Iain Dale: Expert Blogger…

I must express my gratitude to Dizzy for providing an exemplary piece of evidence to support that whatever else you might like to call Iain Dale, ‘blogging expert’ is not an epithet that you could every reasonably apply to him.

Here’s Iain, from last week, waxing lyrical about Dizzy’s ‘best EXCLUSIVE yet’ – Dale’s capitalisation, by the way:

Dizzy has his best EXCLUSIVE yet, HERE. His’people’ are saying he doesn’t have to register his leadership campaign with the Electoral Commission because there is no campaign or campaign website. Dizzy begs to differ and proves that he already has a backend website up and running through Labour’s marketing agency Silverfish. In fact, it’s been there since last October…

During the Tory leadership contest I was responsible for registering all donations to the Electoral Commission and the Register of Members’ Interests for the Davis campaign. They were quite clear that even before the contest had been formally launched we had to register everything and anything. It didn’t matter if no money had changed hands and there was a benefit in kind (eg a helicopter trip), it had to be declared within four weeks of the ‘donation’.

It seems to me that Gordon Brown and indeed one or two of the Deputy leadership candidates (Hazel Blears and Hilary Benn, especially) had better be very careful here.

There’s just one slight problem here – Dizzy’s got it completely wrong having made the classic blogger’s error of interpreting the ‘evidence’ to fit a pre-conceived conclusion rather than deriving conclusions from the evidence.

Look, let me show you what I mean and how it happened… here’s Dizzy’s ‘exclusive’ in full – with my own annotations of course.

This morning’s Times carries an interesting article about how senior figures in the Labour Party have tried to stop the Electoral Commission from scrutinising the forthcoming leadership election. They quote an Electoral Commission source saying

“We would assume Gordon Brown doesn’t need any money. He would take the line there’s no campaign going on at the moment and he doesn’t have a website.”

Okay, so the first thing to note here is that the starting point for Dizzy’s investigations is an article in the Times in which the suggestion is made that unspecified ‘Senior Labour figures’ have tried to lean on the Electoral Commission to prevent them scrutinising the upcoming Labour leader election too closely – but how much authority/jurisdiction does the Electoral Commission actually have in such matters?

As it happens, very little. The only role that the Electoral Commission has in law is that of regulating and maintaining a register of personal [campaign] donations to candidates standing in the election – in itself only a duplication of the function of the House of Commons register of members’ interests, in which the same information must also be recorded.

That’s only part of the story, though, because not all such donations have to be registered with the Electoral Commission. In the case of donations from permissible donor, which covers any of those listed below…

an individual registered on a UK electoral register;
a UK registered political party;
a UK registered company;
a UK registered trade union;
a UK registered building society;
a UK registered Limited Liability partnership;
a UK registered friendly/building society;
a UK based unincorporated association.

…only donations over £1,000 must be reported to the Electoral Commission along with any donations from impermissible donors or unidentifiable source over £200 – those donations also have to be returned to the donor, while donations under £200 are no ones business but of the donor and the recipient. And donations only have to recorded within 60 days of the donation actually being accepted and the money (or gift-in-kind) actually changing hand – promises of support don’t count until they’re actually called in. Oh, and time and services given voluntarily don’t have to be recorded at all.

The relevance of all this, especially the Times article and its failure to give an accurate picture of the applicable regulations in this matter – the article states only that “Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, candidates in a leadership race have 60 days to declare campaign donations. Currently Mr Brown does not register any contributions in the register of members’ interests or with the Electoral Commission.” – is that Dizzy has been given rather a ‘bum steer’ right from the outset. The Times article plants a suspicion that something untoward may be going on, thereby setting Dizzy on a course in which he will try to validate the Times’ contention. His starting point is already one in which he is looking for evidence to support a specific contention/conclusion, rather than simply looking to see if any evidence actually exists and, if so, whether or not it actually support the contention.

And so we get…

No website you say? Well I guess it all depends on how one defines “website”. If you mean he has no textual presence on the Internet putting out his stall for leadership then yes, arguably he doesn’t. However, if by website we mean the back-end preparations such as registering domains and putting the infrastructure in place to build it, then actually he probably does and the work for it appears to have started between October and December last year.

