So Damian McBride appears to have been taken down by the blogger he was considering trying to emulate.
It’s being reported that McBride’s emails were sent from his official Downing Street email account. If so, that’s a naive error to have made: partly because it leaves him open to (valid) accusations of misusing public resources, and partly because it exposes him to the risk of exposure via FOI. Guido republished an email he had sent to McBride requesting ‘copies of all emails referring to either myself or my publication, “the Guido Fawkes Blog”… under the provisions of the Data Protection Act (1998).’ (Mind you, Derek Draper told Sky News tonight that his private email had been ‘hacked into’.)
It would have been an ugly and unpleasant story if he’d been a Labour Party employee discussing such tactics; or even if McBride had sent the emails in his own time, from his own email account. But it wouldn’t have been quite so explosive. And let’s face it, it probably wouldn’t have come to light. (Frankly, I assume such conversations happen all the time inside most political parties.)
So let’s clear up the technicalities. Someone created a new blog at wordpress.com, under the ID ‘aredrag’ at 4:24pm GMT on Tuesday 4 November – a free service with a minimally intrusive registration form. On the same day, before or after, someone using the pseudonym Ollie Cromwell registered the domain name ‘theredrag.co.uk’ – a tenner for two years through easily.co.uk. They then paid wordpress.com the $15/year fee to run a wordpress.com-hosted site under a different domain name. The site itself consists of a standard Kubrick template, with only the default ‘Hello world!’ post visible. It has a (very rough) custom header graphic, but beyond that, it’s as ‘out of the box’ as it could be. To me, it suggests someone who knows what they’re doing online; and in the right hands, it could have taken only a few minutes. It doesn’t necessarily imply a coordinated, organised, resourced smear campaign.
At its heart, this is a story about the thin line between politics and government – a subject often mused upon in these pages. Now of course, it’s not a new riddle. But it’s the fact that any individual, with no great financing or technical skill, can become a journalist and publisher in minutes that adds a new dimension. It allows McBride and/or Draper to contemplate setting up such a scurrilous website in the first place. And equally, it has brought mavericks like Guido Fawkes into the mix: independent, and with nothing to lose.
Numerous times, we’ve tried to draw lines separating party politics and public duties – MPs’ communications allowances, civil servants in quite obviously politically-focussed positions, Ministers blogging their political views, whatever. In this culture of constant communication, I’m wondering if that’s still possible.
- Does the Prime Minister have to be the ‘leader’ of his/her party? On reflection, Blair and Prescott did a fairly good double-act, with one being the head of government, the other being the party chief.
- And does the PM’s spokesman actually have to be a civil servant? Should we accept that Downing Street is a special case, exempt from the same neutrality requirement of front-line, service-delivery Whitehall departments? We can’t play out our West Wing fantasies with politically neutral civil servants.
There’s a long way to go on this one. A very long way.