Thursday, 2 September 2010

Stained or Sullied

"I am afraid that all of us who blog have been sullied by this experience" writes Conservative blogger Iain Dale today on his friend and, one supposes, rival Paul Staines - who writes pseudonymously as Guido Fawkes.

For it was Paul Staines who led the way in circulating rumours and innuendo about William Hague. If you were to read his latest (1200 Thursday 2 Sept) post, though, you'd have no idea of the nature of the 'story' as he originally developed it.

After the Foreign Secretary's unequivocal statement, the 'story' is, according to Staines, about Mr Hague's failure to employ an efficient press handler. That, and the Foreign Secretary's mistake in releasing the statements he did responding to the innuendos on Staines' blog. Oh, and judgment:

"All in all, he has only himself to blame for being ill-advised and has shown a staggering lack of judgment."

More on 'judgment' in a moment.

But it's the story about the story that's exercising the traditional press: Sky this morning ran a 'moving on' story; while the Mail wondered why Mr Hague felt the need to say so much about his marriage; the Sun, on the other hand, featured a thing it calls 'baby fight heartache'; the Telegraph played it as a straight denial; while the Mirror wondered whether Mr Hague protests too much.

Like so many other political stories that we can't quite put our finger on, it's reduced to the catch-all crime of poor judgment.

But hang on. Poor judgment about what?

Let's not be disingenuous - this was never only, or even principally, an allegation that the Foreign Secretary's judgment was poor in the way he recruited staff ... though, as above, that's part of what it's become. Nor about his sure-footedness at handling the press ... though, again, as above, it's become that.

On 24 August, Staines was 'Just Asking' why:

"young Christopher Myers (25) should go from driving William Hague (49) around his constituency during elections, where according to the Mirror, "they became close during campaigns"

to a special adviser?

And in case you didn't quite get the point, the following day's post was entitled "Looks Like a Bentley" (geddit?), an apparent answer to a question posed by Mandrake in the Daily Telegraph. And if the innuendo in the headline was lost on most of us, it wasn't on Staines' readers ... take a look at the comments, though, with discretion if Sniggering Homophobia isn't your usual setting.

By Sunday 29th, the innuendo had become less subtle in 'Flashback: Hague's Gay Special Adviser":

"This is not the first time that William Hague's choice of Special Adviser has raised questions."

What sort of questions, Paul? Well ...

"what special talent, unseen by the rest of us, does Mr Myers possess?"

And, of course, the post told us, William Hague has form. He'd previously hired a "young, openly gay, relatively unknown figure" as a special adviser.

By Tuesday 31st, all innuendo had been stripped away:

"Exclusive: Hague Shared Night in Hotel Bedroom with SpAd"

'At least one night', the post tells us. And that:

"One witness told Guido that the room sharing couple's body language at breakfast was eye opening."

And that:

"Two national Sunday papers have the evidence but, despite journalists putting considerable resources into the story, their editors are reluctant to pursue it. Perhaps because in the words of the song, 'no one knows what goes on behind closed doors'."

Evidence of what, Staines declines to say.

What's most disappointing about all of this isn't just that a political blog has given currency to unsubstantiated allegations. Nor that it's been done in a way that's encouraged some pretty shocking verbal homophobia.

No, what's most disappointing is that the whole episode shows we still can't shift our political journalism out of a mode in which slurs and innuendo insinuate themselves, even if those slurs aren't even on nodding terms with the truth.

Is it good enough for a political blogger to argue, as Staines does, that his "is only a blog, and it is intended to entertain not save the world" when his 'entertainment' produces real effects in the real world?

And is it good enough for us traditional political journalists to sigh wearily and report on the way a politician is 'tested' ... even if that 'testing' is based on their reaction to untruth, rumour and innuendo we wouldn't ourselves ever report?

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