Interesting semantics here, which are well worth unpicking.

Dizzy starts out with ‘No website you say? Well I guess it all depends on how one defines “website”.‘ -which is telling us both that Dizzy thinks he’s found something but that whatever is it he thinks he’s found, the evidence is far from being conclusive. Now that’s fair enough, let’s just see where he goes next.

If you mean he has no textual presence on the Internet putting out his stall for leadership then yes, arguably he doesn’t.

Well, if you do mean a visible on-line presence then there’s nothing arguable in the assertion that he doesn’t have a website at the moment – the equivocation ‘arguably‘ here is in entirely the wrong place in Dizzy’s argument but, to be fair, we’ll put that down to a bit of ropey semantic construction of the kind that comes from typing as you think through the argument – its a simple error that a sub-editor would correct were he writing for a newspaper and bloggers, of course, don’t have that particular luxury.

Still, Dizzy’s erroneous equivocation does further emphasise the point that the evidence he does intend to present is going to be a bit ‘thin’ at best.

And so we come to the ‘payload’, which is:

However, if by website we mean the back-end preparations such as registering domains and putting the infrastructure in place to build it, then actually he probably does and the work for it appears to have started between October and December last year.

Well, yes. That is admitted a possibility and evidence of such preparations would certainly satisfy Dizzy’s point about the potential malleability of the idea of what actually constitutes a website. However, if one go back over Dizzy’s starting point for his inquiries – i.e. the Times article – then its apparent that to get from even the existence of concrete evidence that a Brown campaign website is in preparation to a breach of electoral law requires rather more than mere proof that such preparatory work has been taking place.

Remember, the Electoral Commission is concerned only with the registration and recording of campaign donation in this, and any other, party leadership contest – it has absolutely no brief or authority to register, record or investigate campaign expenditure unless it believes that expenditure has been met from the proceeds of unreported, registrable donations. Even if a campaign website is being prepared in readiness for Brown’s leadership campaign – and that’s by no means certain – then if it is being paid from from Brown’s own pocket, developed on an entirely voluntary basis or even funded by means of one or more donations of sums less that the registrable limit (i.e. under £1,000 from a permissible donor) then the development of such a website in of no consequence whatsoever to the Electoral Commission or, indeed, Parliament, as the code of conduct covering registration of members’ interests comes into play at the same level (£1,000) as electoral law.

By this point, ‘thin’ is well on the road to ‘size zero’ and looking distinctly anorexic, and we still haven’t got to Dizzy’s actual evidence.

Gordon Brown’s leadership campaign website, should there actual be a contest, will – on the balance of probabilities – be located at “gordonbrown4leader.[insert tld here]”. How would I know this? Well it’s rather simple. All the most obvious permutations for the domain have been being registered since October last year by the assistant producer Rachel Bull at the political campaign production company Silverfish TV.

And that’s it? Dizzy’s evidence amounts to the registration of a total of four domains (.com, .org, .co.uk and .org.uk) by a media company – at a total cost to the company of £70+VAT, according to the website of Discount Domains, which is where the domain names were registered.

Mmm… surely there must be more that that?

Silverfish TV are the people behind the Dave the Chameleon advert, whose client list includes errr…. HM Treasury, as well as the Labour Party and lots of other Labour Party connected organisations such as Progress and the The John Smith Trust. John Prescott is quoted on their website saying they are “bloody brilliant”.

Okay, so now we have the ‘connection’. Silverfish TV, the company that registered the domains has done a bit of work for the Labour Party (and HM Treasury) in the past and John Prescott (apparently) thinks they’re ‘bloody brilliant’ – I say ‘apparently’ because a visit to their ‘website’ current shows only an ‘under construction’ page and their old website, which used to reside at this URL – http://209.151.80.230/silverfish.tv/ – now returns only a garbled HTML header, even in Google’s cache. I’ve also tried Wayback Machine, just for completeness, and got no matches on either URL, so the site was never cached there either.

