Monday, 13 April 2009

The Derek Draper emails

It is hard to know what to say about the latest scandal to engulf the Government. For anyone who has been inside a cocoon for the last couple of days, Damian McBride, the PM's political press officer, sent a political blogger, Derek Draper, an email in January that contained scurrilous allegations about top Conservative politicians and their families. The claims in the email were untrue, and were to be part of an ongoing smear campaign against the Tories. A website was registered for this purpose. Another blogger, Paul Staines, got a copy of the email and has publicised the smear attempt.

The emails were sent from Damian McBride's official Number Ten email address. He has already fallen on his sword and resigned, but it looks as though the political ramifications will continue for some time.

What this comes down to is an appalling lack of professionalism by everyone involved.
  • We have civil servants in the guise of 'special advisers' selling a totally partisan line. In doing so, they are not only briefing against the opposition, but also against any MPs from their own benches who appear disloyal.
  • We have the media reading unauthorised and often unverifiable comments on blogs and using them as fact. This is what McBride and Draper hoped would happen.
  • We have bloggers acting like children. If you have a point to make, make it in a sane, educated manner. Do not take part in playground antics. (This goes for both Draper and Staines, although in interviews Staines appears far more reasonable and adult than Draper).
  • We have politicians and party apparatus that really do not get the Internet or (yuck) Web 2.0
I want - no, I demand - my politicians and civil servants to be professionals. I want them to look after the interest of myself and the rest of the electorate. I do not want them acting in such a highly crass, idiotic, wounding and infantile manner. Yet it appears that we have some truly nasty people right at the heart of our Government. People who would be willing to spread all sorts of lies to take their own agendas forward. The contacts these people have gives them power, and it is evidently power that they are willing to use against anyone they dislike.

Damian McBride has shown himself to be unfit to hold any position within the civil service or government. It will be interesting to see what sort of package he gets now that he has resigned - surely he deserves nothing after such an almighty own-goal. At best it is either gross negligence or misconduct. Neither should he be found another job within the Government.

The PM has lost a great deal of his moral authority due to this incident. Apparently Damian McBride's nickname in the corridors of power is 'McPoison'; yet Brown has seen fit to associate himself with this 'attack dog'. Alistair Campbell had a reputation as being not a very nice person (to put it mildly), and it appears that the Labour Party is surrounding itself with such people. People for whom the victory is the important thing, regardless of the means by which they get that victory. Alistair Campbell was a past master at this sort of thing; it is interesting to see on his blog that he calls this 'nasty' and 'incompetent'. I only half believe him.

Brown does have questions to answer. Apparently he was McBride's immediate superior, so it is his responsibility to give orders to McBride. I am not saying that he ordered McBride to create these lies and slurs, but Brown should have known what was going on. After all, it was two or three months between the emails being sent and all of this coming to light. When Jonathon Ross and Russell Brand made leud comments on-air last year, they were suspended and the controller of BBC 2, Lesley Douglas, resigned. If the controller of BBC 2 has to take personal responsibility for what her underlings do, so should Brown.

The Labour Party has also lost a great deal in this kerfuffle - especially the MPs and other people who appeared on TV trying to mitigate what had happened. Political parties need to be seen to have integrity, and this incident makes it look as though the New Labour project has none.

Additionally, there has also been another attempt at distraction politics, but this time Labour are sending out a confused message. Yesterday they were saying that the emails must have been obtained by Paul Staines 'hacking into' the Number Ten email system. They are trying to divert the story by making it into one about hacking, and also smear Paul Staines at the same time!

This is a serious claim to make, and I would like to know what evidence they have for it. If it is true, then questions need to be asked about Number Ten's security systems. Liam Byrne (the minister for the cabinet office) was on BBC One Breakfast News yesterday, trying to spin the story by saying, 'however these emails were obtained'.

Unfortunately for Labour, how the emails were obtained is not the story (and I very much doubt that the Government's email systems were hacked into). The real story is that these awful lies were invented and then sent out from an official email address. Why think hacking when it could just have been someone forwarding the emails on? Occam's razor would say that it is the latter; forwarded emails are the simplest explanation.

What's more, if they really think that their email accounts have been hacked into, why haven't the police been called in? What other information may have been gleaned? Has the email system been taken off-line whilst the security is upgraded? it appears the answer is no to all these questions. If the email system was not hacked, then Liam Byrne was probably lying to the nation.

It is surprising the way that the Labour Party - usually very media savvy - has totally lost the plot when it comes to the new media. Perhaps this is because anyone can become a political commentator on the Internet (including me), and it is therefore harder for them to control the output. Labour has relied on attempting to control the media for the last fifteen years, and the Internet makes the task harder, if not impossible.

Having said that, I am surprised that the Conservatives appear to be doing a better job. Iain Dale's blog is a good right-wing blog, and Paul Staine's Guido Fawkes blog is now infamous (and he attacks Tories as well as Labour).

In comparison, the official or semi-official websites are much poorer. ConserativeHome is fairly cluttered, and Draper's LabourList is even worse. It is the more independent bloggers who seem to do it the best - Tom Harris MP's blog is much better; it is clean, well laid out and the information is easy to access. It is like comparing the Yahoo search portal with Google's back in 1998 - LabourList is messy and visually confusing. Is this really the sort of message they want to send?

This story appears to have legs. The question is who in the Government and the Labour Party knew about these emails? If they knew about them, why did they not step down on them hard and report them up the hierarchy? Failure to do so would mean that they at least gave tacit approval to the content of the emails and the plans to smear the opposition.

Frankly, I have been sickened by the whole episode. The sad thing is that I am not surprised. There should be an inquiry into this whole mess, and into the role of Special Advisers in the Government.

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