UK politics │ Labour’s smear campaign?

There seems to be a big controversy brewing in the Westminster village and blogosphere. Mr Damian McBride, Downing Street’s head of strategy and planning, has resigned from his post. He exchanged e-mails with Mr Derek Draper, who runs the LabourList.org website, and others about setting up a new website / blog to spread unfounded, ad hominem, salacious rumours about leading Tories and their spouses.

It is depressing that in the 21st century, many people still believe innuendo and lies will be a successful mode to smear opponents and damage them in the eyes of the electorate. As often said, these vicious and lurid stories reflect and project the authors’ dark thoughts and fantasies. They tell much more about the likes of Mr McBride, and Mr Draper who found them ‘a bit juvenile and inappropriate and some were in bad taste though I have to admit some were also brilliant and rather funny’, than about their targets.

Mr Draper alleges that someone has hacked into his e-mail account, and stole this information. In short, it was illegally obtained. Furthermore, these e-mail exchanges were mails to mates, and as such, they did not form a co-ordinated ‘smear campaign’ and should have enjoyed some sort of privacy. There are doubts if these arguments stand up to scrutiny.

There are newpaper reports that there was a security breach in the Downing Street e-mail system, however there is yet no definitive or substantial reason to believe that Mr Paul Staines (a.k.a. Guido Fawkes) obtained a copy of the correspondence illegally. The copy may have been leaked by someone inside or the message was forwarded by one of the recipients. It remains to be seen if Mr Draper can substantiate his claims. Even if illegally obtained and made public on a partisan blog, the e-mail does belong to the public domain, as will be argued shortly.

Whether acquired legally or illegaly, the veracity of the allegations has not been challenged: Mr McBride did author those e-mails. Furthermore, there is no way of knowing whether these messages were light-hearted (I cannot quite fathom how some of the stories detailed in the papers can be ‘light-hearted’) and were never meant to circulate in public. Naturally, it’s impossible to pin down the exact intentions of Mr McBride and Mr Draper, but they have discussed distribution of these materials in concrete terms and plans.

Expectation of privacy seems a weak argument in the current case: Mr McBride used his official e-mail address to correspond. As his position is funded by the tax-payers, his e-mails ought to be seen (regardless of the legal position) as public documents and potentially in the public domain. I’m no lawyer, but should not correspondence from official e-mail addresses be kept and made public if someone requests them on Freedom of Information Act?

Anyway, if this episode has nipped in the bud a war of negative and personal campaigns in the run-up to the forthcoming general election, then it has served some purpose. Britain really needs a proper political debate about the future of its economy.