Ah, journalism! Holding power to account, keeping the man on his toes, skewering the moral depravity of highfalutin politicians just to watch the scumbags squirm. There’s nothing more satisfying than a “gotcha” moment, tripping up an MP or better still, a minister.
Of course, your confrontational “anti-establishment” hackery may also be serving a reactionary agenda - but that's just tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping.
The latest establishment lackeys to be slewn by the righteous poison pen of journalism are a trio of Labour MPs. Jared O’Mara from Sheffield had to resign from the Women and Equalities Select Committee after sexist and homophobic comments he made on the internet years ago. Clive Lewis had to issue a cringing apology for saying “on your knees, bitch!” to an audience member on stage at a Momentum event at this year’s conference. And this week, Emma Dent Coad had to apologise for writing a blog seven years ago in which she referred to Shaun Bailey – a black Tory London Assembly Member – as a “token ghetto boy”.
All of these stories feel very timely – particular to a generation of MPs navigating their old blogspots and the fact that everything you do and say is now liable to be recorded and archived. Jared O’Mara is perhaps the first MP to get significantly in trouble for dumb shit said online years ago (although the story rumbled on with allegations more recent unpleasant behaviour, which he denied). Clive Lewis was indulging in the brand of woke-but-macho laddism that found a level of acceptability on the left in the camaraderie of backing “the absolute boy”. Zeitgeistier still, the common thread here is politicians who present themselves as progressive being caught out for behaving in a way that doesn’t match up to those ideals, although often the people doing the catching have never held those principles themselves.
More specifically, all of this was dug up by the Guido Fawkes blog – the muck-raking scourge of the Westminster elite which is loved by the Westminster elite. It definitely doesn’t have any skeletons in its own closet, such as founder Paul Staines having formerly supported apartheid, or working for a right-wing lobby group, where a characteristic conversation was apparently: ‘let’s get guns for the Contras’ – right wing terrorists in 1980s Nicaragua. Nor would Guido stoop to using sexist language such as “bitch”, for instance in its “bitch fight of the week” column. And so what we have here is a particularly 2017 phenomenon of reactionaries using a pseudo-woke moral code as a stick with which to beat their political opponents. Political correctness has gone mad.
I’m not here to defend politicians from the fourth estate, and Guido’s fans could maybe say that what he is peddling is pure “fuck them all” nihilism. And while the blog does lay into the Conservatives – recently leaking the Tory Sex list – the overall jist doesn’t square with Staines’s self-description as “an equal opportunities anti-politics blogger”. Much of their coverage of say, Nigel Farage, approvingly reports the great man's words with one liners such as "go on Nigel!" The blog recently lauded Michael Gove’s laughable defence of Boris Johnson in the wake of his comments about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as “bang on”. It’s about as “rebellious” as buying a motorbike to soothe your midlife crisis.
There’s something very forlorn in Guido taking the moral high ground. In June he posted a deeply creepy selfie of himself in bed with a print out of Diane Abbott’s face, after she slipped up on Sky News, appearing not to have read a key anti-terror report. When someone criticised Staines, he said, “She begged me.” Just four months later he was publishing a story about the grim, sexist online comments of Jared O’Mara.
Hoisting people by their own petards is a Fleet Street tradition as old as pissed old hacks writing headlines while drunk – and the idea of journalists being total hypocrites is really nothing new, but these stories are taking place in the context of a wider cultural shift.
Before the election, there was a relentless media campaign to attach Jeremy Corbyn to the IRA on somewhat tenuous grounds, which didn’t have the desired effect. William Davies notes that, “One of the striking results of [the] new media ecology is that traditional smears no longer seem to work as effectively as they did… in this new environment, there is something worse than to err, and that is to be two-faced.”
Another feature of the new landscape is an all-time-low in trust for the media, with some people scrutinising journalistic works more closely than party press-releases. That might pose a problem for Staines, who learned to dig up dirt while working for British Briefing, a now-defunct journal which existed to smear left-wingers, run by a right wing pressure group called Committee for a Free Britain. That said, it’s a partisan environment in which Guido’s brand of shit stirring will probably continue to thrive. As the culture war rages, and political parties have a lot of questions to answer about their handling of sexual abuse, there’s a question about whether a blog that takes “Kelvin Mackenzie’s Sun of the 80s” as inspiration is the best the custodian of political morality.
Today’s conservative attack dogs, meanwhile, are left operating in a cultural space created by decades of social progress and change that’s happening largely beyond their control. Shortly after Paul Staines posted his creepy selfie in bed with Diane Abbott, he deleted it. Perhaps Staines’ own embarrassment is just as telling as his exposés.