The Mask Slips..?

Mmm… curious developments over at Paul Staines’ blog to report today as, unusually, this rather wonderful pisstake of his ‘Shop A SpAd’ shtick by Hamer Shawcross, has drawn something of an unexpected reaction from the self-appointed masked scourge of the civil service.

Hamer first, I think, just because this is seriously funny…

SCENE: A darkened office in the House of Commons. Chief Whip Francis Urquhart sits, staring at a picture of a fallen Prime Minister whilst contemplatively swirling a whiskey around a cut glass tumbler…

URQUHART: You are accusing me, perhaps, of playing politics?

GUIDO FAWKES: Yes. That’s right. You confess? You have been involved in politics?

URQUHART: Young man, it may have escaped your attention, but I am a politician. As our name indicates, we occasionally involve ourselves in political matters.

GUIDO FAWKES: [Smugly] A politician? Confessing he’s involved in politics! Ha! This’ll be one in the eye for Nick Robinson and the dead-tree press when I break this story! Oh how quickly you feeble politicians beg, BEG ME, for mercy. I shall write up in my next post how you fell at my feet, cowering before the mightiness of my blog and admitting that I am the finest, most sexually potent, most gorgeous blogger the bloggersphere has ever known. COWER BEFORE MY BLOG, POLITICIAN!…BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

URQUHART: [Raises an eyebrow] You’re going to make all that up?

GUIDO FAWKES: Yeah well. My readership will believe any old rubbish that I throw at them. As long as they get a couple of opportunities a day to accuse someone of being a homosexual, they’re like pigs in muck.

Read the whole thing, it’s beautifully done.

Now, ordinarily one would expect Staines to simply ignore Hamer’s pisstake or, at most, try to blow it off with a smart-arse comment, especially as its considerably funnier than anything Staines has managed for a long, long time. But no, one this occasion Staines has permitted himself to drawn in combat and chosen to regale his audience with a primer in ‘Ethics and Propriety for Beginners‘ – no doubt the to complete bemusement of some of his regulars who are, by now, wondering what any of this has to do with Chelmsford and why Paul appears to have suddenly developed a lisp.

Could it be that Staines is still smarting from his public savaging at the hands of Paxo and Michael White and now feels the need to defend his credibility in the face of having got his second e-mail system story completely wrong.

What seems to have got Staines goat is this (from Hamer)…

GUIDO FAWKES: Yes, your SpAd is working on a leadership campaign in taxpayer’s time. It’s against the rules and not legitimate activity for a special advisor. No ifs, no buts, it isn’t. Have you read the Special Advisors’ Code of Conduct?

URQUHART: Yes. I am also familiar with Part 22, subsection three which reads: “if, with the approval of their Minister, they wish to assist with other party political matters such as a leadership campaign, they may do so while on paid or unpaid leave or at times which do not interfere with their normal duties, for example, out of office hours.” Given that I set young Master SpAd’s hours, I allow him the odd hour or two to work on my campaign. It’s in line with the rules and totally above board. [Laughing contemptuously] No wonder the mainstream media don’t want you as a journalist – even Richard Littlejohn has been know to do more research than you have on your “Shop A Spad” campaign. Nevermind, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

All of which has set Staines off on a most uncharacteristic frenzy of nitpicking as to the precise meaning of ‘times which do not interfere with their normal duties’.

Methinks Master Paul doth protest rather too much on this occasion, which leads one to wonder whether its worth doing a little nitpicking of one’s own.

Staines’ attempted rebuttal of Hamer’s loving crafted pisstake sports a rather interesting screen shot, which I’ve include below, blown up to 1.5 times its original size for clarity.


Now on the face of it, this does seem to show the document properties of the report on Hilary Benn’s apparent standing with Labour activists, which Staines claims to have been produced by one of Benn’s SpAds in breach (so Staines contends) of the Sode of Conduct for Special Advisors, and it also appears to identify the author as a B McDougall and to have been produced on a computer registered to the Foreign Office.

But examine things a little more closely, and one or two rather perplexing anomalies start to emerge.

First, there’s the matter of the PDF version of this document that Staines made available as a download in his original article. Ordinarily the document properties set in the original document carry forward when one renders it to a PDF – just as it did in the files Staines’ released in conjunction with his earlier ‘shop a SpAd’ articles on Peter Hain’s advisor, Phil Taylor.

But not this time (???).

All one finds in the this PDF file are identifiers that show it was produced using Open Office (2.1) – Staines is clearly too cheap to buy a proper copy of Acrobat -but the incriminating information that would identify the author of the original document and the department to which the software on which it was produced was licenced is notable only for its absence.

How odd… the most incriminating piece of evidence, and the only evidence that backs up Staines’ story and verifies that the document in question was produced by one of Benn’s SpAds is completely missing from the PDF – and having run several tests it turns out that, but for malign intervention of a unreproducible big (always a possibility when Microsoft’s software is involved), the only way one could reproduce this was to deliberately remove this information oneself.

Mmm… Curiouser and curiouser.