There is, in this, good news and bad news – the good news is that Silverfish’s website was cached by Google up to last week, when I started looking into this, so I did manage to glean a fair bit of information about the company from it. The bad news is that I didn’t think to take screenshots – most remiss of me, I know, but then I didn’t expect that the cached site would vanish over the weekend, so you’ll have to take my word for its contents.

Let’s look at Dizzy’s final conclusions, and then we’ll get on to the evidence that he’s missed and look at how that might alter your perceptions of his ‘exclusive’.

The Electoral Commission may not think there is a website visible but there are certainly domains, ready and waiting with holding pages, and the website that is presumably being built by someone will no doubt be an all singing and dancing new media web 2.0 love-in too be sure.

Update: As per my post here, Channel 4 News have followed this story up and Silverfish TV say they are cybersquatting.

So, on the strength of nothing more than the registration of four domains by a media company that’s done a bit of work for the Labour Party in the past and a highly speculative article in the Times that amounted to no more than a bit of idle lobby gossip, Dizzy thinks he’s found the Brown campaign website-in-the-making – and an ‘all singing and dancing new media web 2.0 love-in‘ to boot and, by implication, some measure of validation for the Times’ speculation that Brown has been bending, if not breaking electoral law…

But…

What about the other evidence?

For starters, there’s Silverfish TV itself? Is it, in fact, the kind of business that Gordon Brown, or anyone for that matter, would contract in to develop the kind of all singing and dancing new media web 2.0 love-in that Dizzy suggest will be his campaign website.

No, it isn’t.

Silverfish TV are a small video production company – their site listed no more than 4-5 staff; a creative director, scriptwriter and a couple of production assistants – and their portfolio of work included rather more than just political campaign videos, in fact most of their work looks to have been fairly conventional promotional material for corporate clients – all video-based.

What Silverfish aren’t, by any stretch of the imagination, are a web design company, let alone web 2.0 specialists – in fact they didn’t even design and develop their own website, that was done by a Ukranian company called Webcreator, as you can see from their home and portfolio pages.

Silverfish are certainly the kind of company you’d consider contracting in to produce campaign videos to be shown on your all singing and dancing new media web 2.0 love-in, if you were planning to commission one, but not where you’d actually commission the website itself from – they don’t have the background, experience or technical expertise for that kind of thing…

…which should be perfectly obvious if you look that the domains they registered, allegedly for the Brown campaign.

To dispose of one thing straight away, Dizzy points out that each the ‘gordonbrown4leader’ domains registered by Silverfish has a ‘holding page’, as if to suggest that that, itself, is significant. Well, of course they have a holding page – its the default holding page provided by their domain registrar, Discount Domains, the one to which any domain registered with that company points if all you’ve done is paid for the domains and left it parked with them while you sort out what to do with them.

In other words, the ‘holding pages’ are a complete irrelevance – if you were to register ‘davidcameronisatwat.com’ with the company and then do nothing, you’d get the same holding page.

Silverfish’s explanation for the registrations, which Dizzy finds implausible

Personally I don’t buy either of the lines that were put out, as Cathy Newman pointed out, we know they have a campaign team in place which Jack Straw is leading, it makes perfect sense that they would have a website at some point.

… is in fact a perfectly reasonable explanation of Silverfish’s actions.

Any professional web design company of the kind that could develop and deliver a full-on web 2.0 campaign website for Brown – or, indeed, any halfway competent cybersquatter – would have done a far better and more exacting job of registering suitable domains for a Brown campaign website than the effort put in by Silverfish, which, no disrespect intended, is rather amateurish and supportive of the fact that the company really has no real background or experience in the technical aspects of website develop, i.e. it is exactly what it appeared to be from its website – a video production company.

Problem number one here are the domains themselves.

What Silverfish have actually registered is the .com, .org, .co.uk and .org.uk TLD for the name ‘gordonbrown4leader’, domain names which run contrary to what passes for standard [professional] practice on the interweb.

When looking for a good domain name, what one should be looking for – and will look for if you know what you’re doing – are three qualities; ‘obvious’, ‘memorable’ and ‘as short as possible’ and ideally what you want is the kind of domain name where even if someone doesn’t know what it is for certain, or can’t quite remember it, they can put into their browser what seems most obvious and find themselves at your website.

