Wexford-based Guido Fawkes's reputation as the top blogger of UK politics has been cemented by his uncovering of a planned smear campaign against leading Tories, writes KEVIN COURTNEY
IF YOU’RE planning to start your own political blog any time soon, you’d better check the steeliness of your nerves, the brass plating on your neck, and the duck-like waterproofing of your back. Forget Somalian pirates – the sea of political blogging is fraught with peril, and woe betide anyone who sets sail in these treacherous waters without a reinforced hull and adequate weaponry.
This week, Paul Staines aka Guido Fawkes proved himself master and commander of the UK political blogosphere, when he sank the career of Damian McBride, former special adviser to Gordon Brown, over what is now being called Smeargate and E-mailgate. Staines’s blog, Order-order.com, has been a thorn in the side of the Labour government since Staines began writing it in 2004, but last week he scored a direct hit on Downing Street when he released details of e-mails sent by McBride to former Labour spin doctor Derek Draper, outlining plans for a smear campaign against leading Tories.
It was a sweet victory for the right-wing libertarian and former City trader, and a blow to his arch-rival Draper, whose Labour-supporting blog, Labourlist.org, has had its credibility irrevocably damaged by close contact with this toxic correspondence.
Staines, who claims to “hate politicians” of all hues, and Draper, a former adviser to Peter Mandelson, had been doing battle on the blogs over the past few years. But when Staines got his hands on the e-mail from McBride to Draper, he knew he had enough ammunition to do serious damage to Gordon Brown’s leaky ship.
In the e-mail, sent from his Downing Street address, McBride had outlined ideas for scurrilous stories about top Tories that could be circulated anonymously on the web, with advice on sequencing and timing to cause maximum damage. They included innuendo, sexual slurs and unfounded rumours about Tory leader David Cameron, shadow chancellor George Osborne and other prominent Conservatives. The smears would be published on a pro-Labour blog, Red Rag, to be set up in direct opposition to Guido Fawkes and with the aim of destabilising the Tories.
Draper’s Labourlist.com had been set up in response to the perceived dominance of right and centre-right blogs on the web. When the Conservatives were last in power, blogs was simply the surname of a guy named Joe. Since Labour has been in power, blogging has come of age, and the blogosphere is widening its sphere of influence daily.
Blogging is well suited to opposition; like small craft sneaking in and hurling missiles at the leviathan, blogs such as Order-order.com chip away at government spin, and attempt to break through the wall of PR that cushions ministers from closer public scrutiny.
Staines is critical of the mainstream political media, saying they have all but surrendered to the spin doctors. The press, for its part, dismisses bloggers as gossip-mongers who play fast and loose with the facts, but last week’s events have shown that bloggers can set the print agenda, and make their presence felt all the way to the top.
Guido Fawkes is regarded as the top dog of the political bloggers, the man who really gets the inside track on what’s going on behind the closed doors of Westminster. His status was reinforced when he was awarded the title of political commentator of the year on Guardian.co.uk. Last year, he raised the bar when he claimed his first scalp – cabinet minister Peter Hain, who resigned following a donations scandal.
Following the Hain affair, many asked, who was this caped crusader of the web, capable of bringing down a former Northern Ireland secretary of state? Though Staines tried to preserve his anonymity, it became increasingly difficult to hide behind his Fawkes mask. His personal life was put in the spotlight when he was arrested for drink-driving in April 2008, and his image took a bashing when he appeared on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, his face in shadow. Also on the programme was Guardian assistant editor Michael White, who proceeded to demolish Staines with some well-put and well-informed arguments.
But when he appeared on the BBC's Daily Politicson March 26th, going head-to-head with his arch-enemy Derek Draper, it was Staines who came out on top. He had one crucial advantage over his opponent: unbenownst to Draper, he already had the McBride e-mail in his possession. But though he had enough ammunition to blow his opponent out of the water, he kept his cards close to his chest.
Staines says he had been sitting on the story for a couple of months, waiting for the right moment to set off his bombshell. With the MPs expenses scandal in full swing and the web – including Guido Fawkes’s blog – all a-twitter about Jacqui Smith’s husband’s taste in adult movies, Staines figured it would be best to “wait for a gap in the narrative”.
Instead of posting his political hot potato on his blog, however, Staines cut out the internet middleman and took the story directly to the Sunday Times and the News of the World. He offered it first to the Telegraph, but they initially chose not to run with it. He denies he asked the Telegraph for a fee of £20,000 for the story.
“Money was discussed, but I decided not to take the money,” he claims.
