Mr McBride and Mr Draper: but who let the cat out of the bag? With update 19.04.09
There’s mercifully little to add to the Canadian forests of newsprint and gigabytes of bandwidth devoted to this foolish and shameful caper in which a political adviser at No. 10 Downing Street and a former Labour Party spin doctor, now active, with others, on a pro-Labour blog, exchanged juvenile e-mails about the idea of a new left-wing blog designed to break the right-wing bloggers’ monopoly of scurrilous gossip about their political adversaries. The plotters claim, reasonably credibly, to have abandoned the idea several weeks ago, but some of their e-mails fell into the hands of a notorious right-wing blogger, one Paul Staines, calling himself Guido Fawkes (Guido = Guy — geddit?) on his fairly unsavoury blog; and the rest is history.
The collection of nasty personal smears, some against Tory politicians, some against their wives, despatched from the No. 10 adviser to the Labour blogger as possible material for the proposed new blog, gives off a foul smell. Its disclosure discredits the two foolish plotters, the Labour Party and the government. It sheds a harsh light on Gordon Brown’s judgement of the kind of people he employs as advisers and of their more questionable activities on his behalf (it’s unlikely that he knew of these in detail, but he must have known in general terms of the kind of person Mr McBride was and how he conducted himself). Derek Draper, the blogger, has apologised humbly and insists that the plan to publish the smear material had been abandoned weeks ago. McBride has resigned from his No. 10 job, with similar apologies; his hitherto starry career is over, and he’s only in his 30s, so he has paid a high price for an act of spectacular and distasteful folly.
I think the actions of Draper and McBride are despicable, but it is Paul Staines [‘Guido Fawkes’] who has chosen to publish these letters for, as Iain Dale says, his “pleasure.” I don’t even see that this is especially bad for the government. It looks like cheap students politics on TV news – the more so whenever Draper or Staines speak – and it has taken attention away from Jacqui Smith’s expenses. I bet she loves Paul Staines just now!
Happy Easter to all.
A few points about this squalid story seem worth adding.
First, virtually all the smear stories sent privately as possible blog material by McBride to Draper are now in the public domain — in the newspapers and on radio and television, not just on an obscure and scurrilous blog — and causing real pain and embarrassment to their victims, at least one of whom is threatening legal action (against whom?). And who was responsible for this widespread publication? ‘Guido Fawkes’, who somehow got hold of copies of the e-mails, wrote about them on his blog and gave them to the newspapers (he denies having sold them), and the newspaper editors who have seen fit to reproduce the juiciest elements of them in extensive print while piously denouncing McBride and Draper for their wickedness in passing them from one to the other and daring to contemplate making them semi-public in a blog. The Conservative Party leadership and the other victims of the smears must be very grateful to Guido/Paul and his right-wing media contacts for so enthusiastically exposing this muck to public view.
Secondly, Damian McBride — contrary to a lot of blogging and media reporting — was not a ‘civil servant’ at the time of his resignation: IOW, he was not a member of the Home Civil Service, subject to the civil service code of conduct which governs, among other things, party political activity. He was a special political adviser appointed by the prime minister to do the kind of political work that civil servants can’t (and generally won’t) do. McBride had been a civil servant in the past and was apparently still paid from public funds; one lesson to be drawn from this and earlier similar escapades is surely that all these special advisers to ministers should be paid by the ministers’ party, not by the taxpayer. (Wasn’t that the arrangement at one time?) Draper neither was nor is a civil servant, either. He was at one time a ministerial special adviser and press spokesman but he seems currently to have no formal position in relation either to the government or to the Labour Party. Demands for his ‘dismissal’ or ‘resignation’ accordingly seem nugatory.
Thirdly, it looks from the account of the smears in at least one of today’s Sunday papers as if at least some of them were extrapolated from established fact. In other words, not all of them were necessarily or entirely fictional. To say that is not to condone their public dissemination: they will have been even more damaging and distressing if partly or wholly true.
And fourthly, the clandestine (or, often, open) spreading of smears and smut to the disadvantage of one’s political opponents is as old as politics itself. On top of this, using ministerial party bag-carriers to ‘brief’ against members of one’s own side has become common practice at least since Mrs Thatcher’s premiership and probably long before that. The disclosure of scandal has been used to destroy political careers, or at least to damage them, from time immemorial. William Hague’s demand on television this evening that steps must be taken to ensure that the current departure from virtue “never happens again” is frankly fatuous, and he knows it. As the distinguished columnist and political writer Alan Watkins used to say, politics is a rough old trade. To feign horror and outrage when the seamy side of politics occasionally surfaces, before diving again into the murky depths, is sheer hypocrisy; actually to be horrified suggests an innocence amounting to disqualification from meaningful comment.
Paul Halsall, quoted approvingly above, is probably right to suppose that all this is of much less interest or concern to the man (or woman) on the Clapham Omnibus than to the frenzied denizens of the Westminster Village. It will no doubt soon be largely, but not completely, forgotten: just one more nail in the coffin of Gordon Brown’s reputation. It won’t lose him the forthcoming general election because he has precious little chance of winning it anyway.
Meanwhile the 95 per cent of the citizenry who very sensibly can’t be bothered to read the small print, or who gain a vague impression of what’s going on from the muddled and inaccurate accounts by self-appointed experts on television, will blithely assume that Gordon Brown’s “attack dogs”, “practitioners of the dark arts”, and other time-expired clichés, have been exposed as spinners of public lies designed to discredit Labour’s enemies, the Tories. Few will stop to wonder why it was actually the bloggers and newspapers of the political right, the Tories’ natural allies, who worked so hard to ensure that such damaging smears and allegations against their own side were hustled into the public domain. To quote Alan Watkins again (and this time Margaret Thatcher too), it’s a funny old world.
 Update 1: on McBride’s formal status in No. 10 Downing Street, please now see the correction in Owen Barder’s helpful and important comment below, and my response appended to it.
Update 2 (19 April 09): Today’s Sunday Times carries the following confession in small print at the foot of page 2 (the Web version incorporates it, almost invisibly, into the end of the body of the article):
A complaint about last week’s coverage of the Damian McBride affair was made by Frances Osborne to the Press Complaints Commission. That complaint was resolved after The Sunday Times agreed not to republish Mr McBride’s untrue smears in relation to Mrs Osborne and to remove specific references to them from our website.
(Mrs Osborne is of course the wife of the Conservative Shadow Chancellor.) How strange that the action of the Sunday Times (and the News of the World, both Murdoch newspapers) in publishing these libellous smears, and of Guido Fawkes in providing the text of the smears to those newspapers with the intention of getting them published, should have virtually escaped public censure, while McBride and Draper, who never published any of them, nor passed them to others for publication, have been subjected to more public obloquy than anyone since Jack the Ripper! It would have been perfectly legitimate to report the story about McBride’s and Draper’s plan to use a website for gossip designed to discredit leading Tories, and to describe (without naming or identifying the intended victims) the kind of repulsive smears they had contemplated posting in it: but to publish those smears in such detail, naming the unfortunate Mrs Osborne and other putative victims, was every bit as reprehensible as the action planned, but never taken, by McBride and Draper. The jackals of the press and the brave commentariat are presumably no longer afraid of McBride — now that he has resigned — but remain as scared of Mr Murdoch and his rags of newspapers as ever.