The political news of the week seems to be Two Kitchens Bad, Three Names Good.
In short, Grant Shapps MP is in trouble again. As I helped with the original story, I thought I'd summarise what happened and explain why I think it's important.
Grant had a business called HowToCorp. Essentially, it was an online version of snake oil, selling 'business secrets' and the like to rubes: titles such as 'How To Make You Own Money Making Mint', How To Bounce Back From Recession' (a volume his colleagues in the Treasure evidently didn't read) and The Meaning of Dreams, a $29.97 reprint of an 'extremely rare' book which could actually be found on the internet for free, or for pennies if you wanted the dead-tree version. Shapps also promoted a classy pamphlet called 'Stinking Rich'. You can read my original piece on these magnificent economic treatises here.
Using the names Michael Green and Sebastian Fox, Grant flounced round shady business seminars and the web flogging these products simultaneously trading on his status as an MP while all three identities denied any links. The other side of the business was TrafficPaymaster, a nasty little bit of software that helped you plagiarise or 'scrape' other people's websites and promised to beat Google's algorithm, which generally took a dim view of this kind of behaviour (hilariously, one of 'Michael Green's booklets is How To STOP Digital Product Theft which suggests buying his crappy software!). He also operated sock-puppet accounts for political dirty tricks and frequently sanitises his Wikipedia page.
All this was exposed thanks to the sterling work of various bloggers and journalists, but it wasn't really going anywhere. However, I was young and angry in those days. And bored. Very, very bored. So I had a look round 'Michael's' websites (now sadly deleted) and smelled a rat when I read the testimonials from satisfied customers. So I spent a good few hours trying to track them down. Nothing. One had the same name as a minor PG Wodehouse character but the rest appeared to have no web presence (despite being enthusiastic web marketers) and some of their locations appeared not to exist. So I reported the sites to the Advertising Standards Authority and chronicled events here and here.
That got quite a lot of attention, including this classic piece of Shapps and Michael Crick charging round a conference venue like Benny Hill.
But he got away with it. He withdrew the adverts rather than go through an investigation, which allowed him to claim – without evidence – that his testimonials were all genuine. He dismissed me as 'politically motivated', a criticism that still sounds a little odd coming from a Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Conservative Party. A police report concluded that while Shapps' company's activities 'may constitute an offence of fraud', an investigation was dropped. Why? Who knows? No satisfactory explanation was given.
So that seemed to be that, until this weekend. Grant's had a glorious career as the Tory Party's bullshitter in chief, turning up to defend the indefensible whenever no more senior politicians could be bothered to turn up. But some journalists have stuck to the story, and this is why it's still alive. Shapps recorded an interview on LBC radio three weeks ago denying that he'd carried on the business while an MP (this was during the Double Jobbing Scandal), but someone unearthed a video of him saying that he did:
And all this having used legal threats to force a constituent to remove a Facebook post detailing his activities as libellous…despite it turning out to be true. I've been pretty (justifiably) rude over the years about my disgusting MP Paul Uppal, but he hasn't set his briefs on me.
So why is this story still alive? It's pretty simple. Shapps/Green/Fox's business was a spivvy, seedy little operation, but the real story is that last bit: using the law to cover up a lie. He isn't just some dodgy businessman, he holds public office and should answer to a higher standard. He's a powerful man who deliberately silenced justified criticism using the law.
The wider story is the debasement of public life. Politicians have always associated themselves with shady businessmen, but rarely so blatantly. I can't imagine Douglas-Home, Macmillan or Balfour promoting someone like Shapps, author of Stinking Rich. While the PM and Chancellor go round talking about The Rise of the Makers and fiscal prudence, their closest colleagues flog rip-off pamphlets promising that you can 'Make $20,000 in 20 Days Or Your Money Back'.
This morning the Tory spin machine is in full swing. There are two lines of attack. Alongside others, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (who has also made millions in a pretty dubious web-marketing line which didn't treat its employees very well after several other businesses failed: funny that he's happy to slag off welfare dependency while his own business depended on contracts with the state) claims that this proves Labour and the Guardian are 'anti-business',
while Nadine Dorries (who when called out about her lies claimed that her blog was actually 70% fiction and presumably be viewed as art) reckons that Shapps is identical to JK Rowling, who used a pen-name.
Except of course that JK Rowling is an author, didn't set lawyers on a Facebook poster and didn't lie to a radio station. Nor, of course, does she hold public office.
Nadine also reckons that:
Yes, all the best business withdraw their advertising and get banned by Google for being copyright thieves, plagiarists and cheats.
What we have here is the progressive loss of a moral compass, in the political class in general and in the Conservative Party in particular. Shapps is the latest in a long line of cheats and bullies at the heart of government. Andy Coulson's in prison. Rebekah Brooks miraculously escaped it. Hunt and Shapps are spins, while Shapps is demonstrably a liar, though his defence is that he 'screwed up dates' while 'over-firmly' denying allegations. Clarkson apparently punches people while drunkenly abusing them for being Irish, while Hamilton, Archer, Asil Nadir and Aitken rattle their bones in the background. There's a pattern of shady behaviour which the classic old Tory party wouldn't have condoned: these types would have been despatched to the library with a bottle of whisky and revolver. But now politics is about the sales pitch, they come to the fore, and as long as they ride out the news cycles, they're OK – principles are so old hat.
What does this mean for the world of social media? Having played some small part in this saga, I think it demonstrates the symbiotic nature of social media and journalism. I heard the original story via the newspapers. I followed it by doing some digging of my own, which was picked up by TV and newspapers. Then the story went dead until a radio station asked Shapps the question and The Guardian unearthed the video that proves he was double-jobbing. I think we need each other. Bloggers don't have editors demanding instant results. We have the freedom to get obsessed with small details that may turn out to be important, and we have the ability to harp on about things to semi-interested audiences. Professional journalists though have time, training and resources, plus the credibility that comes with a cover price and masthead.
Will Shapps go? I doubt it. There's an election coming and resignations tend to overshadow photo-ops. People tell us that we should be more engaged in politics. Then they select and promote specimens like this and wonder why we aren't.