He posted a teaser entry about McBride on his blog, under the provocative title "he who lives by the smear . . . " He also, he says, set a trap for Draper, the recipient of McBride's e-mails, accusing him on the BBC's Daily Politicsprogramme of having been briefed by McBride on how to smear Tory blogger Iain Dale.
“I got Draper to deny it three times,” recalls Staines gleefully. By Good Friday, McBride had been hung out to dry, and by Easter Sunday it was obvious to all that there would be no resurrection for the disgraced civil servant. The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, denied all knowledge of McBride’s little scheme, but the fallout from Smeargate could eventually scupper this already listing government. That, for Guido Fawkes, would be the ultimate victory.
In a typical bit of spin-doctoring, McBride and Draper tried to play down the seriousness of the e-mail correspondence, claiming it was simply a bit of “juvenile” joshing, and tried to turn the blame back on Staines.
“I am shocked and appalled that, however they were obtained, these e-mails have been put into the public domain by Paul Staines,” wrote McBride in his resignation statement.
“It’s a high price to pay, isn’t it, for sending a silly e-mail to a mate,” said Draper disingenuously. He also called some of McBride’s smear ideas “brilliant and rather funny”.
THE 42-YEAR-OLD makes no bones about it: he gets a real kick from stirring things up in Westminster, and loves battling it out with his enemies on the blogosphere – there is certainly no shortage of would-be opponents eager to take him down.
“If I said today was Wednesday, there’d be dozens of bloggers accusing me of lying and claiming I’d been paid by the Tories to say it was Wednesday.”
He also, he admits, gets an ego boost from taking down a big political target. He puts his pugnacity down to his “natural Irish ebullience”. His mother was from Finglas, and the Ealing-born Staines attended a “tough Catholic grammar school”, Salvatorean College in Harrow, London. As a young man, he became enamoured with libertarianism and its espousal of individual freedom, and became entranced by the acid house/rave movement, eagerly joining the Sunrise collective, who organised large-scale acid house parties, clashing with the Tory government, who were clamping down on rave culture.
He worked as a trader in the City of London, but was declared bankrupt in 2003. He started his political blog in 2004, styling it as a cross between leading US blog the Drudge Report and UK showbiz gossip site Popbitch. It didn’t take long for Guido Fawkes to become a cause célèbre, and he was soon dazzling visitors to the blog with his daring tales of skulduggery and shenanigans, and amazing all and sundry with his phantom-like ability to infiltrate the corridors of power at Westminster.
“What’s unique about his blog is that he truly hates politicians, but for someone who hates them so much, he is incredibly well-connected,” says Dave Cochrane, who runs Politics.ie, the leading political blog in the Republic of Ireland.
“Some of the stories he gets are unbelievable. How he gets such big news stories is a mystery. I would look at his blog every day, and some of it is fascinating. What he’s doing hasn’t been done in Ireland – it would be great to see a site that revealed what TDs and Ministers are really up to. We don’t do that – our rule is play the ball not the man – but there’s definitely an appetite for the really juicy gossip.”
Staines, however, is not planning to set up a “Paddy Fawkes” blog, even though he’s “often thought about” it. “I didn’t grow up here, and I didn’t go to college here,” he says. “I don’t even know the name of that old-boys’ school that all the Irish party leaders went to, so I don’t feel I could do it as effectively.”
He lives in Duncormick in Wexford with his Irish wife Orla, a lawyer, and their two small children, Saoirse and Caoimhe. The family divides its time between Wexford, London and a home in France. Between his two children and his online baby, Staines has no time for hobbies – “my objective in life is to get a bit of peace and sleep”. He was a member of the PDs up to their dissolution late last year.
Guido Fawkes is not, he says, a paid puppet of the Conservatives, as detractors – including Draper – have claimed. “If that’s true, I’d like to see the cheques.” Trying to come up with three to five meaty blog entries a day while helping to raise two small kids is hard work, but, he says, “what I like about it is that I don’t answer to anyone.
“I have no boss. I control the means of production and I can do what the hell I like.”
CV: GUIDO FAWKES
Who is he?Paul Staines, known in the political blogosphere as Guido Fawkes
Why is he in the news?He brought down Damian McBride, former special advisor to Gordon Brown, when he exposed McBride's planned smear campaign against prominent Tories.
Most appealing characteristic:His ability to put the spin-doctors in a tizzy
Least appealing characteristic:His tendency to paint himself as a caped crusader for truth and transparency
Most likely to blog:"McBride fired; mission accomplished."
Least likely to blog:"Ok, I was wrong about that one – I'm not perfect."