Then there’s the screenshot itself.

First, take a good close look at the bottom corners of the image. Notice anything a little unusual?

The neatly, if slightly inconsistently, chamfered corners on the image are, admittedly, a nice touch, but rather unnecessary for a mere screen shot of a Windows dialog box don’t you think? Close examination of the image shows that both the bottom corners of the image have been trimmed to produce that effect – individually trimmed as it happens as the chamfers are not even on both sides – and its certainly not an effect generated by Windows itself, especially not using the vanilla Windows XP theme shown in the image.

Try as one might, again one cannot reproduce the exact image without a bit of judicious editing in Photoshop, which seems a tad over the top unless whoever produced the screenshot is anally retentive in a major way.

There is another puzzling aspect to the image – the dialog box itself.

What it appears to be is the standard document properties box used by Microsoft Word, which uses the precise tabs and labels shown in the image. However, try as one might, even when setting aside one’s one lovingly arranged personalised desktop them for the standard XP theme shown in the image and turning on every idiot-friendly feature in both Windows and Word, one cannot reproduce this particular screenshot.

The tabs and labels point to it being a screenshot of the document’s properties as display by Microsoft Word – and yet, if that’s the case, then where has the ‘help’ button – the question mark on the top right of the image’ come from? Word does not display this button on its own dialog box.

Let’s try Outlook then? No, same again.

Okay, so maybe its Open Office we’re looking at? We know that’s been used to create the PDF file…

Err… no. Different tab headings – Open Office uses ‘document statistics’ rather than just ‘statistics’

So how about plain old Windows Explorer?

Well, that’s a bit more like it – now we get the ‘help’ button… but oh dear, the tabs are completely different.

The margin for error here is that I’m using Windows XP Pro and Office 2003, so it could be that the ‘help’ button does appear one the document properties dialog in earlier versions of Office or that the tabs are different in XP Home, but a quick scan through the technical documentation at Microsoft suggests otherwise – there are certainly screenshots of the Office XP dialogs there that, like my own tests, fail to deliver the ‘help’ button as depicted in Staines’ screenshots.

Mmm… small inconsistencies and nothing definitive to call Staines on, perhaps, but inconsistencies none the less and worth noting.

Still, I’ve no doubt that Staines’ usual coterie of hangers on are fully appreciative of his efforts to serve as moral guardian of the public purse. Quite how many are aware of this 1996 book review, written by Staines, from a libertarian journal called ‘The Free Life’ may well be another matter, for all that it provides an illuminating insight into Staines latest moral affectations:

Offshore investing makes sense if you are rich, so the target market for this book may be limited to the rich and the professionals who serve them, however if New Labour taxes like Old Labour it might be attractive to more of us. Paranoid tax dodgers (like me) will appreciate the advice for the price of the book. Leo Gough briefly familiarises us with tax havens around the world, explains the numerous taxes, and evaluates the vehicles and techniques for minimising the tax burden, as well as giving some handy hints for expatriates…

…What the book lacks, because it is published in conjunction with The Financial Times, is a review of the simple but illegal tax dodges. If as a Libertarian you take the view that the State enslaves and steals from you via taxes, you won’t have any qualms about protecting your property from tax-thieves. Silent Banking, a controlled circulation publication from Scope International used for the training of law enforcement agents to counter money laundering, gives useful tips on how to do it. Offshore credit cards are a good method, untraceable earnings are paid offshore into an account linked to a Visa card! This is simple enough for anyone who is self-employed, if someone is paying you in the black (free) economy by cheque, an offshore sterling account could be handy; spend it untaxed via your offshore Visa card, the back pages of Private Eye advertise this facility. “Silent Banking” is extremely difficult to obtain – sorry, you can’t borrow my copy.

I must say that its always heartening to see someone like Paul being so assiduous in demanding every last drop of value from SpAds for the taxes that he appears – by his remarks above – to not be paying.

Unless he’s bullshitting, of course.

11 thoughts on “The Mask Slips..?

  1. Staines is a cunt of the highest order but everyone knows the Special Advisers are doing what Staines says – I too have received emails from Special Advisers from their official email accounts – about their respective bosses’ campaigns. He is absolutely right that this is prohibited. Incredibly stupid into the bargain.

    You have neglected to quote the bit from the standard Special Adviser contract –

    Special Advisers should not use official resources for Party political activity. They are employed to serve the objectives of the Government and the Department in which they work. It is this which justifies their being paid from public funds and being able to use public resources, and explains why their participation in party politics is carefully limited.

    It is a sacking offence. They can pretend to be doing it on their own time, but if they use the office computer they can’t pretend to be using their own resources. Presumably Staines has been forwarded an email, in which case it could get a bit sticky for the person concerned. Witness the contortions that the now unemployed Phil Taylor got into.

    They should use a webmail account at the very least if they want to cover their tracks.

  2. As Alex has pointed out, the actual cost of sending emails is negligible to the point of statistically equivalent to zero, and as for using the office computer, again the costs are marginal at best and no different. in practice, to other civil service staff reading blogs during their lunch break, booking a holiday or just futzing around on a Flash games site.

