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Labour flames whistleblowers in email smear brouhaha

Would have gotten away with it if not for pesky bloggers

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Opinion As repercussions from the weekend's email-smear blogosphere meltdown continue to be felt at the highest levels in government, senior Labour figures are scrabbling to blame those responsible for the leaks of having obtained their story by unethical means - including hacking.

Those at the centre of the row are being very clear that if anyone was at fault for anything at all, it was anybody but them.

The facts of the matter are straightforward: senior Downing Street Press Adviser and attack dog Damian McBride emails Labour spin doctor Derek "Dolly" Draper outlining a series of deeply damaging – and untrue - allegations about senior Tories.

Sadly for McBride, these emails fell into the hands of blogger and New Labour project nemesis Guido Fawkes. He published, and the rest – including Mr McBride’s career – is now history.

What is interesting is the reaction of Labour politicians when found out, as well as what this tells us about their attitudes to the web.

First, although the weekend news was peppered with partial apologies from various senior Labour figures, there was scarcely a mumbled "sorry" that was not also accompanied by a barrage of self-serving excuse and faux indignation. In his resignation statement, McBride starts off by laying the blame for this unfortunate incident at the door of Paul Staines, author of the Guido Fawkes blog, writing: "I am shocked and appalled that, however they were obtained, these e-mails have been put into the public domain by Paul Staines."

He goes on to explain that he is "sickened" they are now out there – again, preferring to blame the source of the leak rather than himself.

Note the reference to the emails "however they were obtained": Staines claims he had sight of them through normal journalistic means. McBride and Draper have both insinuated that there is something untoward about how he got hold of them, with Draper going on record to say that "hacking into people’s emails is surely a step too far". Coming less than a fortnight after the Tories raised fears that the government might be about to introduce its comms uberdatabase – containing details of all the emails sent by anyone in the UK – the irony of this spluttering is just too delicious. After all, if the government has nothing to hide...

As Derek Draper also writes: "Imagine if all your emails suddenly became available to people wanting to damage you." Imagine, indeed.

Then there’s the official Downing Street reaction. A spokesman is quoted as saying that since there is "no place in politics for the dissemination or publication of material of this kind... it is right that Mr McBride and Mr Draper took the decision not to publish this material and regrettable that others are choosing to do so."

Last but by no means least is the observation from Cabinet Office Minister Liam Byrne decrying the fact that "things Mr McBride thought should go in the bin should in fact be published". He is clearly unaware of the government’s new laws on the possession of porn, which means that mere deletion will not save individuals from a criminal record.

What this fiasco underlines in gory detail is just how far New Labour still do not understand web 2.0 - nor even dialogue. There have been various noises from senior politicians – most recently from Hazel Blears – attacking the blogosphere for its corrosive effect on politics.

There is a definite sense that bloggers are seen as opinion formers and if they are not put swiftly back in their place, they will be convincing the public of all manner of reactionary nonsense. The fact that the majority of blogs are pretty irrelevant, or that the handful that have a real impact - such as Guido Fawkes - are well-written, well-researched and give voice to real public opinion, appears to be lost on the many Labour Party members currently commenting on the affair.

Dolly Draper was sent off to set up a blog – Labourlist.org – which would be an attempt to produce professionally and in a managed fashion what other bloggers do for free. Guido Fawkes provides some evidence, including a meeting between Gordon Brown and Draper shortly after the blog was set up, that this project had the tacit approval of Downing Street itself. Mr McBride appears to have liaised closely with Mr Draper over content.

If this weekend’s events are anything to go by, the project has now well and truly failed. The best of bloggers are independent souls who call things how they see them. They may not always be right – but they are usually honest. To imagine that it is possible to create an "attack blog" in much the same way one creates press spin was always a stretch, and it now looks as though Labour are paying the price for their arrogance in presuming they could. ®

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