Well, ‘gordonbrown4leader’ is fairly obvious and fairly memorable but it isn’t particularly short – its not the kind of first choice domain name that a web professional working with or advising the Brown campaign would go for – not when the much shorter and much more obvious ‘brown4leader’ is available in all its most popular TLD variations.

Then [problem number 2] there’s the TLDs themselves – Silverfish not only have a ‘second best’ domain name on their hand but they only registered it for .com, .org, .co.uk and .org.uk – a professional web design company would also, at the very least, register the .net, .me.uk, .info and .biz – in fact as the domain registrar, in this case, provides for the registration of fourteen different TLDs from the same page, a professional company would most likely register them all as a mean of protecting their main domains. In the case of a Brown campaign website this would be even more likely (and important) than usual, given that the website would be an all too easy and obvious target for spoofs – anything ranging from a full-blown spoof campaign site to the oldest, and simplest dirty trick in the book of registering a related TLD and setting it to redirect to anything from the Tory Party website or Webcameron to a hardcore porn website.

Any professional web designer or design company would make a much better job ot protecting a client’s main domain that Silverfish have made of their own registration, which is, again, exactly what you’d expect from a video production company trying out a bit of low level cyber-squatting – but not from the kind of company you’d contract in to do your website.

The domains that Dizzy’s found do not look like domains registered specifically for a client on the basis of a contract for work, or even the expectation of such a contract. What they look like, and almost certainly are, are speculative registrations made by a company that hopes to use their prior contact with Labour as a basis on which to pitch for work as and when the Brown campaign decides its needs a website – if it indeed does. The scenario here is that of a media company that considers itself to have a fair shout of picking up some work from the Brown campaign in its main line of business – video production – and hoping to give itself an edge on any competition with a bit of a ‘can do’ sales pitch…

Yes, of course we can do a campaign video for you Gordon and, if you’d be interested, we could even get the people who did our website to do yours for you as well. We even have a couple of domains registered that might suit you…

Like I said, a speculative bit of business.

Problem number three is simply one of context.

Currently, Gordon Brown does not even have a personal MP’s website – aside from official information posted to the Downing Street and Treasury website, his entire on-line presence amounts to single page biographies on the Labour Party and Scottish Labour Party websites. Gordon may be many things but, as yet, web 2.0 he isn’t.

Nor, indeed, are any of his possible rivals in the leadership contest – or potential future deputies, actually up to much in the high-tech communications stakes…

Jon Cruddas looks to have some straightforward PHP pages knocked up with a free editor plus a WordPress blog tacked on to his site

Harriet Harman is using the free TYPO3 CMS.

Hilary Benn and Michael Meacher both have static sites shot through with out-of-the-box Dreamweaver javascript – these are most likely updated using Contribute.

What Peter Hain’s using I have no idea apart from that his Deputy Leadership site is identical (source code-wise) to his normal MP site – and whatever it is there’s no RSS feed, so its hardly web 2.0 material.

Hazel Blears has a WordPress blog and a few videos hosted by a free hosting service…

…and John McDonnell’s campaign website runs on Blogger.

At the moment, Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn’s 2020 Vision website is about as web 2.0 as the Labour Party gets, at least as regards its elected members, and this rather dictates that we ask the question as to just exactly why it is that the Brown campaign would need the kind of all singing and dancing new media website that Dizzy seems to think will inevitably emerge to support the Brown campaign.

There are only two possible explanations for this – the first and simplest is that this is no more than another sign that Dizzy has been following the same ‘bum steer’ given by the Times article right at the outset – he expects Brown to have a high production value, high cost campaign website simply because that’s exactly what you’d expect from someone who is [allegedly] concealing his campaign funding from the Electoral Commission – he’s bought wholesale into the suggestion that something dodgy is going on and matching his assumptions about what Brown’s campaign website will look like to that suggestion regardless of what little evidence there is actually has to say.

The second explanation is more complex but no less interesting as it suggests that Dizzy, and the Tory Party generally, more or less accepts that Gordon Brown will be the next leader of the Labour Party and the next Prime Minister and that the real focus of his campaign website – if he does get one – will not be be on the Labour leadership contest itself but on competing with David Cameron for an on-line audience.

