I’ve never heard of you, The Sun’s Whitehall editor David Wooding blurted out on the phone. It’s OK. Neither could I remember Wooding from the period when we both worked for the Mirror Group – him as a staffer at The People and me as a freelance on the Mirror and Sunday Mirror.
But his put down could just as well have been about the new media phenomenon called citizen journalism. Fleet Street, the BBC and independent broadcasters have shown they really do not know what to make of it. Neil McIntosh, head of editorial development at guardian.co.uk, said: ‘For many media executives, citizen journalism has taken on the characteristics of the Beast of Bodmin Moor. It’s out there, the consensus is it has the capacity to be quite vicious if you cross its path but, so far, nobody’s seen much of it.’
New Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s McGrathgate blasted a citizen journalism scoop out of the West Country mist and into the headlines. When I asked James McGrath, political strategist and spin doctor to the Mayor, to respond to a suggestion made by black writer and broadcaster Darcus Howe that the election of right-winger Johnson might trigger a mass exodus of older African-Caribbean migrants back to the islands from which they came, his shockingly ill-considered retort was: ‘Well, let them go if they don’t like it here.”
Australian McGrath knew I was editor of the-latest.com website and at no point insisted that anything he said in the City Hall coffee bar where we met was off the record. I was actually seeking a meeting with the Mayor to discuss race equality, but McGrath was the political minder recruited to keep gaffe-prone Johnson away from elephant traps, and so it was gatekeeper first.
Surely Johnson, the boss of the brash man who described himself as an ‘Aussie plant’in the Mayor’s office, would have safely said: ‘Black people are a valued and welcome part of the London population and we want them to stay.”
I gave McGrath a month to set the record straight, during which time I prompted him by email and phone call. What I had wanted was a private dialogue not a megaphone monologue. But McGrath responded with a deafening and contemptuous silence.
Frustrated, I decided to publish a full, measured account of our meeting with the offending comment from McGrath in the 14th paragraph.
It was not a ‘sting’and nor was I an ‘undercover’reporter, as BBC News online reported – something they told me they would not change until they had consulted their political editor Nick Robinson and the Conservative Party. Their high-handed arrogance was almost as breathtaking as McGrath’s.
I went to just one Sunday newspaper on Friday with my exclusive. Yet, hours later a reporter from The Daily Mirror emailed me to talk about it. He said he had been tipped off by a freelance. But other senior journalist friends told me that 10 Downing Street spin doctors were involved in briefing parliamentary lobby correspondent contacts of theirs.
This panicked McGrath into emailing me an admission that what I had published was correct. He attempted damage limitation by writing: ‘To imply that I meant that all black people who didn’t support Boris Johnson should leave the country is utterly absurd and incorrect.
‘And I would ask please that this insinuation is immediately retracted.’
I used his letter in full on the-latest.com. Within 24 hours the controversy quickly escalated into a major embarrassment for Johnson, who was extremely sensitive to charges of racism after he himself had been criticised for his racial slurs including ‘picaninnies’comment and mocking the ‘water melon smiles’of Africans.
On Sunday evening, I was telephoned by Fiona Hamilton, the respected political correspondent of The Times who, like McGrath, hails from Queensland, to be told that the Mayor had issued a statement to say his aide had ‘resigned”.
Now, even David Wooding at The Sun, who told me he had not thought McGrath’s comment was racist, saw that this was ‘a story”.
A news executive at Press Association alerted me to the media significance of the scoop after McGrath quit. The PA man said: ‘This is the first time the scalp of a public official has been claimed by a blog-type site in Britain.”
The story was kept going for a second day when Tory leader David Cameron, asked a question at a news conference on Monday, said he backed Johnson’s decision to accept McGrath’s resignation.
Poor McGrath was gagged. At the-latest.com I faced an tide of hostile postings from his attack dogs. I was amazed at how publication of my story uncovered the ‘nasty party’elements of the Conservatives.
Messages ranged from the Enoch Powell-type suggestion that I should ‘Go back home if you don’t like it in Britain”, a version of which cost McGrath his job, to the hurtful and untrue statement that I, not McGrath, was ‘a racist”, from a leading Tory blogger Dr Andrew Lilico.
There was also a spiteful, character-assassination piece on me by Rod Liddle in his Times online column. These are not the cuddly, hug-a-hoody people David Cameron would like us to believe his party is now made up of.
I was heartened that, in Australia, I got a fair press. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote: ‘The scalp of James McGrath, 34, has been claimed not by a heavyweight London newspaper but by a veteran black activist and citizen journalist who waited politely for a response for more than a month before publishing the young gun’s damning comments.”
I think my erstwhile Fleet Street colleagues would agree that citizen journalism can no longer be confined to Bodmin Moor.