Clegg and Cable resign from PoliticsHome panel in protest at Ashcroft takeover

by Stephen Tall on September 26, 2009

A minor media spat broke out this week, following the announcement that Lord (Michael) Ashcroft, the Tory deputy chairman who bankrolls the party’s target seats while refusing to say if he pays tax in this country, has bought a majority stake in the political news and commentary aggregator site, PoliticsHome.

This triggered the resignation of the site’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Rawnsley, who issued a public statement arguing that:

It was essential for users of the site that they could feel absolute confidence in the political independence of PoliticsHome. I do not believe that can be compatible with being under the ownership of the deputy chairman of the Conservative party.

But the ruckus did not stop there.

One of PoliticsHome’s innovations has been to put together an ‘insiders’ panel’ of opinion-formers (government ministers; MPs and peers; political advisors and officials; leaders of think-tanks, charities, professional bodies and voluntary organisations; and senior journalists and commentators), the PH100. This panel is polled every day with a handful of questions, the findings of which are then published to give readers a flavour of ‘the mood and judgements of political insiders’.

Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone took the decision to quit earlier this week, along with 24 other members of the PH100 (which despite the name in fact numbers c.200). And now Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have also added their names to the list of resignations, as revealed by James Graham here. (I haven’t yet heard if David Laws – the only other Lib Dem MP publicly listed as a member of the PH100 – will follow their example).

And here I declare my interest: I am also a member of the PH100 (included, flatteringly/misleadingly enough, in the ‘strategists and think tank heads’ category), and have been pondering my position as a panel member since hearing the news of Lord Ashcroft’s takeover.

I’ve never taken the PH100 that seriously; it is all too often an echo-chamber in which politicians and the media are asked what they think about what other politicians and the media are doing. With that caveat in place, I’ve found the questions asked are sometimes perceptive, normally interesting, and always get me thinking. Occasionally they inspire me to write a blog-post, or to commission a new LDV poll.

The question is whether Lord Ashcroft’s involvement will fatally undermine PoliticsHome’s avowedly non-partisan news service. Those who defend his involvement point to the fact that the site was formerly wholly owned by Stephan Shakespeare, also a Tory, who was, infamously, Jeffrey Archer’s campaign manager in his ill-fated London mayoral campaign. Why object now, Lord Ashcroft’s defenders ask, if majority ownership is simply changing hands from one Tory to another?

I’m sceptical of this answer for two reasons.

First, the failure of the new owner, or Mr Shakespeare, to convince either of their main left-of-centre contributors, Andrew Rawnsley or Martin Bright – nor their independent contributing editor Nick Assinder – to stay on reflects badly on the confidence those on the inside have in the site’s new ownership. Those three are better placed than me to know whether Lord Ashcroft’s involvement will have a negative impact on PoliticsHome’s neutrality.

And, secondly, Mr Shakespeare has already proved himself as an owner in two very different ways. First, he made his fortune by co-founding YouGov, the internet polling firm which has – despite or perhaps because of a lot of early suspicion – earned a deserved reputation for being a credible pollster. And, secondly, because Mr Shakespeare is quite happy to sink money into his political/media causes because he thinks they deserve to exist, rather than because he is convinced he will make money from them – the failed internet TV station 18 Doughty Street is probably the most obvious example, and I suspect PoliticsHome is the latest.

It’s for this reason I’m suspicious of Lord Ashcroft’s involvement in PoliticsHome. I cannot see what the business case for PoliticsHome is at the moment, and I don’t believe a canny businessman like Lord Ashcroft would invest significant cash unless he knew there would be a worthwhile return.

Perhaps he’s devised a way to monetise the site, though I cannot imagine it will turn a profit merely through advertising, so there must be something else up his sleeve. I have no idea what that something might be, but, given his reputation, I can well understand the reasons why people assume his involvement can only be deleterious to PoliticsHome’s reputation.

There is one final, very liberal, reason for suspicion. I don’t like monopolies, and yet Lord Ashcroft is successfully building one centred around political news. He now has controlling stakes in Total Politics magazine (Iain Dale corrects us on this, Lord Ashcroft only has a 25% stake), PoliticsHome and ConservativeHome, even leaving to one side the debt the incoming Tory government (very literally) owes him. Okay, this doesn’t exactly place him in the Murdoch / Burlusconi league. But, still, the money he invests in his businesses is not freely given; there will be a pay-back somewhere.

At the moment, I’m still in the ‘wait and see’ camp on PoliticsHome. I can see the reasons for resigning, and I can certainly understand the suspicion that the guarantees of political impartiality issued by the site will prove as worthwhile as those once given by Mr Murdoch when he was buying up his media empire.

But I don’t like to judge an organisation on the basis of presumption of guilt. To date, I have found PoliticsHome to be an invaluable source of political news and commentary. The moment that changes, I’m off. But until then …