Stephen Glover: Cash for content: is the Guardian as pure as it claims to be?

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The Independent Online

The Guardian has been chiding other newspapers for not taking seriously its "revelations" about the News of the World and telephone hacking. Not for the first time – My God, no – the newspaper climbs on to its pedestal and looks down its nose at the rest of Fleet Street, which it judges less scrupulous, less virtuous and less committed to fearless journalism.

So it is with great fascination that I have been considering a leaked Guardian email that has fallen into my hands. It does not suggest boundless venality. If another, earthbound newspaper had produced such a document, one might have shrugged one's shoulders, and reflected that times are hard and people may understandably sail a little close to the wind. But The Guardian, moral arbiter and scourge of malpractice? That makes this special.

The email is dated 23 February 2010 and is written by Wendy Miller, public sector manager at Society Guardian, to someone at the Local Government Association. It discloses that Society Guardian is shortly publishing a 12-page supplement about the future of public servives, and is looking for three or four sponsors, each of which will pay £15,000 plus Vat. The authenticity of the email is not in question, and has not been challenged by The Guardian.

There is nothing wrong with a newspaper seeking a sponsor for a supplement provided the sponsorship is not concealed. It goes on all the time. What makes this case unusual are the terms on which sponsorship is sought. Wendy Miller writes that the sponsors would receive "significant branding space as well as input into the editorial direction and content of the project". This would seem to imply that the editorial content of a supplement can be influenced by a sponsor, which would constitute dodgy journalism.

I rang Wendy Miller to seek a response, and she hung up when I told her of my interest. So I sent her an email setting out my concerns which was soon answered by someone called Diane Heath, acting head of PR. In the grandiloquent, slightly offended tones employed by The Guardian whenever its integrity is questioned, she disavowed any impropriety, and referred me to the newspaper's guidelines which sponsors of its supplements are expected to observe.

Amid much verbiage there is a short relevant passage. The guidelines say that sponsors "will have an input in the planning (ie synopsis) of the supplements" but that the commissioning editor is not obliged to accept any such suggestions. This would seem to go significantly less far than Wendy Miller's email which dangles the prospect of "input into the editorial direction" – that might be defined as "planning" – as well as "the content" of the supplement. Content means articles.

Now it might be said that a sponsor paying £15,000 would read the newspaper's guidelines, whereupon he or she would find that the "input" was less generous than that indicated in Wendy Miller's email. But she does not refer to any guidelines. Moreover, she makes clear that she has never done business with the person to whom she is writing, so he may well be unaware of them.

She offers him a degree of editorial control without any caveat. Is this consonant with the newspaper's uniquely lofty view of itself? Readers will have to decide for themselves, but I think not. I am also pretty appalled that the Local Government Association, a publicly funded body, was invited to use taxpayers' money to subsidise Guardian journalism. (It decided not to.) That doesn't seem right to me.

Society Guardian, like other of the newspapers' supplements, has a near monopoly of public-sector advertisements which the Tories have said they will address if they win the election. Someone should look into the practice of public bodies buying editorial content. Meanwhile if the newspaper should undertake an inquiry into this affair – a favoured tactic when its integrity is impugned – let me predict its unruffled and self-serving conclusion. There is nothing whatsoever to worry about, and The Guardian is always perfect.

Enough agendas to fox even President Zuma

I wonder what President Jacob Zuma of South Africa made of the coverage of the Lord Ashcroft affair if he had time to pick up a newspaper during his brief visit to Britain. A quick look at The Sun might have left him unaware of the controversy surrounding the tax arrangements of the vice-chairman of the Conservative party since the paper largely ignored them. Should the Yorkshire Ripper turn out to be a Tory donor, The Sun would probably keep it quiet.

Mr Zuma might have formed the impression that it was an important though not sensational story if he relied on The Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail. Neither paper has any interest in harming the Tories. A glance at The Independent, which got it about right, would have convinced him that it was quite a big deal.

The Labour-supporting Daily Mirror enjoyed some Ashcroft-bashing while recognising there might be limits to its readers' interest. Not so The Guardian. For months it has been gunning for Ashcroft, recognising him as a Tory Achilles heel, and last week there were a succession of apoplectic splashes.

The paper's other quarry is Andy Coulson, David Cameron's PR man. Its obsession with phone hacking at the News of the World, formerly edited by Mr Coulson, can largely be explained by its desire to scupper the Tories.

Mr Zuma may have had trouble in deconstructing the motives of The Times, second only to The Guardian in the ferocity and scope of its coverage. Isn't the Murdoch-owned paper now supposed to be sympathetic to the Tories? The Times, of course, was fighting a re-match of a campaign it lost in 1999.

Between June and October of that year it published tens of thousands of words about Michael Ashcroft, culminating in the mistaken accusation that the US Drug Enforcement Administration had the then Tory Treasurer in its sights as a drug runner and money-launderer. After Lord Ashcroft sued the paper, it admitted it had been wrong and published a correction.

Most of the participants in that battle have moved on, including Peter Stothard, who has long since vacated the editor's chair. But one belligerent remains.

Tom Baldwin was the author of many of the 1999 pieces, and was accused of being encouraged by New Labour friends. It was a great joy – and how it took one back! – to see his byline, admittedly not prominent, amid last week's coverage.