Guido Fawkes ten years on: 'I didn't go into Westminster to make friends, and I've achieved that' - Press Gazette

Guido Fawkes ten years on: 'I didn't go into Westminster to make friends, and I've achieved that'

Guido Fawkes, the political blog which launched in 2004, now has four full-time members of staff and is plotting international expansion across the English-speaking world (except for the US) after May’s general election.

With this in mind, any future recruits should take note of the faux pas made by the website's latest signing, Jeremy Wilson.

Sitting alongside Guido founder and editor Paul Staines and his third-in-command, Alex Wickham, Wilson is mainly quiet during this 45-minute interview in a Westminster hotel bar. That is until – knowing Wickham and news editor Harry Cole (not present) went straight into their jobs from university with no journalism training – I ask how clued up the team are on media law.

The question is met with raucous laughter from all three. "He brought in – first day in the office, he brought in," begins Wickham, giggling.

"I brought in my McNae's [Essential Law for Journalists textbook]," explains Wilson.

Wickham: "And we went: 'You won't need that here.'"

Staines cuts in: "Harry's been on the Spectator ‘let’s not lose another million quid' course, hasn’t he? So he’s had that, and I’ve been in the courts quite often, so I think I’ve got the knack of it.”

So presumably, with your experience, you don't make too many legal mistakes?

“Jesus Christ – I’ve gone bankrupt from litigation in the past, so I think my track record on not making legal mistakes is poor. I think we understand defamation better than some lawyers nowadays.”

Are Guido Fawkes' legal costs quite high then? “[We get] lots of legal threats, and they take up a lot of time," replies Staines.

"You know, we have a relationship with a law firm that we’re close to, and we’re pretty resilient in terms of…all those people trying it on with letters we take a view… no we don’t have significant legal costs.

"We have been through the wringer quite a lot, we’ve never lost in court, but I have spent almost two years on one case, and that can be quite stressful.”

And what was that over? “We broke a super-injunction against someone who was very rich. Again. And they were very angry.”

Asked if he has run any stories that were legally sound, but may have gone "too far" in other ways, Staines says: “I feel if we haven’t taken it too far at least once a month we’re not doing the right thing. Some things maybe we’d have done differently if we’d thought about it again."

One recent Guido story which attracted controversy was its sting against Tory MP Brooks Newmark. The former civil society minister found himself on the front page of the Sunday Mirror after sending a picture exposing himself while wearing paisley pyjamas to an undercover Wickham who was posing as a "Twentysomething Tory PR girl" on Twitter.

Wickham, also known as Wiki Guido, was accused of conducting a “fishing expedition” and a complaint was filed  – and later withdrawn – to the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

“It’s bizarre,” says Wickham. “Basically, because Mark Pritchard [MP] withdrew his complaint, there is now no complaint. So IPSO are still, I think, looking at it.

"But whether it’s an ‘investigation’, I don’t know. It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to anyone at the Mirror who was working on that. So I’ve no idea what they’re going to do – whether they’re going to make some judgment, or anything like that.

"I struggle to see how they can uphold a complaint or anything like that if there isn’t a complaint.”

Staines, who reiterates that Guido will not be signing up for IPSO nor any other regulator, adds: “I think [IPSO chair Sir Alan] Moses jumped the gun with that whole thing.

"He saw it at face value, thought it was more of a stitch-up than it actually was, and then two weeks later there’s a follow-up story in The Sun, and obviously this guy has a pattern of behaviour.”

And what was it like being at the centre of story, being criticised for the techniques behind it? “It’s fine,” says Wickham. “You’re always going to get certain people trying to undermine a good story.

"But I think the story spoke for itself, really, and it stood up to scrutiny. And as we saw from the follow-up story [in The Sun on Sunday, which reported how Newmark had been caught sending further explicit photographs] it was entirely justified. He’d clearly done this before and, as our investigation found, would do it again.”

Staines says: “I think there was a 48-hour period when things got a bit rough – more for the Mirror than for us, I think.”

Meanwhile, the story has seen the two Sunday Mirror journalists who also worked on it nominated for scoop of the year at this year’s Press Awards.

“Yes,” says Staines, laughing. “Listen: we’ve seen people win press awards for our stories before.”

And how does that feel?

Wickham: “Well, you know, it was always going to be… if it was ever going to be nominated for any award it was always going to be Matt [Drake] and Vince [Moss] getting the nomination because it was their byline. We sold it to them.”

Staines adds: “As long as our name’s on the cheque, I don’t mind whose name is on the byline.”

Do Guido Fawkes journalists ever take bylines on stories sold to newspapers?

“Um, we’re not bothered,” says Staines. “Honestly. Really, I think maybe for Harry and Alex and Jeremy, because they’re younger and earlier in their careers, it’s quite important to get profile. But Alex didn’t reveal himself – he was outed… I think it would be unprofessional in our line of work to reveal.”

Harry Cole previously revealed in a Press Gazette interview that selling stories to newspapers used to be big business for Guido until the Leveson Inquiry, when interest dried up. Is that still the case?

