Dept of Education Political Advisers Resorted to “Stalker” Smear Against Journalist

From an editorial in the London Observer:

Today, this paper alleges that a Twitter feed emanating in part, or wholly, from within the Department of Education is using its anonymity – when not dispensing perfectly reasonable policy analysis – to defame, disparage and damage political opponents and journalists. Contributions to the Twitter feed included taunting opponents about “mental illness” and retweeting remarks suggesting that a journalist had had a breakdown.

The report itself explains that:

…the account has likened one respected reporter, the Financial Times‘ education correspondent, Chris Cook, to Walter Mitty and suggested he was a “stalker”. It has also retweeted insinuations about his personal life.

…The Observer understands that two of [Education Secretary Michael] Gove’s special advisers, Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete, were approached in 2011 by Henry Macrory, then Tory party head of press, and were asked to tone down their input into the feed which Macrory thought was inappropriate.

Cummings’ correspondence with someone from the paper ahead of publication can be seen here.

The story was run as the Observer‘s front-page splash, prompting mockery and spin from British conservatives: the story is old and of  very limited interest, and its prominence is a politically-motivated attack on Gove (Damian Thompson); the story refers merely to an ill-tempered exchange between the paper’s education correspondent and the Twitter feed (a piece of misdirection from veteran smear-merchant Paul Staines, or perhaps sidekick Harry Cole); did not the Labour activist Damian McBride also take to the internet to smear political opponents (various Twitterers)?

Of course, there’s little point complaining about partisan hackery; but there’s no spinning away the fact that this kind of behaviour is corrupt, corrosive, deeply unsavoury, and not something we should have to put with from people running the country. Disciplinary action should have followed, but the Conservative Party doesn’t have a very good record here: in 2005 activists linked to Anne Milton MP were allowed to stand in council elections despite having smeared a Liberal Democrat as a paedophile via an anonymous blog.

The deployment of “stalker” as a smear is also a strategy that I’ve seen before; it is frequently deployed by those with a vested interest in stigmatising paying attention to detail.