    Factor in that the majority of SpAds will have been assigned laptops – so without sight of the full original document properties who can say for sure precisely when a particular document was produced or whether and how much of the work went in during office hours.

    And much more damning, and what I think really got up Staines’ nose, is that but for his little coterie of blogroaches and the odd piss-bored denizen of the Westminster Village, no one really gives a fuck about all this one way or another.

    If you look carefully at situation in which use of official resources has stirred up trouble, what you’ll find is that what’s taken most seriously is actions which appear to give official government or parliamentary sanction to political activities.

    The chance of nailing a SpAd for sending stuff like this around Portcullis House is next to fuck all – catch one using departmental stationary for such things and then you’ve got them bang to rights.

    All that Staines has actually achieved here is to leak a document to the outside world that big’s up Hilary Benn as a contender at a time where its thought he may be struggling to get enough nominations to make the ballot paper.

  3. Currently many SpAds are working 24/7 to further the interests of their masters. They are not serving the public. The laptops are public property. They should take leave if they want to pursue their candidates private interests – as they are supposed to do. How does this differ in principle from claiming welfare benefits to which you are not entitled while working?

    To say it is not a big fiddle does not change the fact that it is a fiddle. Plenty of low-income people go to jail for smaller benefits fiddles.

    Just because Staines is generally a cunt does not mean he is right on this.

  4. As Alex has pointed out, the actual cost of sending emails is negligible to the point of statistically equivalent to zero, and as for using the office computer, again the costs are marginal at best and no different. in practice, to other civil service staff reading blogs during their lunch break, booking a holiday or just futzing around on a Flash games site.

    As I have pointed out before, it is not the same at all, no matter how petty you might see it. If reading blogs and playing Flash games are specifically prohibited in the SpAd contracts, then it’s equivalent. They aren’t.

    It is analogous to the UKIP press officers having to move out of their EuroParl offices (and take unpaid leave) during election campaigning. They are not allowed to use their European Parliament-supplied facilities — including email and computers — for party political work.

    Is a little bit of fraud OK as long as the amount scammed is below a certain level (and not taken from an old granny, obviously).

    It’s rather irrelevent whether you think Staine’s motives or methods are suspect, I am not defending those; it is equally disingenuous to imply that, just because you are unlikely to catch them at it, you just shouldn’t bother at all. What would we do if the police took that attitude to crime (obviously leaving aside the fact that, these days, they pretty much seem to have)?

    Oh, and this:

    Staines is clearly too cheap to buy a proper copy of Acrobat

    Why the hell would anyone, other than a print professional, buy a full copy of Acrobat rather than using a free plugin (bearing in mind that a full copy of the Standard Edition costs nearly

  5. >>> How does this differ in principle from claiming welfare benefits to which you are not entitled while working?

    In one sense it, it doesn’t.

    If SpAds are working on their own time and doing this kind of thing voluntarily and without remuneration then their situation is no different to that of some claiming welfare benefits who does a few hours volunteer work in a local charity shop – apart from the SpAd does not have to sign on every couple of weeks and provide proof that they’re looking for work.

    As for the Laptop’s being public property, this necessitates only that they are returned to the department should the SpAd leave their post – claiming misuse of resources on the use of laptop outside working hours is a reach, at best.

    The real point here is that so long as whatever they’re doing does not interfere with their normal work and they put their required hours in, then SpAds are doing absolutely nothing that millions of other people do in offices every day – people who surf the net or blog during lunch breaks, who knock out personal letters on the company laptop and who, I dare say, walk off with the odd pen, paperclip or bit of covert photocopying.

    That’s why most people really don’t give a shit – in fact the more cynical might take the view that its quite the best all around for some SpAds to otherwise occupied for a while and not tinkering around with matters of government.

    SpAd steals paperclip isn’t much of a headline, is it?

  6. “Why the hell would anyone, other than a print professional, buy a full copy of Acrobat rather than using a free plugin (bearing in mind that a full copy of the Standard Edition costs nearly

  7. el Tom,

    Various pieces of software have the ability to convert to PDF built into them (the entirety of Mac OS 10 for starters: it’s built in at system level). This was a deliberate strategy by Adobe to ensure that PDFs became widespread (the failure of Macromedia to do the same meant that its “Flash paper” never took off in the same way).

    As it happens, I am a print professional; I have just upgraded to Adobe Creative Suite 3 (so I have Acrobat Professional), and all of my software is licensed. (I also defend IPs because I don’t want my work ripped off.)

    However, someone like Guido does not need the advanced features that I do, so why on earth would he buy Acrobat?


  8. SpAds are a bad idea. The whole thing is open to abuse and the taxpayer gets nothig for his/her money. However Staines’ arguments are all over the place and in fact he doesn’t seem to be arguing that SpAds should be abolished. Try asking Staines, or any Tory, whether the Tories would abolish SpAds and I’ll be surprised if you get a straight answer.

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