Fawkes plots to blow up 'cosy' political reporting

"The news is no longer defined by big media." So claimed political blogger "Guido Fawkes" last week, triumphing in the role bloggers had played in turning up the heat on Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

"The ‘news' is no longer what Paxman says it is," continued Guido, under which name Paul Staines writes order-order.com, the blog of plots, rumours and conspiracies. "Failing to hold our political class to account is the failing of big media in Britain."

By naming an MP alleged to have had an affair with Prescott on his blog, Staines claims to have not only "lit the fuse" in Westminster, but also to have shot across the bows of the elite club of lobby correspondents that he believes has become too cosy with the politicians to be effective.

"If you have lunch with someone on a regular basis, you would feel inhibited going for the jugular," says Staines, who claims he has no ambition to be a journalist and that his only agenda is that he "hates" all politicians. "A journalist once said to me: ‘It's very easy for you, because you don't have to get access to them next week. That's the way that politicians work, they cut you out.'"

A fellow blogger, the former Conservative Parliamentary candidate Iain Dale (pictured here appearing on Newsnight last week), has linked to Guido Fawkes's site, but hasn't named the MP himself. Dale agrees that bloggers are beginning to challenge the "conspiracy of silence" that operates in the media.

"It's the way the lobby works — there are spoken rules and unspoken rules," he says. "I think that over a period of decades the lobby, without saying anything to each other, has decided that there are things that go on in Westminster that they just do not report. The internet is beginning to break that unspoken conspiracy down."

But Colin Brown, The Independent's deputy political editor, who wrote a biography of Prescott, says accusations that journalists deliberately sit on stories are "laughable".

It was, after all, the mainstream journalists, not the bloggers who broke the main story currently plaguing Prescott — that he had secretly stayed at the ranch of US billionaire Philip Anschutz, owner of the Millennium Dome, one of the sites on the shortlist for the UK's first super-casino.

"[The bloggers] have just put on the web something about a name that everybody knew about, but had no evidence on. That's neither brave nor great journalism — that's just bar room tittle-tattle dressed up as journalism," says Brown.

Blog bandits

But Brown admits that there is a great deal of frustration among certain journalists, particularly on the Sunday newspapers, that the bloggers stole the march on a story they were still trying to stand up. "We would love to go into print with things that we hear and believe to be true, but cannot prove, but the libel laws are such that we cannot put things into newspapers that he [Guido Fawkes] seems to think that he can get away with on the internet. They don't seem to run by the same rules," Brown adds.

Michael White, The Guardian's assistant editor, says bloggers are wrong to think they aren't subject to libel laws. "Of course they are," he says. "although of course nobody is going to sue an unemployed conspiracy theorist in the Outer Hebrides."

The BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, who was criticised by bloggers for suggesting that revelations about Prescott's affair with Tracey Temple had come as a "bombshell", also rejects the claim that details of Prescott's affairs were an open secret that journalists kept among themselves.

"There is a complete difference between gossip that someone might be being unfaithful and specific information that they are having an affair with someone in their office," he says.

As Dale suggests, the blogs are playing the same role as the newspaper diary columns and Private Eye.

Staines, whose ambition is to become the Matt Drudge (the US web gossip who rose to fame during the Clinton-Lewinsky affair) of the UK political scene, says a number of journalists have passed stories on to him.

"They give me stories because they can't run it or it's been spiked, or they want to move the story along, so they can turn round to their editor and say ‘look, even the bloggers have got it'," he says.

But when papers follow up a story that has gathered momentum in the blogosphere, they frequently omit to name the blogs. Staines claims this may be because the Ashley Cole "gay orgy" case set a worrying precedent for newspapers, which were held liable for claims made about unnamed footballers after websites including Pink News, identified the players being alluded to.

Robinson accepts that, as a BBC journalist, he has to live with the distinction "between what you can write on a blog and what can be broadcast on the BBC. The questions you have to ask before doing a Prescott story are: is it true?; how do we know it's true?; and is it a private business, does it deserve a public airing, blogs or no blogs?"

Selective reporting

But what journalists define as editorial judgement, their detractors see as an elite operation that is finally being held accountable by the bloggers for what they decide to report or hold back.

Dale cites the fact that the media didn't pick up on the "sick scandal" of Cherie Blair signing the Hutton Report for auction at a Labour Party fundraising dinner as an example of the conspiracy.

Robinson says that without Dale blogging about it and encouraging other bloggers to do the same, it would have been "one of those stories that would never have run in the mainstream media or maybe would have been on the front page on a quiet day.

"I think that's a very interesting phenomenon where political pressure groups are using the blog to try to generate momentum behind a story," says Robinson, who points out that there are similarities to the US, where movements on the right have also been quick to grasp the role blogs can play in setting the agenda.

Dale says he is open about his politics. "I don't hide the fact that I'm a Conservative and that I'm on the right," he says. "But if journalists are saying we are setting or influencing the agenda, that's fantastic — they wouldn't have been saying that six months ago."

But White, who is not sure what impact blogs will have on political journalism in the long term, argues that bloggers are as much part of the small Westminster village as the journalists they criticise.

"People who write blogs or post comments are almost certainly not typical. And I certainly don't think it will lower the bar in terms of what we are prepared to report."

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