June 2009

UPDATE 2: Interesting – seems former Times Online editor Peter Bale (now at MSN) is none too impressed by his erstwhile colleagues either. Mind you, he seems to have an actual history of proper journalism.

UPDATE: Here’s a funny thing. Girl With a One Track Mind, who knows what it’s like to be shat on by the Times, has just twittered as follows:

The Times have gagged journo Patrick Foster, so neither he, nor I, will be appearing on @richardpbacon‘s R5Live show tonight. #NightJack

So, they’ve outed an anonymous blogger “in the public interest” even though doing so will make it immeasurably more likely that the crimes he wrote about will be identifiable, and now they’ve suddenly realised what a bunch of unpalatable, judgementless lowlives they look, and they’re gagging their own performing monkey? A bit late for shame isn’t it? Cowards.

By way of an addendum to Nightjack’s sad screwing over at the hands of Rupert Murdoch’s little creatures yesterday, I notice this fun comment in the threads at Mr Dale’s:

Patrick Foster, the Times journalist that did the research is a total cock. Knew him at Oxford and he was a smug, smarmy git. Someone ought to do some digging about his past…

Ha! that’ll be some ancient nonsense, I thought. College emnities, power struggles on the JCR sub-committee type of thing. One would be a fool to take any notice of an anonymous undergrad-days foe – imagine if we were all judged by what our university contemporaries said about us?

So naturally I went straight off to google him and found a couple of things of slight interest. None of it anything like as shadowy as the intelligence that Old Holborn has received, but it helps to build a picture nonetheless. First there was the student scrape from the “I”m going to be a GWATE BIG PWOPER journalist when I gwow up” school of investigative reporting, in which he and a friend hacked into the Oxford computer server in order to write about it, and then acted all righteous indignant when the University dared to mind and rusticated them for a term.

Reading between the lines (and remembering what a lot of insufferable pricks we were at Oxford) I gather he became a sort of hero-for-a-day of journalistic enquiry, defended and lauded even by the Cherwell (deadly rival to the Oxford Student, where Foster wrote). Old buffers who make students cap and gown up for disciplinary hearings are a ridiculously easy foil for anyone who wants to paint themselves as a rebel. Even when the old buffers happen to be right.

Any fellow student who wondered why, if Foster was that passionately concerned about the university’s server  security, he hadn’t contacted the IT department and demonstrated his findings in private rather than writing it up for the student newspaper would have been swiftly shouted down as a freedom of speech denier and a crony of the old buffers. There’s nothing the upper middle class young like more than a good faux-revolution.

Still, his student  career need not detain us further here, although this weary missive on the Oxford Student letters page, about another piece by Foster, might prompt a smile of pre-cognition:

…did we really need to read every bit of those documents point-bypoint? I understand that Patrick Foster, the journalist in question, had done his research well, but did we really need to know every minor detail he had come across? Was this the action of a journalist with a bit of an ego problem, or perhaps just a slow news week, I wonder?

But no, the really interesting piece was this one.

On trail of the men behind million voices who oppose road pricing

Patrick Foster  17 Feb 2007

They have been behind one of the most successful recent public mobilisation campaigns.

Since Peter Roberts of the Association of British Drivers (ABD) posted a petition to scrap the Government’s road-pricing policy on the No 10 website, it has amassed more than 1.5 million signatures. But those behind the group, which claims to be the “voice of the driver”, are rather quiet about explaining their other operations.

One is a scientist who insists on using a pseudonym and believes that global warming is a sham. Another doesn’t own a car and runs a PR firm whose clients include a number of public environmental bodies.

It’s rather difficult to know when to stop copying and pasting. It’s not really a story, just a series of unconnected and largely unshady facts produced with the proud flourish of a toddler showing its mummy a successfully potty-bound poo. It goes on to “expose” in more detail the fact that, er, one of the ABD directors believes that global warming is a  sham and er, another doesn’t own a car and runs a PR firm whose clients include public environmental bodies. That’s about it, really. What this is supposed to prove that is worthy of the cringingly self-congratulatory headline is anybody’s guess.

But stay – there is a little more to this. The main point of labouring the global-warming-sham thing seems to be that the director in question uses another name for ABD purposes because he’s an environmental consultant in his day job, and fears he’d lose business if his views became known to his clients.

