A DISCUSSION with Paul Staines develops not so much as conventional-journalist-interviews-gadfly-blogger-of-British-politics, as form dictates it should.
Rather it mutates into an hour of grilling each other, as perhaps was destined to occur upon meeting the bomb-thrower better known as Guido Fawkes, named after the anarchist who plotted to blow up Parliament in 1605.
The Guy Fawkes of the day was captured under the House of Lords with a cache of explosives, then executed for high treason. But his 21st century incarnation is at liberty on the internet, his missiles hurled in plain view on Staines’s scabrous site, Order-Order.com.
Part PopBitch part The Sun, the site gets about 60,000 visitors a day with its tart and toxic mix of gossip, sharp analysis and take-the-piss. It’s become a must-read for anyone operating inside Britain’s political bubble, “The Village” as Staines calls it.
GQ Magazine ranks Staines as the 28th most influential man in Britain, while The Guardian regularly places him among its Top 100 national media powerbrokers, describing him “as one of the most feared and influential forces in British public life.” Ian Burrell, media writer at The Independent, told The Global Mail Staines is a “maverick mischief maker” and “like his namesake, a shadowy figure who carries the danger of an unexploded bomb.” And he was summoned to appear before the Leveson media inquiry, rare for a blogger.
With such reviews, I mail Staines to see if he’d be up for a yarn. He responds within seconds with an invitation to meet at a London café called Free Words.
We both arrive at the conversation via enemy territory; me a “colonial” in England, who only hours earlier at Gatwick was accused by a choleric immigration officer of coming to bludge off the UK’s National Health Service, a sickness of which my private insurance card couldn’t cure him.
And Staines has ventured to The People’s Republic of Islington (or at least its EC1 fringes), the oh-so-right-on haunt of Amnesty International, The Guardian et al. The Occupy London crusties – who, Staines testily observes, have filched his Guy Fawkes visage – are plonked 500 metres from here at St Paul’s.
Neither of us got here via fallen trees. Barely a week old, The Global Mail is what it is. But 44-year-old Staines has been digitally blowing up the Palace of Westminster since 2004, with all the intent of the Gunpowder Plot.
“My Guido was taken from a 1950s fireworks box,” he reveals. “He’s a cheeky chappie, with a glint in his eye and a rogueish character. It was 2004 and I asked myself, ‘Who is the strongest recognisable anti-politics figure?’ and it had to be the guy who wanted to blow up parliament!”
He’s as curious about The Global Mail as we are about him. “What’s the rationale for it?” he probes. “Where’s it coming from?” A fair question, so I spiel on worthily about objectivity and philanthropy. It’s a door for Staines to waltz though and flog a pet target. “But we’ve got the BBC!” he snorts. “That’s objective! What are you worried about?”
“So, no ads?” That’s right, no ads. “Good luck there,” Staines smirks, “because unless you go tabloid you know that won’t happen.”
It’s well-practised scepticism. Unsurprisingly, a Staines hero is Kelvin MacKenzie, the incorrigible former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun . Still, Staines is chuffed that a foreigner has sought him – though it’s not the distant Antipodes he cares for, it’s that his subversions reach beyond Britain. “I even get read in Cambodia!”
While it’s fitting that we meet a skyrocket’s trajectory from Parliament, Free Words café is not his natural habitat. The clientele seems nice; comrade brunchers this drizzly weekday aren’t quite readers of Staines’s caustic site. The liberated literature here is of the freedom-from-oppression persuasion. The menu is earnest, all free-range latte, herbed teas and biological carrot cake. Almost by taunt, the doughy blogger insists the barista prepare him a “Full English.” And when it arrives, I push aside my fashionable banana bread and join him in a robust dollop of baked beans, toast and tea.
