Harry Cole could have been a big name in student politics if his eye for a good story hadn’t got in the way.
Guido Fawkes’ news editor was on course to become student union president at Edinburgh University before the student newspaper exposed him as the anonymous voice behind the EUSAless website. Cole had set up the blog to “take the piss out of” student politics. But while his unmasking ruined his nascent political career, the blog caught the attention of Paul Staines.
Guido’s founding father invited Cole to do some work experience with him and write about “grown ups”. It was an enjoyable experience, but wasn’t enough to stop Cole enrolling on a law course at the end of university. But another call from Staines put paid to that idea.
“Paul phoned me up and said: ‘Have you got a job?’ I said, no. He said: ‘Well the Telegraph have just bought the expenses files and it’s about to kick the fuck off. Can you start Monday?’”
It was never intended as a long-term job when he doubled Guido’s editorial head count in 2009, but Cole has remained at the blog ever since. In his time Guido has grown hugely both in terms of reputation and profitability.
Cole reveals that Guido used to make most of its money through selling stories to newspapers, but that this dried up around the launch of the Leveson Inquiry. To find the extra money, Guido took on a column at the Daily Star Sunday. After a year, The Sun swooped and Staines can now afford to employ Cole and a reporter while also paying his children’s school fees.
Meanwhile, the pair’s influence is blooming. They recently came 59th in GQ’s list of the most influential men in Britain.
Aged 26 at the time (he has since turned 27) Cole was the youngest on the list. The magazine (which, admittedly, Cole is a columnist for) noted that, while he was listed alongside his editor, Cole is now “growing out of Staines’ shadow”.
With his GQ work, a joint column in The Sun under the Guido name and a “contributing editor” title at The Spectator (which, he points out, can get him into any party in London), the authors of the list may have a point.
But Guido remains an outsider in one important sense: neither Cole nor Staines has been given a Lobby pass.
The subject is enough for Cole to launch his first Guido-style attack. Describing how his bid to become a Lobby journalist was “very snootily” turned down, he suggests the system is “one big scandal away from being blown open,” and questions why everything isn’t broadcast on BBC Parliament.
Cole says the Lobby rules make for “morally bankrupt” journalism. He says reporters he knows are told one thing by a politician but then report the opposite, based on official comments that they know are not true.
Cole is clearly unafraid to ruffle a few feathers, even when they belong to journalists that would have been – and perhaps still are – an inspiration to him.
Private Eye may have had a big influence on Cole growing up, but he firmly backs Guido over a “war” started earlier this year when the blog felt that the fortnightly title was lifting its work.
He admits to having fallen out of love with the Eye of late – criticising it for running too many tax evasion stories, no longer being “aggressive and funny” and not breaking the Jimmy Savile scandal, among other things. And he clearly believes the editor should shoulder the blame.
“We’ve drunk with people at Private Eye, past and present, who think that Ian Hislop’s a bit of a sell-out and that they are extremely restricted by his BBC contract – and I’m inclined to agree,” he says.
“It’s lost it’s punch. It just seems to be a bit moany and Lib Demmy,” he says. But all’s not lost. “A new editor will liven things up. And there are obvious candidates… I’d love to read Quentin Letts’ Private Eye.”
This last comment sums up Cole’s personality: serious and genuinely passionate but also never far away from a joke. In fact, at only one point during this interview does he really turn serious and maintain it for more than a few breaths.
Asked what the best stories he’s worked on during his short career have been, he starts off in a light-hearted manner – the couple caught having sex at the top of the Shard (“the nearly mile-high club”), exposing corruption on the Isles of Scilly (“Scilly Season”) – before remembering his real answer.
“The Chris Huhne one,” he says firmly. “We were laughed at at times for that. People were like: ‘Let it go, you’re obsessed, you’re not going to get him, he didn’t do it, she’s a liar…’ We took one look at him and said: ‘Guilty.’”
Cole says that Sunday Times journalist Isabel Oakeshott deserves the plaudits for breaking the story, but insists it would have been dropped in the week after she broke it if Guido hadn’t kept at it.
The story was clearly important to Cole, but he does admit that he nearly missed seeing Huhne admit his guilt in court in February. (Cue a return of the laugh).
“I’d completely forgotten this was happening on the Monday morning. I’m in jeans, a jacket and a big stupid scarf, looking like a complete hippy.
“Paul phoned, and said: ‘Where the fuck are you? We’re in court in ten minutes.’ I was like, oh shit. Bombed in a taxi down to Southwark. My barrister had food poisoning. He was white, sweating and just looked like Gollum – in a wig. And I looked like a hippy.”
Huhne was sentenced to eight months in prison and Guido loudly celebrated its victory.
But while there was little sympathy for Huhne, Guido was accused of being nasty and too personal in covering the case. Cole is expecting this to be brought up, and turns serious again.
“We stuck a camera in his face and he said: ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ The number of times we had Lib Dem press officers calling us bullies. Everything they could possibly do to say that we were idiots and we’re just obsessed and we’re never going to get him,” he says.
“When someone’s brief called you personally a liar, which he did, yeah, it’s personal. It’s totally personal to me. But he’s the only one that made that personal. The guy deserved everything he got.”
Coming ahead of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Paul Dacre and Nick Clegg in GQ’s list, the Guido pair have proven themselves a force to be reckoned with.
Some may suggest Cole was lucky to land such a unique job and not need to pass any journalism exams, but his track-record for breaking stories is there for all to see.
According to the blog, its unique monthly users figure now stands at more than 500,000, up more than 50 per cent year on year.
Cole says that when he joined, the site generally attracted 50,000 page views a day. It now stands at double that “on a bad day”.
He admits that Guido is an “incredible entry-level job” and dismisses the idea he might have benefitted from a more conventional route.
Cole thought about applying to do a City University journalism course until he got a text from a student there saying one of his stories had been used as a lecture case study.
“I thought, why am I going to pay ten grand to go and be taught about my own stories?”
He might have learnt a few more skills, but Cole says a copy of McNae’s and a dictaphone will do.
“I could have wasted ten months getting my shorthand, or spent ten months getting stories,” he says. “You get some snooty comments from gentlemen of the Lobby about that, but the best basic training you need in any job is: Don’t be a fucking idiot.”