So Foster outs him anyway, ABD director name and environmental consultant name in the same sentence. While quoting the contents of a phone call  – which I very much doubt was expressly on the record – with the group’s founder as follows:

“The only problem for Bernard is that because he operates as an environmental consultancy he’s been threatened with business being taken away from him because of his views on climate change. His customers believe it could affect their business adversely. He will probably want to be quoted not under his own name for that reason.”

Tough cookies on Bernard, apparently. Foster even produces with a totally straight face a tragi-comic email quote from the poor sod whose professional life he has just blown open:

“I value my family’s privacy and my right to unassailed family life extremely highly.”

Of course, it’s not remotely relevant to a public interest discussion of the ABD, or a debate about road pricing, to undermine this Bernard fellow’s career in this pointlessly spiteful manner. Private hypocrisy is just that – private, and a cross for the individual concerned to bear. But Foster did it anyway.

It’s an interesting journalistic decision, this, because the only remotely controversial ABD director turns out to be buried in the  very last paragraph of the article, a guy who works in marketing for Landrover and, on being called by Foster, denied he had any connection to the car firm. (At work. Duh.) An ABD director who denies being a marketing guy from Landrover? Surely that’s your lead angle, right? Car industry spin boss denies using ABD as front type-of-thing. Practically writes itself. And yet Foster left it alone, and went after the hapless Bernard instead.

So what is it about the specific act of exposing someone else’s privacy that attracts Foster? Their privacy, as opposed to their wrongdoing? What is it that leads him to prefer that as a centrepiece of a story when there’s actually a more important story containing actual deceit buried at the bottom of the column? The parallels with Nightjack are inescapable. Is Foster excited by being the cause of embarrassment and humiliation, perhaps? Does he get off on causing small misfortunes to small people? (Small to him, at least, as a journalistic young gun, but the effects will likely remain with his middle-aged targets for the rest of their lives.)

If the tawdry stuff whispered in Old Holborn’s craggy ear is anything like true, then an interesting, if icky, psychological pattern about the need to expose and humiliate others for self-congratulation purposes begins to emerge from Mr Foster’s oeuvre.

The many commenters to his ABD piece are not inclined to be so subtle however. They have the context of time and place. This is a typical one:

What an abysmal article. A million and a half citizens of this country sign an electronic petition opposing road charging and the best the times can do is to criticize the ABD.

The level it reached is well illustrated in its criticizing Mark McArthur-Christie [one of the directors] for choosing a motorcycle rather than a car. Since when did choice become a reason for ridicule? Motorcyclists are taxpayers too.

How about reminding the politicians they are there to serve the people of this country? What about reminding Blair that this wasn’t in his election manifesto? How about being a journalist instead of a copy writer for Downing Street?

Government  stooge? Perhaps. Other commenters liken the piece to Downing Street’s tactics of turning the glare of publicity on to individuals involved in movements they don’t much like.

But it’s just as likely, in my view, that Foster needs no political affiliation to  make him want to emulate Alistair Campbell’s darkest tactics on a ludicrously small scale. It’s quite possible, looking at his career in the round, that he enjoys it. Doubtless that’s why he was so suited to covering the unedifying Oxford Poetry Professor business. Funny, I never really did sort out who the baddie was in that whole affair. Probably, I now realise, because it wasn’t who I was being made to think it was.

So there we have it. Nothing worse than shabby in Foster’s past that I can detect. No conspiracy, just a sadly reasonable legal judgement prompted by a totally unreasonable but unsurprising editorial decision. Fuelled by a person who, apparently, exposes and humiliates people for his own kicks, and so lends himself to being flattered and used by the Murdoch gang.  That’s what it takes to fell one honest man.

Why no blogging, you ask? Ah, citizens, I am an old, weary Head of State and the Republic grows dilapidated [waves jewelled hand feebly].

It is not just that more mundane things are preoccupying me, although they are. I have kept the Republic open for business through far more tumultuous periods than this (e.g. the great British Gas Crisis of 2007, the protracted Relocation Question of 2003-ongoing and numerous beer shortages). And it is not just my nagging half-sense, a notion-ette if you will, that the Lib Dem blogosphere has slipped a notch or two towards unpleasantness in recent weeks.

