If there’s one thing worse than an cover-up, its a badly executed cover-up, and you’ll find no better example of the latter if you take the time to visit the website of Nadine Dorries.
To give a quick recap of the story so far, a short while back, Sunny put forward a formal complaint to the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards in regards to Dorries’ ‘blog’ – i.e. the bit of her website that used to have a comments facility until she got caught making false allegations about Ben Goldacre in a parliamentary committee report.
The complaint, itself, raised two basic issues.
The first was that the home page of her website stated that it was funded from her Incidental Expenses Provision, a parliamentary allowance given to pay for the running costs of her parliamentary and constituency offices.
The second was that the header graphic on her ‘blog’ included parliament’s portcullis logo, indicating that the blog (and the rest of her website) is/was published officially in her capacity as a Member of Parliament with the official imprimatur of the House.
In both cases this meant (and still means) that Dorries was bound by rules covering the use of allowances and of the portcullis device which, amongst other things, precluded her from publishing explicitly party political content, using her site to run political campaigns and publishing content which denigrates political opponents, rules which she had been persistently and repeatedly in breach of pretty much since day one of her ‘blog’.
And, as I noted, about three weeks ago, the complaint has been accepted by the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards, who has written to Dorries asking her to respond to the letter of complaint.
Quite what her formal response to the Commissioner’s enquiry may be is, as yet, unknown – we’ll have to see if she gets formally referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee for that – however it does seem, from a number of ‘changes’ to her website, which can only have been made in the last week or two, that her likely response may well be to plead guilty and ask for several counts of rank stupidity to be entered as mitigation, not least of which being her absurd attempt to reconfigure her website to bypass the substance of the complaint.
Let me explain what she’s had done to her site, and then I’ll explain why its not quite the ‘get out of the shit’ measure she, or her site’s developers, think it is.
Let’s start at the beginning – pop along Dorries’ website at its usual address of www.dorries.org.uk and you’ll notice, first of all, that the reference to it being funded from her Incidental Expense Provision has now disappeared – all of which proves nothing as, although she’s claimed in her defence that she pays for the site out of her own pocket, she has yet to produce evidence to that effect and or indicate when she started to pay for it herself and it remains to be seen whether she will produce that evidence in responding to the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards.
However, to some extent that’s a minor issue as even if she has been paying for the site herself, that doesn’t get her off the hook when it comes to using the portcullis device.
(In case you’re wondering, I’m not providing links here because you need to follow this over at Dorries’ site to understand what’s going on.)
So, she’s separated her ‘blog’ from her parliamentary website, right down to removing the portcullis device from the header on the ‘blog’ – yes?
Here’s how her little smoke and mirrors exercise works:
Way back in 2005 – June 16th to be precise – Dorries, or rather the provider of her site, Acidity, registered both dorries.org.uk and dorries.org, the first through Fashhosts and the second via Tucows.
How do we know this?
Well simple because this is what the WHOIS entries for the two domains tell us. Okay, so the Nominet entry for the .org.uk domain tells us very little as she’s using its privacy facility to keep all information but the registrant’s name private, but as – for historical reasons – the WHOIS system for US top level domains falls under the US Freedom of Information Act, so a search at Internic tells us that it was registered by Acidity.
Now the fact that she owns both domain, on its own, doesn’t prove that this is all a smoke and mirrors exercise – the proof of that comes, in the first instance, when you run a reverse DNS search on both domains to find the IP address of the server on which her site/blog is hosted – and in both cases the reverse DNS search give the same IP address, 220.127.116.11.
This, in turn, leads us back to the London-based company called Coreix, who actually provide the servers, telling us that Acidity are a reseller.
However, the real giveaway comes by way of a stupidly simple mistake – try visiting www.dorries.org for starters and… whoops, there’s Dorries’ website on the same top level domain as her supposedly separate blog.
And if you need further confirmation, try using www.dorries.org/blog.aspx instead of blog.dorries.org… yep, there’s her ‘blog’, although the graphical banner at the top is missing.
Of course, if you try blog.dorries.org.uk, you get a server not found error – credit Acidity for at least covering the obvious, but it doesn’t take too much brain power to get from there to www.dorries.org.uk/blog.aspx and back to her ‘blog’, which is now accessible on the same domain as the rest of her website, just as it always was.
Which comes as no great surprise as I’d already long since figured out from the source code that her ‘blog’ was fully integrated into the site and not an additional featured bolted on to it that could easily be hived off to another location.
Now, to get back to the rules, the guidance on the Communications Allowance states quite clearly that:
Scope of Websites funded from the CA
The CA may be used to pay for setting up and/or maintaining a website only if its purpose is to inform or communicate with constituents about your work as a Member and/or to provide contact details. It must not be used to fund party political activity or campaigning. You may not use the Communications Allowance to pay for individual web pages or parts of websites, where other parts of the site are paid for from other sources.
So, when it comes to funding a parliamentary website, its an all of nothing deal – you can’t simply section off part of it using a bit of smoke and mirrors with DNS pointers to a subdomain, or even a full domain, and pretend that its not part of the same system. Dorries’s site is a fully integrated system not matter how its DNS entries are arranged and, as such, she has either to pay for it in full from her own funds or operate within the rules as these related to permissible and impermissible content.
As regards the use of the portcullis device, the rules are somewhat open to interpretation, as what the guidance says is that:
The principal emblem of the House is the crowned portcullis. It is a royal badge and its use by the House has been formally authorised by licence granted by Her Majesty the Queen. The designs and symbols of the House should not be used for purposes to which such authentication is inappropriate, or where there is a risk that their use might wrongly be regarded, or represented, as having the authority of the House.
Now, were we dealing with a printed publication, like a newsletter, then the likely presumption would be, I suspect, that the use of the portcullis device anywhere in the publication in an official looking manner would bring the whole publication under the rules governing its appropriate and inappropriate use, although there might be a bit of wiggle room if, say, it was used in the context of advertising an event taking place in parliament and in a manner in which the device could clearly only be seen as applying to the advert and not any other content in the newsletter.
When it comes to websites, there is as yet no clear precedent on misuse of the portcullis device, largely because most MPs tend to play by the rules with their official website and make use of an entirely separate blog, hosted in a separate location, if they want to do a bit of on-line politicking. Dorries has attempted here to create the appearance of doing the same, all be it in an extremely ham-fisted manner and one that I think, personally, fails to apply the regulations properly. If, as the rules on use of allowances suggests, websites have to be paid for on an all or nothing basis then it seems reasonable to me to conclude that this same principle should apply to the use of the portcullis device.
In short, if you use the portcullis device on your homepage then you indicate that the whole site is published under the House emblem, even if you don’t use the portcullis on every page, and must abide by the regulations. If you don’t want to stick to the rules, then its not an official site and should not be branded as such anywhere, least of all on the homepage.
Dorries has made what amounts to a pretty shabby attempt to bypass the regulations and circumvent the complaint against her, presumably in the hope of avoiding censure, only to make such an incompetent job of it that it was instantly obvious what she’s trying to do and stupidly easy to prove it.
Or as we say out here in cyberspace… pWned.