BRUNCH sorted, we get down to business. A child of Thatcherism, Staines, before he was an iconoclast, worked as a City screen jockey. And before that he was the PR man for the acid and rave crowd, which in the 1980s and early 90s colonised great tracts of the English countryside and so may have needed a spokesperson to smooth things over. Perhaps that explains the keep-’em-guessing dyed white clump punctuating his jet-black locks.
He’s been all over the show ideologically; Thatcher’s student wing, a 1980s dabble with the wishy-washy Social Democrats, even playing footsies with the ill-fated Irish Progressive Democrats. He stopped joining political parties after that. “I was clearly a jinx,” he says, though he admits donating to the anti-Europe UK Independence Party. One side he hasn’t been to is Labour’s.
He started in the blogosphere a decade ago dissecting Gulf War commentary. “But I wasn’t really into 3,000-word articles taking apart another 3,000-word article so I started doing 200-word articles that were snarky.
“Everyone wanted to be the media writer for The Telegraph or The Guardian. I was the first person in the UK to do it in tabloid style.”
At first, lazy journalists would nick items uncredited from his blog. Then, when he protested that their diary columns were actually his work, they started paying for them. Now that he’s unignorable, they flick him stuff that won’t get past their libel lawyer.
His demographic is similar to The Spectator and its ideological foil, The New Statesman. “I get along well with The Spectator guys but The New Statesman don’t like me a lot, obviously, because I have a lot of fun with their circulation. They’re struggling and the only time I see anybody reading it is someone slightly smelling of pissed-tramp-in-a-library.” For its part, The New Statesman didn’t bite.
One of Staines’s regular columns is dubbed – feminists please look away now – Totty Watch. It highlights, among scantily-clad and Photoshopped offerings, a clip of a televised “catfight” between the Tory first-term MP Louise Mensch and The New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny, the two debating whether feminism and the right are mutually exclusive.
Or, as Staines described it: “Taking Newsnight by storm was GQ‘s cover-girl Louise Mensch. The successful chick-lit author sported a vintage cocktail dress, with a simple yet elegant jacket, Mensch perfectly mixed old-school Tory for a sexy new-age feel. Joining her was the recent New Statesman cover-girl Laurie Penny, the former burlesque dancer turned political pundit went for the classic little black dress, accessorised with a small pink badge. A bold colour palette was on display with her hair. With Laurie wearing her political allegiances on her head, we now know why they call her Penny Red.” All of which probably makes him Private Eye. (For the record, both Mensch and Penny furiously agreed that a woman can be right-wing and a feminist too. Phew!)
Staines started Guido anonymously in 2004, but The Guardian outed him a year later after he started getting noticed. But he kept the shadowy schtick up for a few years, most absurdly in a 2007 debate with Michael White, The Guardian‘s legend at Westminster refereed by Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s Newsnight.
Paxman opened proceedings by asking the magisterial White, seated in the studio, if political journalists were too close to those they report on to dispassionately cover them in the public interest. White calmly admitted that was sometimes true, but sometimes not.
Turning to Staines, Paxman pointed out that conventional media must operate within the constraints of the law – “not a problem that applies as far as you’re concerned” – while White sniped that Staines wasn’t worth suing because he didn’t have any money. (Staines tries to libel-protect himself by domiciling his site in a Caribbean tax haven.)
Now, this all shaped as promising, and in trans-generational hands might be seen as a defining moment transitioning the ink-stained old media to the digitally-enabled new; the established dinosaur insiders who type, pitted against nimble gadflies who Tweet and blog because they can.
But the most effective arrow in White’s quiver was all Staines’s work, because he preposterously appeared via link in silhouette illustrated only with a Guy Fawkes mask, as White and Paxman witheringly noted.
The item has become YouTube lore. An opportunity was lost to Staines, and the YouTube thread trolls were savage. Anonymously, of course.
Looking back, Staines says it was a stitch-up and agrees he was the ‘prat’ that White said he was. Staines says the segment’s producer, a mate since student days, “wanted a bit of mystique.” Instead “I looked like a c..t. Paxo and White spit-roasted me.”