It is this: that there comes a time when the Sparrow of Opinion, having flown into the Great Hall of Blogging through the Window of Inspiration, must fly out again into the Night of Doing Something Else, as the Venerable Bede nearly said. I have said all that needs to be said, my best tales are all told that can be told here. Oh! better to close the gates on the Republic now before they rust where they stand. For see! how the vines creep over the columns and the beetles scuttle unashamed in the cracks of the marble floors, note how the crumpled leaves drift against the wainscot, and the skeletons of small hapless mammals clog up the-

Wait. What in the name of my fast petrifying arse is this?

Richard Horton had obtained a temporary injunction against the Times after a reporter discovered he was the officer behind the NightJack blog, which attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to its behind-the-scenes commentary on policing.

Horton, a detective constable with the Lancashire constabulary, prevented the Times from revealing his identity after arguing the paper would be putting him at risk of disciplinary action for disclosing confidential information about prosecutions within the force.

However, in a landmark judgment Mr Justice Eady overturned the injunction, stating that Horton, whose blog at one time had around 500,000 readers a week, had “no reasonable expectation of privacy“.

“I do not accept that it is part of the court’s function to protect police officers who are, or think they may be, acting in breach of police disciplinary regulations from coming to the attention of their superiors,” Eady added.

Five hours after reading that for the first time, I am still open-mouthed at the horror of it. Not Orwell himself could have dreamt of such a shitty betrayal of human decency, on the part of both judge and journalist.

Let’s remind ourselves of what Nightjack is really all about (or was, before his exposed blog got taken down). Imagine a grey, faceless, doorless monolith, labelled “public services” (not too difficult, is it). Now look back down the years and years in which we, the hapless public whose services they allegedly were, had only the faintest, scariest clues about what was really going on in there.

Occasionally we would find ourselves rushed inside those grey walls on trolleys, or cuffed and bound in the back of vans, forced to wait in corridors and in queues and on lists for answers and explanations and operations that sometimes  just never came, clutching pieces of paper we could not hope to understand. Whenever we go into that place, whether we’re ill, imprisoned, victimised or under 16, we are at our most vulnerable and least observant. For years, none of us really knew how the system worked. And, let’s be brutally honest about this, some people have died as a result of that.

Oh, we told each other cautionary tales about the queues and the automated voices and the inefficiencies and the grinding injustices. And occasionally, the more intelligent journalists with more old-school editors would break into the monolith for a while and hang about taking down notes which they would then test against the publicly available figures. But that sort of journalism takes time and resources for what may, ultimately, be a less than thrilling headline. It was rare that the doors of the monolith were prised open. We didn’t really know, as a society, what was going on in there.

Then the internet came. Suddenly the doors in the monolith started opening – from the inside. Out it all poured, and still does, reams and reams of information, observation and the driest horror stories you’ll ever read from doctors, nurses, policemen, magistrates, carers, teachers, cleaners. The monolith was revealed to be not a faceless structure at all but a structure with a million faces, a swarming mound of people who were – shock horreur – just like us. They are us, and we are them. And the blogosphere allowed us all to make that connection with each other, and grope towards an understanding of how our public services have got to where they are. What is the monolith for? What are its merits and evils? Can we change it? Is it really hopeless? On a good day, at least, Nightjack thought it wasn’t hopeless.

We, The People, we were getting somewhere. And all this could be achieved, via the anonymity of cyberspace, without anyone risking their jobs, or the censure of their colleagues.

And now a newspaper has ruined the career of one of them. Because they want a good headline, and probably because they’re jealous of his audience reach and of the unstoppable advance of new media in general. They have ruined. His. Career. And this is not a man highly placed in public service, mark you. Not a man caught out in any wrongdoing. Just a man who wrote down what he thought.

The  Times piece itself (like Mr Dale, I aren’t linking) is positively scary:

In April Mr Horton was awarded the Orwell Prize for political writing, but the judges were not aware that he was revealing confidential details about cases, some involving sex offences against children, that could be traced back to genuine prosecutions.

Excuse me? What kind of doublethink does a human mind have to be capable of to seek to safeguard the identity of victims and witnesses in criminal prosecution cases by revealing the name of the policeman who worked on them?

The article goes on to piously recite Nightjack’s crimes as follows. In fact the whole article is in the “Crime” section – the “Thought” is silent, presumably:

His blog, which gave a behind-the-scenes insight into frontline policing, included strong views on social and political issues, including matters of “public controversy,” the judge said.

