-liberal members of the panel, writes that "I was clear at the time that the site was Tory-owned, but assured panel members that Andrew and I would act as left-liberal ballast ... If I had known in advance of the purchase I would certainly have informed them and encouraged them to resign from the panel". Many of them have done so - myself included. Now, Martin is the type of partisan patsy who blogs for the Spectator and famously took on Ken Livingstone in London, so the problem which the site has is that those who were acting as credible "guarantors" of its independence and good faith no longer have that confidence themselves.

Several members of the 'insider' panel have resigned, including me.

Iain Dale doesn't understand it at all, noting that Ashcroft has never interfered as propreitor of TotalPolitics. But there is also some cognitive dissonance in Dale's response: it is "the worst kind of gesture politics" but from people who he does not believe engage in gesture politics.

Like Tom Harris. Like me, Tom has responded to Iain's questions on his site.

Freddie Sayer has written to current and former members of the cross-party panel (who had not heard about this in advance) to say that "Of course, the question is whether our editorial integrity as a strictly non-partisan news source will be compromised. Well, we were owned by a Tory before, and now we are owned by two Tories!" but noting that "We will have some serious work to do to win over the sceptics". Not sure the "two Tories" soundbite yet covers that one.

And, especially for those who think there are more important things going on, like multilateral disarmament and climate change at the UN, Hopi Sen has an acerbic and funny post about the pointlessness of the PoliticsHome panel some of us have resigned from puts it, "If I were a tory I’d be more than slightly worried that one man now appears to control their marginal seat operation and their main online operations. Maybe he should buy the Spectator too, and then he can build some green houses or even a nice big red hotel on it. Still, if CCHQ wants to outsource campaigning and movement building to a guy with his own agenda, that’s their look out".


Nick Assinder has resigned from the Politics Home board on Thursday morning. Assinder has had a long career with the BBC, the Express and the Mail. Assinder was the founding news editor and then lobby correspondent: his involvement alongside Rawnsley helped to establish its reputation for professionalism and engagement across the spectrum. His presence on the board was being invoked yesterday afternoon in the official PoliticsHome statement as a sign that independence was still guaranteed.

This rather casts doubt on the “don’t be such stupid lefties” objection to an issue being made of the new ownership: the fundamental point about independence and trust is that the professional journalists and independent voices who were convinced of its political independence in the past, and acted as guarantors of that, are not confident this will remain so in the future.

And I thought Tom Harris got to the nub of the problem in this comment on Iain Dale's website, including his plea to avoid too much "Labour huff versus Tory money" mud-slinging:

"If Peter Mandelson had bought a 57 per cent share while he was still serving in the government, I expect Andrew's reaction would have been the same. And he would have been right. I hope this is about more than Labour huff verses Tory money; I think Ashcroft has done the blogging world a disservice by buying PoliticsHome and immersing it in controversy needlessly. This is the man, remember, whose specific job is to help the Conservatives win the next election. And he buys a prominent political webite months before that election and we're all expected to shrug our shoulders and pretend that nothing's changed? I don't think so".


Richard T said...

I understand that News International editors don't have to be told what to do because they know what their Austral-American proprietor thinks and act accordingly. No puppets them. Any parallel?

Oranjepan said...

My sense is that there are several combined reasons for Ashcroft's purchase.

In general terms he wants to influence the political balance of debate, but more specifically with this move he has got his hands on the data bank and resource the PHI survey represents.

Online polling is growing more responsive since the days when YouGov was set up and the ability to contact several thousand members of the public daily - built up thanks to the respectability afforded by a politically-balanced editorial position - gives PH a step advantage in being able to provide authoratitive data. He is now in a position to manipulate this for effect.

Clearly PH has reached a point where their polls can be used for political purposes, just as we hit a critical stage ahead of the election. The loss of the PHI100 is no great loss when it can be replaced by expanded efforts in the PHI5000, so I'm looking for how this resource will be adapted.

I fully expect this to be promoted more heavily to members of the public who are inclined to the right and therefore allow the results to present Cameron's Conservatives in a more favorable light.

Can Ashcroft trade heavily enough on PH's reputation to reap dividends for his party without turning it to junk in the timeframe remaining? - an investigation into the polling techniques used in this would be well worth the time spent.