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.