“Guido was funded in the beginning off the back of selling front pages to newspapers – to all of them,” Staines says.

“Now, I guess as the operation’s bigger and the advertising is better, it’s probably a lesser amount of a percentage of our revenue. It used to be maybe 50 per cent, but I’d say it’s probably about 10-20 per cent.”

And how many stories does that equal out at a month?

“We only do big stories. We basically have a rule that if we’re not going to get five figures for it we’re not going to sell it – we might as well put it in The Sun or on our own blog. So we’re not interested in getting £500 off a newspaper.” On the Newmark story, Staines adds:  “Obviously we could run it on the website. Or we could’ve bought new cars, gone on holidays. So the traffic boost we’d have got, yes there would have been more revenue in advertising terms, but papers still do have greater revenue than we do. Not great profits, though.”

I suppose you won't say how much the Sunday Mirror paid for the Newmark story? “Nope.”

It raised a few eyebrows that the story appeared in the Sunday Mirror – a direct rival of The Sun on Sunday, which Guido has a weekly column in. (It has been reported that both The Sun on Sunday and Mail on Sunday turned down the story.)

But there appears to be no hard feelings at the News UK title over missing out on the scoop: Staines reveals that Guido Fawkes has recently had its column contract renewed for a third year.

“Yeah, that was just last month,” says Staines. “The Sun is definitely the toughest outlet I think any of us [write for]. We all write for different places besides Guido, and there is no question that we work harder and take more time over fewer words than all the rest.”

After writing a column in the Daily Star Sunday for a year, Guido switched to The Sun in February 2013. Staines tells how when he made the switch he was taken aback by the added abuse he started receiving for being associated with Rupert Mudoch’s tabloid.

He also suggests that this association played its part last week when Wickham, in attendance at a Hacked Off event in Parliament, was confronted and reportedly asked forcefully by an audience: “How do you sleep at night?”

Asked how he does sleep at night, Wickham laughs. “It was bizarre. And they were all shouting: ‘Stand, stand, stand!’ And I stood up, and they were all chatting, and this one bloke goes: ‘Can I just say,’ and he looks like he’s going to make a serious point… and the room goes quiet: ‘How do you sleep at night!?’ And I was like: ‘What is happening? This is so bizarre.’ It was mental.”

Staines adds: “These people do think that Murdoch is a Satan figure, an anti-Christ. So we’re touched by Murdoch. Then we’ve got the political reputation and all that. Sometimes I forget – I block and mute everyone on Twitter, but sometimes if you’re not logged in you go on and have a look, and I see all these hundreds of people spewing at me. All water off a duck’s back, I think.”

Part of the hook for this interview was the redesign of the Guido Fawkes website, which no longer considers itself a ‘blog’.

Having increased the size of its staff (in addition to the recruitment of Wilson, Guido Fawkes also has a parliamentary sketch writer, Simon Carr, who joined in October 2013) the site – which has tabs for politics, media, environment and technology stories – generally runs around 15 stories every working day. This is up from seven or eight a couple of years ago.

Guido Fawkes claims to attract between 120,000 and 250,000 unique browsers a day. It aims to have something up by 8.30am each morning and then a new post every 45 minutes after that. The site has peaks in traffic at around 9am, 11am, 5pm and 8pm.

Alongside Twitter – the main Guido Fawkes account has 144,000 followers – the site’s main source of traffic is its newsletter emails.

Staines says that around 70 per cent of Guido Fawkes’ income now comes from advertising, and he increasingly works on the business side, leaving Cole more responsibility for editorial.

“I have a lot of confidence,” he says. “You know, Harry’s been with us for six years, I have a lot of confidence in his news values and his judgment. Alex is a seasoned political correspondent now. I’m a lot more relaxed about leaving these guys in charge. I fly in on a Monday, I fly out on Friday, I live in Ireland. So I’m doing the same cycle as the MPs, I’m only in London for three nights a week.”

How office-based is the job?

“You’re out most nights, aren’t you, Alex?” says Staines.

Wickham says: “We have an office in the day in Westminster, which we all go in to. And then 5 or 6 o’clock, out and about, off to get stories, in the pubs and in Parliament, really. We moved to Westminster last year, I think for the election it’s much better to be right here.”

Speaking of the election, who will Guido's biggest rivals be this year? I note the growing size of Buzzfeed's political team.

Where are their "scoops", Staines asks? "You know, who's resigned? Tell me."

Wickham adds: “They’re building a really great team, and they’ve obviously got a lot of money and a lot of really good people. And I’m sure they’ll be great, and they’ll be a rival, but they just need to get a few stories now.”

Staines says: “They don’t seem to have the aggression we have… and we’re faster than them.”

He adds: “Ninety per cent of people go to Buzzfeed to look at GIFs of cats. So they’re spending a lot of money on their political team to give it some kudos, in my view, but all their revenue and traffic is on the entertainment side of the site. So I don’t know how they resolve that.”

