Meet the new media mogul: why Tories fear Lord Ashcroft

But when Andrew Rawnsley quit Politics Home last week, it was the latest sign
of unease at the growing influence of the Conservative Party’s deputy
chairman. Lord Ashcroft is now marching ahead with plans to build his own
media empire, concentrating on the kind of social media platforms used so
effectively by Barack Obama in the US presidential election.

A deal was struck last weekend between Lord Ashcroft and the proprietors of
two major political websites, Conservative Home and Politics Home, which
sees him take a 57.5 per cent stake in a new parent company over both. Tim
Montgomerie, the owner of Conservative Home, revealed plans for the creation
of a third website, which will “look like an online British newspaper
but where the content is provided by bloggers rather than conventionally
paid journalists”.

But the cause of last week’s controversy was the sale of Politics Home, a
supposedly neutral site founded 18 months ago by Stephan Shakespeare, the
wealthy founder of polling firm YouGov. One of its chief selling points has
been the Phi100 panel, a group of 100 influential figures from across the
political spectrum polled in a daily email on issues of the day. Following
last weekend’s announcement, more than 30 members of the panel have
resigned, claiming Lord Ashcroft’s ownership would compromise the
independence of the site and their reputations.

Martin Bright, former political editor of the New Statesman, was one of them: “When
it was first set up, I was charged with persuading important people from the
left to get involved, assuring them it would be completely independent. It
became a thing of rare beauty. Now they’ve pissed it up the wall.”

Shakespeare rejects suggestions that the site will cease to be neutral. “There
is zero point in the site if it doesn’t provide absolutely impartial
coverage,” he says. “There will be no discernible change, as you
will see. It will speak for itself.”

Some bloggers have questioned the wisdom of Rawnsley and others in quitting
before the direction of Politics Home has become clear. But the greatest
concern is for the independence and plurality of the blogosphere. Until now,
political social media websites have been owned by journalists and
entrepreneurs. Now, the deputy chairman of the Conservatives has assumed a
controlling stake in two of the most-read sites, with an election no more
than nine months away.

Lord Ashcroft’s investment in new media is causing palpable unease to the
Conservative leadership. Ashcroft has so far avoided declaring his tax
status but he is believed to be a non-domiciled resident of Belize. After
pressure from Labour backbenchers, a late clause was added to the Political
Parties and Elections Act this summer, meaning Ashcroft will now have to
clarify his tax status, for which he has been set a deadline of January.

Ashcroft is one of the Conservative Party’s most generous donors, but his
unresolved tax status continues to be an embarrassment. Yet his acquisition
of influential political websites makes him useful to the party. “If
the Tories had been hoping to sideline Ashcroft, they certainly can’t afford
to now,” says one party insider.

Lord Ashcroft will not interfere editorially and has no hidden motive,
Shakespeare insists. However, this newspaper understands he is planning a
programme of video virals for the Conservatives in the run-up to the
election and would need access to a television studio for this purpose. At
18 Doughty Street, the headquarters of Politics Home, there is a mothballed
television suite, from where Shakespeare used to broadcast an internet TV
station. But Mr Shakespeare denies the suggestion of any overlap with Lord
Ashcroft’s other projects. “There isn’t any overlap of that sort.”

Shakespeare says that he is chairman of the company and will have “a
casting vote on a board of two.” But as the majority shareholder, Lord
Ashcroft will have the power to sack him. What if a conflict of interests
should arise, such as a story about Lord Ashcroft’s tax affairs? “Then
I will behave in the natural way and the site would cover it like any other
story.”

In any case, Lord Ashcroft’s deputy chairmanship of the party may soon cease
to be an issue. According to Shakespeare, Lord Ashcroft intends to resign
from his party office after the election and concentrate on his media
projects. “I’m taking a long-term view,” he says, ” Michael
is giving up his position after the election and in the long term it is
excellent to have an investor like Michael”.

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