The officer also criticised and ridiculed “a number of senior politicians” and advised members of the public under police investigation to “complain about every officer . . . show no respect to the legal system or anybody working in it.”

Criticised and ridiculed senior politicians? How very dare he! And how dare he talk about controversial public matters, he a mere public servant!

The Times have put a picture of him alongside their article too. Just to show they can hack Facebook like anybody else.

When Nightjack won the Orwell Prize we all chuckled about how much Orwell would have appreciated having a secret policeman win a prize with his name on it. The final twist in the tale is sinister beyond a liberal’s wildest nightmares.

Harriet Harman has been on C4 news this evening defending Gordon Brown against the charge that he doesn’t take women in the cabinet seriously. People who are more emotionally involved with the fortunes of the Labour party and the feminist movement than I am will probably find that quite head-in-hands distressing. Harriet Harman, champion of, er, all women who are Harriet Harman, staring at a record of 12 years’ failure and saying blithely that there was “more work to be done”.

The charge was levelled initially by the departed Minister for Europe Caroline Flint, who wrote to Brown as follows.

Several of the women attending cabinet – myself included – have been treated by you as little more than female window dressing. I am not willing to attend cabinet in a peripheral capacity any longer.

This has been greeted by some scorn by left-wing commentators. Martin Kettle reckons it “says more about Flint than it does about Brown” and Andrew Sparrow remarks caustically, “Yes, that’s the same Caroline Flint who posed for a magazine fashion shoot last month.”

It’s funny he should say that, because I remember that shoot and the accompanying interview, which appeared in the Observer on 10 May, and I remember it because it seemed so very oddly timed. Not, I should add, that there would be anything odd about interviewing the Minister for Europe a month before the European elections. But for the Life and Style section? It was such a fluffy piece that even Flint’s customary froideur could not spike it up. Dead parents, tears, the trials of single motherhood, all delivered with elegant, sparing, non-yukky writing. A stone (if it could read) would have read sympathetically. I did.

I noticed it because it seemed to me to arrive on the very pivot of the fortnight when Labour’s fortunes started to plummet irreversibly. (I say that with hindsight, of course. At the time it merely seemed like Labour’s worst week ever.) The Telegraph’s expenses season was still fresh news, and the resultant anger, now hardened into a much colder sort of fury, was  then at its peak. The paper was just starting to turn its fire on the cabinet, and on some of the most outrageous claims. Margaret Moran’s dry rot had been outed the previous day, as had Barbara Follett’s security patrols and Keith Vaz’s whatever-slimy-business-it-was Keith Vaz was up to.

The parliamentary authorities had just called the police to investigate the leak, marking the beginning of the “they don’t get it” meme which has only barely abated a month later. A Populus poll that day put Labour on a turgid 26 following on from a BPIX 23 the previous day, and the following week four polls would give them an even more appalling range of 20-23.

In two other opinion pieces in the same Observer, the former chairman of the Public Standards Committee described Jacqui Smith’s housing arrangements as “near-fraudulent”, and Andrew Rawnsley wrote an opinion piece about expenses that rivalled anything produced by the Telegraph for sheer rage. He mentioned seven Labour figures in disparagement, and no Tories. Oh, and some prison officers, not to be left out of the fun, piled in on attacking the government by expressing outrage at the imminent privatisation of six prisons.

And there, in the middle of this, is Caroline Flint on a couch in a red satin dress.

Now, I’m not normally one for conspiracy theories, and I wouldn’t piss on Caroline “throw ‘em out” Flint if she was on fire and I’d just drunk five pints of weak tea. But I thought at the time, is this a blind? The Observer also tried to scare us with the Tories (“rich people!”) that day, and Jon Cruddas put on the  scary BNP glove puppet for the Letters page. Is it, I wondered, a total coincidence that under all these dire headlines for Labour appears a pretty picture of an attractive and mostly sane Labour minister talking about Her Life As A Woman and wearing high street dresses? In a tame paper (as it was then. What a  difference a month makes)? It comes across slightly, I thought, as window-dressing.

Well, we’ll never know why that particular article appeared on that particular day. Flint’s “window-dressing” barb is specifically linked to cabinet meetings in her letter. And maybe one shouldn’t take the reference to the number of  times she has been pressured to “go in front of the cameras” to defend the government too literally.

But, well, it would explain the oddity of the photo shoot and the virulence of her resignation letter, wouldn’t it.


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