• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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A Note on the 1986 “Tory Student Leader in ‘Racist’ Party Link” Guardian Article

Last month saw a moment of renewed interest in a 1986 Guardian news report headlined “Tory Student Leader in ‘Racist’ Party Link”, and a new implicit libel action threat by the article’s subject, the supposed libertarian Paul Staines, better known these days as “Guido Fawkes”.

Staines “gave notice” on Twitter after the article was referenced by the Labour MP Laura Pidcock:

This is Paul – I am in Hong Kong on holiday. Have been alerted to this tweet. The author of this article retracted the allegations in writing decades ago. Am assuming you [Pidcock] and @owenjones84, @paulmasonnews et al are unaware. You are now on notice.

Those with long memories of online disputes will recall that this matter previously came up in 2007, at which time it was initially suggested that the newspaper had itself issued a retraction. It transpired that this was not the case, but that in 1990 the article’s author, David Rose, had written a letter to Staines on Observer letterhead in a private capacity, in which he had conceded that the article “plagues my conscience”. He explained:

I wrote the article after speaking to you but did not did not then accept your explanation of what you had done: to wit, a letter to the local BNP proposing ‘possible joint future activities’ on the the basis of your sharing the BNP’s objectives. You told me then that you wrote this letter as an attempt to trick the BNP, in the hope perhaps of gaining intelligence of its activities and that your motive was only to damage this extreme right-wing organisation.

At the time I regarded this as absurd, but as our acquaintanceship has developed I believe you were telling the truth… [W]ith hindsight, I think I should have accepted your explanation.

The difficulty here is that this does not explain why Rose did not include Staines’s explanation in his article. When someone is approached by a newspaper to provide a comment for a story about themselves, what they have to say in reply is usually included as a matter of course. The journalist’s personal incredulity is irrelevant – indeed, when an article purports to “expose” something, an “absurd” explanation is grist for the mill.

Further, the 1986 article contains a quote that is completely at odds with the above:

Mr Delaire-Staines told the Guardian that… he had tried to forge links with thr BNP because “we share their anti-Communist view”. He added: “They’re not far-right. They’re just racists, they believe in one colour.”

There is no suggestion that Rose concocted this quote, and Staines has not claimed that it is inaccurate. On what basis, then, could Staines threaten legal action? If Staines was willing to present himself in such a light (even though it apparently did not reflect his true views), then he has no basis for complaint if others later take him at what was his public word. It is also difficult to see why this would have “plagued” Rose’s conscience.

The fact that Rose later became friendly with Staines after writing about him in 1986 suggests that Staines had mutually beneficial relationships with certain journalists long before the appearance of the modern internet and social media.