What makes that particularly interesting is what it implies about the Torys’ own campaign strategy for the next general election as it clearly suggests – if its not obvious already – that they’re banking on running a presidential style campaign around Cameron and expect Brown to follow suit. Cameron has Webcameron, and so Brown must be in the market for a personal web presence that mirrors that provided to Cameron by the Tory Party so the two can slug it out, head to head.

Quite what happens if Brown takes a different route and focusses on policies rather personalities, is another matter entirely – in fact one almost has to wonder whether the Tories either haven’t considered that seriously at all or simply assume that their own new media operations have got enough of jump on Labour that they’ll inevitably set the pace and force Brown into competing – on-line at least – on Cameron’s terms.

Now I should stress that this is not to suggest that Dizzy is personally in the know about Tory campaign strategy or blogging to order from Tory Central Office – he’s almost certainly just following in the wake of the general tone of the Tories approach to the internet set by people like Iain Dale and Tim Montgomery and falling into line pretty much by osmosis. What it does suggest, however, as some possibilities for disrupting the Tory’s strategy, however, you’ll forgive me if I keep my own counsel on that and save it for a private discussion or two with other Labour bloggers.

The upshot of all this is that there is, in reality, precious little evidence to support Dizzy’s contention that a small number of domain names registered by a video production company amount to even a Brown campaign website in the offing, let alone to evidence of unregistered campaign donations, and rather more evidence to militate against any such a conclusion.

Dizzy, ironically, has the kind of technical background that should have ensured that he knew better than arrive at such a conclusion on the back of such cigarette-paper thin evidence, although my feeling is that there is nothing more to his error here than a bit of misdirection from the Times article and a lack of detailed research. He started out with a preconceived notion of what he’d find and stopped looking as soon as he found something that seemed to fit the bill without going that extra mile to verify that what he’d found actually stood up to close scrutiny and, in mitigation, he does have to good sense to equivocate sufficiently on his discoveries as to leave some reasonable room for doubt and a graceful retreat should he be proven wrong.

Dale, on the other hand, hasn’t got a clue, which is why in his hands, Dizzy’s collection of if, buts and maybes becomes:

Dizzy begs to differ and proves that he already has a backend website up and running through Labour’s marketing agency Silverfish. In fact, it’s been there since last October

In fact Dizzy’s proved nothing of the sort, he’s provided only an interesting if overstretched conjecture about which even he’s not 100% sure if you actually read what he’s written and not what, if you’re Iain Dale, you wish he’d written.

If, by any chance, you’re a friend of Iain Dale’s and looking for a suitable birthday or Christmas present for him for this year can I make a suggestion – try this

(Hat Tip: Bob Piper)

  • Jesus wept, it’s ironic that you accuse me of stretching then proceed to stretch what I wrote into what you think I wrote.

    1: I never said that Electoral Commission rules had been broken or that such domain registration constituted it. Put simply the word “website” was a starting point for me. Little more.

    2: You missed my post the following day stating, very clearly, that Silverfish were breaching ICANN rules by purchasing domains which they had no right or legitimate interest in.

    3: You’re reading way to much into my post which simply stated a few points. That a company called Silverfish registered domains. That Silverfish had worked for the Treasury. That the domains probably would get used by Brown should he need them.

    4: What you forget is that my blog is my website of my opinion. I am not a journalist. As for being part of a grand cospiracy, leave it out. I just happen to think that the politcs that you and others beleive is utterly wrong.

  • 5: I didn’t say that Silverfish TV were building a website. You’ve done a little bit of overstretched conjecture and errr.. failed to read English. I said that “someone” was presumably designing a Gordon Brown website, because like, he wants to be leader so it makes sense. I said that the website would be a singing all dancing web 2.0 love in. I didn;t say that Silverfish were delivering it.

    Hate to piss on your long winded fire mate, but you’ve basically accused me of over-stretching things by failing to read what I said and instead interpetting what you wanted me to have said. Go back and read it again, note the circumspect language, like “probably” and “someone”.

