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

by Stephen Tall on April 18, 2009

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.