On other rivals, he says: “We’ve got Politico coming, Breitbart – who we’re on the same kind of terms with as the Spectator, we’re friendly rivals – Huffington Post is upping its game when after the election Paul Waugh goes there, which I think will give it a lot more credibility.

“It’s a competitive market. I’d be interested to see which ones are making money, though.”

Guido Fawkes has been around for more than ten years now, a period in which numerous blogs have come and gone. Why has it been successful? “Because we had a business attitude towards it, and because I didn’t have a rich sponsor… In the politics sphere, Labour List had the unions, Conservative Home had Ashcroft, so we had to be popular. Our product had to pay its way – which it didn’t from 2004 to 2008. But since then it’s paid its way. My wife was very sceptical, and now she’s come around.”

Staines’ advice for the “newcomers, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed”? "They haven’t had the kind of impact that we have in terms of making people resign… And let’s see who does that through the election cycle.  

"Usually in the election cycles there’s one story that we’ve done dominates the whole news cycle for about 24 hours. Then let’s see who achieves that this year. It’s always difficult because there’s such great intensity… I’ll be screaming if it isn’t us that does that.”

And what do you make of newspapers, or “dead tree press” as Guido calls them?

Staines: “They’re surviving, aren’t they? I don’t believe in my heart of hearts that print newspapers have got long to go. When I first said that people used to laugh, but I think people are realising, you go on the commuter train, okay the Metro, freebies are still in print, but everyone’s reading it on tablets. What is the point when you could watch a video on your phone, compared to a newspaper?”

And what about newspapers' online approach?

"I don’t think I’ve got anything incredibly orginal to say," says Staines. "But unless you’ve got novel content or unique content it’s hard to monetise it. So particularly for the tabloids, when you’ve up against TMZ… the Hollywood stories are on TMZ already, the younger generation’s going to realise they can get the showbiz stuff from websites without having to pay, so it’s very hard. The Sun is trying to use football as a wedge to keep in. I am not optimistic for any of these kind of structures."?

And the Mail Online, which recorded an average of nearly 14m unique browers a day in January?

“Yeah. It does what it does very well. How many people work there? Hundreds? So the content farm which it is, the advertising rates that it gets aren’t that good.

"The thing that fortuitously I realised was that we have a narrow niche, and when you’re quite prominent in that niche you can charge high advertising rates. So that’s how we can be profitable.

"And that’s how the Wall Street Journal and the FT can incredibly profitable, because they can charge higher advertising rates. If you’re doing something that's commodified, like showbiz reporting, you can’t charge high rates.”

One of Guido Fawkes’s long-running bugbears, and something its journalists feel give the traditional media organisations a “competitive advantage”, is the fact that they have been refused lobby passes for Parliament, meaning they have no special privileges when accessing Westminster.

“The thing that we would like is passes to go round Parliament. But, you know, Bercow’s a complete wanker,” says Staines.

Wickham adds: “We bumped into him, didn’t we, outside some event about 11 o’clock at night and asked him when he was going to let us have our passes – “

Staines: “I’ve known Bercow since I was 16… from student politics – when he was more right-wing than me.”

He adds: “We don’t want to join the lobby, but we would like to have access to the parliamentary estate… so that puts us at a competitive disadvantage."

And is there a technical reason Guido Fawkes cannot get passes (they have not applied to join the Lobby, merely for access to Parliament passes which are granted to the foreign press)?

“Yeah,” says Staines. “They know that we don’t play the game. Not only do we not play the game of politics, we’ve actually jabbed everyone in the ribs on the political correspondents…

“I think that temperamentally they know that we’re not going to cover up things. And by cover up things, I mean: drunk parties, when the lobby go on tour on foreign trips and they lose their mobile phones to hookers, that kind of thing. I think they’re worried that we wouldn’t keep schtum.”

When someone is in Guido Fawkes' crosshairs, is there any way of escaping through appealing to Staines’ better nature? It would seem not.

“Boris, at the tenth anniversary party, said: ‘It’s like dealing with terrorists, we’re all here [the various high profile politicians who attended]  because we’re trying to placate them, but it won’t work.’ And sure enough, we’ve done quite a few Boris stories since then.”

After Guido’s tenth anniversary party, the website – named after the man who tried to blow up parliament – faced accusations that it had become part of the Westminster elite. Peter Oborne in the Telegraph, for instance, published a list of attendees that he said “proves that Guido Fawkes is a certified member of the Tory establishment”.

Staines says: “I knew that was all going to come up, and I said: ‘Look, we remain strong.’ It’s a bit hard to maintain that we’re not mainstream when we’ve got a column in The Sun, we write for so many publications, we’re part of the Westminster ecology… we’re obviously part of the mainstream in that sense. But we’re still not, and I don’t think ever will be, part of the members of the lobby.”

Staines says that UKIP leader Nigel Farage is the only polititician he's enjoyed going for a drink with – "everyone has a good time with Nigel" – and that many politicians who he thought he'd like have really "disappointed" him.

Has Guido Fawkes made any friends in politics?

“I didn’t go into Westminster to make friends, and I’ve achieved that. They all get it in the end.” 



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