    Iain’s decision to run with the Electoral Commission link was his, I merely used it because I read the quote re there being no website and thought.. well that’s not strictly true necessarily.

    You need to try harder at your fisking. I give it about 6 out of 10

  • Given you ripped Dizzy’s entire idea to pieces a lot more comprehensively than he set it out. 8 out of 10 fisks for me.

  • Dizzy:

    1. Nevertheless, the Times article implies such a connection even if you neither saw or intended it to.

    One of the key reasons I rip on Dale while stressing the extent to which you equivocated on several points is to emphasise that in terms of what you posted I saw a blogger ‘following his nose’ to conclusion that interested them rather than a propagandist (Dale) applying a liberal dose of spin to a nothing story.

    Although its your article I’ve fisked here, its actually Dale’s spinning of it that’s turning up on other blogs – your article is being presented as supporting Dale’s incorrect interpretation of events rather than you own, far more equivocal, assertions.

    Unfortunately to take apart Dale’s slant necessitates picking hole in the source material, rather than ripping Dale head on.

    2. When did ICANN actually start enforcing its own rules? Never.

    Moreover, who’s to say definitively that Silverfish don’t have a legitimate interest here – there’s nothing in ICANN’s rules to preclude pre-emptive registrations by companies intending to tender for contracts they know or believe to be in the pipeline.

    As things stand, the one thing your research probably has done is put Silverfish out of the running for such a contract, if it was to be put out for offers, simply because contracting them in after this has hit the public domain would be spun as confirmation of the innuendos in the Times article, even if those are completely baseless.

    3. What I’m reading ‘in’ to your piece is only what is implied by its composition. That may be rather more than you intended, but its there none the less.

    You start by quoting a Times article that alludes to irregularities in the Brown campaign’s dealings with the Electoral Commission in which the existence, or otherwise, of a campaign website is presented as a matter that may indicate whether the story has substance or not.

    You then go on to try and demonstrate that a website may exist and may even have been in development since last October – even if you did not intend these two things to be explicitly connected by the reader the connection is still there and very much apparent in terms of the juxtaposition of the content from the Times with you own.

    4. I’ve not suggested at all that you’re part of a grand conspiracy, in fact at a number of points I’ve gone to great pains to stress that the post appears to me to be nothing more than the work of a blogger ‘following his nose’.

    What I’ve tried to point out here is that your post is that of a blogger who’s been spun by the Times article and not of someone using a blog to spin a story – that Dale’s department.

    Whether you were consciously aware of it or not, the Times fed you a line about that there may be some significance in the existence of Brown campaign. That piqued your interest, in part because of your technical background but also because it keys into your political views and opinions, so you naturally pick the ball an run with it until you unearth some information that seems to support your conception of the story – which is what you then posted.

    That’s very different from the MO of Dale and Staines, who spend much of their time (all in Staines case) planting the carefully spun seeds of stories in the hope/expectation that other bloggers will run with them – which they frequently do.

    That’s how blog spin works in reality – not on the basis of a mass of bloggers engaged in a grand conspiracy but on some fairly simple pieces of misdirection and manipulation by a couple of carefully placed ‘agent provocateurs’ of a kind that takes advantage of the natural inclination of most people to write about things that fit in with their personal views.

    5. Again the connection between Silverfish and a hypothetical Brown campaign website is in the article by implication, even if its not made explicit and not really what you thought you were say – its another function of the manner in which the information in your post is arranged and juxtaposed.

    As far as your involvement is concerned the contention I’ve put forward is simply that you were fed a dodgy lead by the Times article and followed it only so far as it took to unearth information that appear to fit a preconceived notion derived from your own political views. This was then spun by Dale into the suggestion that what you’d found constituted proof that a campaign website exists, validating the Times story.

    The only direct criticism levelled at you, is simply that had you dug a little further, which you’re certainly capable of, you’d have come to a very different conclusion – that you didn’t do the digging is merely a function of your not being sufficiently motivated to go the extra mile on this one.

    Were our positions reversed, I suspect things would have been very different in that, then, you would have done much the same additional research that I did, because your motivation would have been rather different.

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