The William Hague story: A bad day for bloggers or proof of a shifting of power?

When is the most dangerous time to blog? Late at night or just after you’ve listened to the Radio Five Live breakfast phone-in? This post falls into the latter category, but hopefully won’t end with the punchline ‘we should just send them all back’ or ‘flog the lot of them.’

I think we may have witnessed a political journalism first yesterday. I can’t think of another example where internet rumours and a bit of innuendo in the national press has resulted in such a frank statement from such a senior politician. Likewise, when was the last time someone stood down because of rumours which they denied? The only other example I can think of is John Major’s cook Claire Latimer, who found her work at Number 10 suddenly dried up amid rumours Major was having an affair – but in her case, it was a case of covering up Major’s fling with bad egg Edwina Currie, so isn’t really the same.

And there certainly wasn’t a lengthy statement to the Press to go with it either.

I  mention listening to Five Live this morning because the phone in contained comments such as ‘perhaps they should turn the spotlight on journalists and see what secrets they have’ to ‘the web is just a wild west and anything goes there’ and, perhaps one which will sound familiar ‘why doesn’t the Press Complaints Commission regulate bloggers?’

And this is why I worry that this story, while perhaps proving that certain political bloggers carry a heck of a lot of influence within the corridors of Westminster, will ultimately damage blogging as a whole, or at the very least, the wider perception of blogging.

One of the lazy allegations lobbed around about bloggers is that they are often just angry ranters who will write anything, regardless of whether there’s any truth in it. Does the William Hague story provide further ammunition to support this claim, especially for those journalists who still seek to downplay the importance of bloggers? Does it give the ‘we deal in facts, they deal in any old rumour’ claims, even though it is just one instance?

One distinction which is clear is that several national newspapers were aware of the rumours, but only went as far as to put apparent innuendo in stories about Hague. Some political bloggers – Guido Fawkes is the best known example here – went further, with Fawkes writing:

One witness told Guido that the room sharing couple’s body language at breakfast was eye opening.

A lot of it was still nudge, nudge, wink, wink but clearly the continual push by Fawkes on this recently was deeply upsetting to Hague and Christopher Myers, the 25-year-old former constituency worker and driver who suddenly became one of Hague’s special advisers apparently devising policy advice on things like Africa and the Falklands. I think the media and bloggers were right to pursue how suitable Myers was for this job, and as I wrote in my political blog, the whole system of appointing special advisers needs reviewing.

The fact Hague felt the need to release the statement he did, and that Myers felt the need to stand down, shows the influence political bloggers have within the Westminster village. Fawkes recently claimed that more people get their politics news from him than from the paywalled Times website – and is confident that will continue – but to the wider public, the rumours about Hague will have probably passed them by.

Does Hague’s response suggest that he and his colleague over-weight the true impact of what is written on blogs for the wider public? It’s certainly the mother of all statements, and there’s a danger it sets a new precedent for denying rumours. Will we now see a glut of rumours around the internet in the knowledge that a denial is likely to follow?

Interestingly, Fawkes now argues that the response by Hague is the reason the story is on the front of seven national newspapers today, rather than the Tony Blair book (although that was very heavily trailed yesterday.) To quote Fawkes: If anyone is giving this story legs, it’s certainly not blogs…

And there’s no denying Hague’s response took the story from the realms of innuendo in the Daily Mail and more candid allegations on blogs to the mainstream media. But it also demonstrates just how hurtful the comments were to Hague and his wife. If this story is proof of the power of political bloggers, does the issues of responsibility which comes with that power also need to be addressed?

Is reporting the fact two men shared a twin room really the best way to address the issue of how special advisers are appointed, which is what Fawkes says he was trying to do?

Another of the questions which will be asked is ‘If it’s not true, then why doesn’t Hague sue?’ Perhaps the answer lies at the heart of the difference in the way newspapers and bloggers handled the rumours: You make money out of suing newspapers, you’ll struggle to get a bean from suing a blogger. And with that knowledge, is there a danger that rumours will become more widespread? And with it, more of the ‘proof’ critics of bloggers will say backs up their claims that ‘it’s not real journalism?’

A lot of questions here, and not many answers. I suspect some will be answered over time – but for now, I can’t help but think the prominence of these rumours, coupled with the (over) reaction by Hague suggest we’ve just witnessed something important in the realm of political journalism.

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