Staines ditched the anonymous jape soon after. And hasn’t looked back.
GUIDO FAWKES has been more destructive than his 17th century inspiration. Chucking his mortars from outside the village walls, he’s claimed many victims; dodgy pols and their advisors, shifty fundees, conflicted hacks and boorish blowhards.
His most prominent victim has been Gordon Brown’s Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, whom Staines stalked for years, finally nailing him in 2008 over campaign finance indiscretions. It’s regarded as the British blogosphere’s first scalp. “I pummel them until they beg for mercy,” he has said.
Now in opposition, tangling with Staines still seems to sting Hain. When The Global Mail asked Hain to comment about the man who brought him down, he said, “I have fought for justice and equality all my political life and have never been intimidated by attacks on me.” Fine words but it may have been better for the press secretary who forwarded them to have deleted Hain’s earlier take that “(I) don’t want to comment directly on him.”
But Staines’s most telling success was probably what became known as Smeargate, in 2009, when he revealed a dirty tricks campaign inside Gordon Brown’s Number 10. Advisors resigned and Labour lost five points in the polls with an election looming, ground it never recovered in losing office to the Cameron-Clegg coalition a year later. “I’ve been told it was a game-changer,” he boasts.
Observes The Independent‘s media writer Ian Burrell: “His thing is to stand outside of the system of lobby journalists, whom he likes to say are spoon-fed stories by politicians in return for positive coverage.
“Though largely unknown to the public, Guido Fawkes is unquestionably a player within the political village of Westminster, and runs one of the best-known political websites in the UK,” Burrell told The Global Mail.
The political correspondents, Burrell says, “like to downplay his record in breaking stories, but he will often run things, especially the more spiteful revelations that the newspapers are reluctant to publish.”
Critics say Staines’s work has most impact not on his website but when he shares his titbits with the evil empire – the old-fashioned mainstream media. He admits a genuine scoop published in The Daily Telegraph can have more force than the same story aired on his gadfly blog.
“It depends on the story,” he says. “If it’s an intellectual type story, we know its not going to get picked up in The (Daily) Mail or The Telegraph. It might get The Guardian, to give it a bit of oomph.”
“The other sharing is your tabloid ‘pants-down’ story and we’ll sell it to the tabloids,” he says. “I miss The News of the World quite a lot.”
Ah, so he’s also a Max Clifford, the notorious public relations flack to whom ministers’ mistresses flee to maximise their kiss-and-tell earnings?
“Yeah, we had a racket in being a mini Max Clifford for political stories. About half our income is story-broking. And that’s purely for commercial reasons. If I sell a story to a tabloid for 10-grand, that’s a lot of impressions I have to have on a blog to get that.
“The problem I have is that this is a country of 60 million people and there’s only about half-a-million who are really interested in politics. With the best will in the world, it’s never going to turn over millions.” Matt Drudge, the American online dirt-disher, by comparison makes about US$500,000 a month.
I tell Staines I’ve noticed some soft-porn ads randomly served up on his pages. He looks shocked. “You sure it’s not dating sites?” he says. “That would be very annoying.” He parries, a little too defensively, that’s it’s probably my computer’s cookies helping generate them.
Now I’m shocked, and protest that I don’t do online porn. As Maggie T famously declared, we are not for turning, so we negotiate a gentlemen’s agreement that it’s probably because I was viewing Staines’ blog from uber-liberal Amsterdam, where porn is not unknown. But when I log on later from abroad, I see his site carrying UK-specific ads for Jackpot Slots, a job site, and Valentine’s Day promos for the Ann Summers sex shops, and as I assure my wife, I definitely haven’t been anywhere near them.
Still, Staines wont retire on his site’s AUD400,000 annual revenues. His blog’s advertising take covers the salary of a staffer and his technology but “it’s not enough to keep me in the manner I’m accustomed to.
“And I’m probably one of the biggest blogs in the UK.”