In case you missed it, there’s a full blown ruck going on in Westminster… It looks to me to be knockout to Guido in third round of the death match he’s been playing with ingenue Labour blogger Derek Draper. Go to Guido’s site and just scroll for the endless barbecue (but check out Manic’s blog for the counterspin to Guido’s)… The reason he’s celebrating: he has a scalp, a Peterhouse boy, and Arsenal and Celtic fan, as well as a special advisor to Gordon Brown (and a thoroughly Machivellian piece of work according to Jon Snow).
You can pick up Paul Colgan’s short interview with Guido on RTE this morning… The Tories, naturally enough, are milking it for all it is worth… They are now asking for an inquiry into smears that were until the weekend subject of a single ‘private’ email correspondence between McBride and Draper… It includes what seems likely to be an abortive attempt to drag Tom Watson into the mess – there’s a bit of previous on that score.There are, it seems to me, a few lessons to be drawn from this matter.
One is that if you are going to get into the business of smearing your opponents (and I would strongly advise against it), make them plausibly deniable. Guido has traded in smears of his political opponents from the start, some of it very personal and involving family members of the intended Labour party victim. But, so far as we know, he is not on the Conservative party payroll!
But, as I argued on Brassneck in February, Draper was wrong headed in his handling of his blog Labour List… He and his party have paid a high price for the banal nihilism card of getting your opponents, no matter what…
According to John Lloyd, at the heart of this scandal heart lies a game about which Draper was thinking both clearly and logically long before his grand entrance into the British political blogosphere:
…Brown’s realisation that he must fire McBride and apologise personally to those whose reputations he was attempting to shred was a belated necessity. Yet it leaves the suspicion that McBride was hired and promoted precisely because he had such skills and that these are now likely to be increasingly deployed, by him or others, in time to come.
And though, as Brown recognised, responsibility in this case has to be borne by the prime minister, it’s also clear that the strategising would not have taken place without the assumption of a part of the media being compliant with it, once it passed from the drawing board or the email exchange to execution. [emphasis added]
Or as Andrew Neill puts it:
“When you keep a kennel of attack dogs then I guess you can’t entirely claim ignorance or absence of responsibility when one of them bites several passers by.”
Rachel Sylvester in The Times notes that apart from anything else it hints at exhaustion at the heart of government:
In 1997, the Tories portrayed Mr Blair with demon eyes as they had run out of steam to govern. Smear campaigns may fill a vacuum but in the end – as Mr Brown will almost certainly discover – they suck those who use them into an inescapable and utterly destructive black hole.
In truth, Labour is crap at the attack stuff (check out Obnoxio and the Devil’s Kitchen for genuine Tory pros). They are much easier for Oppositions (joking publicly about Brown’s state of mental health is fair comment, privately planning a set of reprisals is not)…
Whatever the substance of this story, and however foolish Draper and McBride were to embark upon this counterattack, it is the press and most other people’s lack of information about what the emails contain that’s most perplexing about this story.
The English sociologist Frank Burton once argued that journalists adopt “strategies that are designed to minimise readers’ awareness of his own real areas of ignorance”. There is an awful lot of ignorance around this story and an awful lot being ascribed to in the absence of some pretty central facts. Witness this piece from Fergus Shanahan at the Sun who all but jails Tom Watson and throws away the key. The basis: the Labour Cabinet Office Minister was: 1 involved in a previous Brownite plot to unseat Blair; and 2, his name is mentioned in one of these ‘unseen’ emails.
Justin has a nice take on the utter banality of the whole business… And there is the inevitable Downfall parody.. But occasional Slugger contributor, Nick Anstead, as ever cuts to the quick of what this means for political parties and journalism in a wider context:
The mass media era was defined by narrow inputs (produced by a small number among an information elite journalists and publishers, for example). It was because there were few of them that the role of the modern spin doctor developed in the first place. A dialogue could occur among a narrow group of people and information could be managed.
Now though, we live in the digital era and have to moved to a time of broad (and growing) inputs in short, information cannot be managed in the same way by spin doctors when publishing is so easy. Secrets are far harder to keep. Look at wikileaks for just one example. This means a fundamental readjustment in the way parties and governments handle information, and the ending of the nineties consensus on how politics is done.
But Nick is only partly right. Brown’s downfall will come in part because he couldn’t tell a coherent story, never mind ‘spin’ one… In the absence of a consistent narrative of government, the Press has gone ‘feral’. It was Philip Gould who noted a central point in that nineties consensus, that if political parties don’t feed the voracious appetite of the press with lots of stories, they will simply ‘gobble you up’.
In this case, it was a blogger who cunningly tipped the media’s hand and disrupted its natural food chain… And another, unthinking one, who provided them the red meat… But it was the ennui of the political media that forced them into jumping (too far)…
Adds: And in the heel of the hunt, whoops; there goes Gordon’s G20 bounce… I wonder how that happened? Can’t shake the feeling that you/we were played like a fiddle ladies and gentlemen of the press…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty