Tory boys bait their hook for Charlie Whelan

Unite's political director has set his lawyers on The Spectator – so they have turned him into their cover star. Ian Burrell reports

"Ah, wonderful!" exclaims the editor of The Spectator Fraser Nelson as he glances at his mobile phone and promptly breaks off from discussing the recent controversies surrounding his star columnist Rod Liddle. "Whelan has responded via Twitter. Excellent, I really hope he engages."

Charlie Whelan, the political director of Unite and Gordon Brown's former spokesman, is the cover star of this week's issue, for which he has been cruelly caricatured with a smoking handgun, above the words "The Man Who Killed New Labour". He is also engaged in legal action against The Spectator.

Having already trailed the story on the magazine's blog site Coffee House, and circulated press releases far and wide, Nelson has had an eye on Whelan's frequently updated Twitter account in anticipation of a reaction. "He didn't respond to any of the 13 questions we asked him. So I twittered him the other day to see if he would respond, because he's a prolific tweeter."

And now the response has come, Nelson reads it out loud: "Hilarious rubbish about me in the Speccie. They can't even copy out newspaper cuts accurately." There wasn't much laughter from either party last July when, after another Nelson posting on Coffee House, headlined "Brown's Women Trouble", Whelan promptly instructed the libel lawyers Carter Ruck. The blog claimed that Whelan had been accused of "bullying" by female Unite colleagues and that the spin doctor was "part of a menacing testosterone-sodden axis" within the Labour Party.

"The publication of these serious allegations, which were clearly calculated to strike at the heart of our client's personal and professional integrity, has caused him considerable distress and embarrassment," wrote the lawyers.

What really riles Nelson is that Carter Ruck were hired on a "no-win, no-fee" agreement. "Charlie Whelan has got no chance of going to court and having a jury argue that it's libellous to call him a bully, no chance. But for us to get to court would cost us thousands of pounds in defence and that's money that a magazine of our budget just doesn't have," asserts Nelson in his soft Scots accent. "It is what I regard as a complete abuse of the notorious libel laws in this country."

Instead of leaving the matter in the hands of the lawyers, he went on the offensive. "Rather than doing a reply to Carter Ruck we are doing a cover story," he says, chuckling. At 36, Nelson is already a star of the right- leaning media, not just the editor of the 182-year-old weekly but a prominent columnist for the News of the World and a frequent television pundit. He rises from the sofa in his office, where he has been sitting with his even younger political editor James Forsyth, 29, and goes to his computer to tweet a reply. "What do we say to Whelan?" he asks his colleague. "'If you think it's so hilarious, then why did you sue us? If it's so hilarious why did you send Carter Ruck after us?' Shall we say that?"

Nelson's hope for a drawn-out exchange in the public view of Whelan's 2,981 Twitter followers is palpable. "Let's see if we can hook him," he says. It's not likely that a fanatical fisherman like Whelan will take the bait and after a couple of comments alluding to "cracking mistakes" and asking "Do people actually pay for this rag?" he tries to ignore a magazine that he regards as being entirely driven by its political allegiance to the Tories.

The following day in Manchester, where he is attending the first prime ministerial debate, Whelan tells The Independent: "I'm moving on. They can carry on with the right-wing rubbish – I'm carrying on with my life. Charlie Whelan's a bully – shock, horror! Everyone who knows me knows that's complete crap."

Nelson is less likely to want to move on. "I think the more interesting story after the election will be Labour's civil war rather than what the Tory government is doing," he says with relish. "There will be blood!"

Unlike his predecessor Matthew d'Ancona – an erudite novelist who is sufficiently friendly with Gordon Brown that he edited a book about Britishness with the Prime Minister while still editing The Spectator – Nelson does not court friends on the left. If he and Forsyth were to be found socialising at the weekend, they'd probably be discussing Tory policy. "Both James and I are the kind of people who in our spare time hang out with Conservatives. We like it; we love it."

When Nelson and his family were recently invited to spend a weekend with the Camerons in their Oxford constituency, the journalist must have been frustrated that the Tory leader had no desire to work on his days off. "David does have a switch in his head between work and social. If James and I were to go off on a Saturday together, we'd talk about politics all the time, but when you see Cameron around his family he's talking about whether he's going to help his daughter bake some biscuits. It's almost like it's rude to bring up business when you are there." He says the Tory was "the perfect host" and admits that, as a magazine editor, "You don't expect to stay in the Cameron household and let your kids play with his kids. It's something quite unusual."

When it's put to him that The Spectator has become tougher and more aggressive under his editorship, he expresses surprise. D'Ancona left after a fall-out with Andrew Neil, the magazine's publisher and Nelson's long-time mentor. "I was very close to Matt," says Nelson of his predecessor, by way of implying a smooth succession. "He took a big gamble making me political editor at a time when nobody knew who I was."

But with Nelson and Forsyth heading the magazine, you feel Neil has his real protégés in place. As they are being photographed in the garden at the rear of The Spectator's elegant Georgian offices a short walk from Parliament Square, the presenter of This Week bursts through a set of glass doors to shout out at his pups: "What's this – the Rogues Gallery?"

Barely six months into the job, Nelson has had to accept the dubious distinction of being the first editor to be rapped by the Press Complaints Commission over the contents of a blog. The press watchdog was unimpressed with the evidence that Liddle produced to back up his blogged assertion that the "overwhelming majority" of violent crime in London was carried out by young African-Caribbean men. Nelson says "we accept" the PCC ruling, though Liddle has blogged again to say the finding was "a bizarre and incoherent adjudication" and that he intends to complain to the watchdog over a piece on the white working-class written by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of The Independent.

The editor expresses the view that blogs, which can be followed by the comments of many contributors, should not be treated in the same way as printed articles. "Our case to the PCC was that a web post is fundamentally different to a magazine article because it is essentially an article in 400 parts," he says. "The first part by the original author and then we publish in our legally liable form everything which follows. I published Rod and then the 400 guys under it and I see them as a whole."

After being rumoured as a possible future editor of The Independent at the start of the year, Liddle was the subject of personal attacks and has responded by being increasingly caustic in his criticisms in The Spectator of the influence of metropolitan liberals.

"Poor old Rod!" says Nelson. "There was a great national mood of Rod-baiting going on when people thought he was going to become editor of The Independent. I just couldn't be happier to have Rod and the readers couldn't be happier, he's a perfect fit."

Liddle is one of a number of prominent contributors to the magazine but Nelson's only staff writer is Forsyth, whom he credits for the creation of Coffee House. Forsyth has a strong grasp of the political blogosphere, an environment in which he says Labour is making belated progress.

"There used to be an almost total domination by the right and the left has made massive strides, [Will Straw's site] Left Foot Forward has done a good job. Previously, left-wing blogs were much higher on opinion and anger than fact, so the emergence of left-wing blogs that do instant rebuttals has helped them out."

Nelson is still a story-getter himself. His blog posting this month on the high number of jobs created under Labour going to "foreign-born workers" made it on to front pages and was discussed during Prime Ministers' Questions. Some saw the story as pre-election immigrant bashing but Nelson has for years pestered the Office of National Statistics for data that will produce stories. "I'm such a nerd, and sometimes it pays off. On my computer I've got this vast database that I love trawling."

Too many other journalists, he says, "write up stories that they are pretty much given by metrics the Government chooses to release". Nelson learnt his approach as a young business reporter on The Times. "I was taught by Patience Wheatcroft how to go through the figures of the accounts and look for the story in the footnotes. When I moved to politics I just kept doing it." Wheatcroft, now editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal Europe, is another Nelson mentor.

Even so, he claims his plans for enhancing the magazine are not so much focused on politics and business as on the arts. "What I would like to project more is our literary section, arts and culture, because we've only got a relatively small number of political pieces," he says, admitting that the public's antipathy towards politicians is not good for business.

"The Spectator is about culture and books, arts, life. That is not obvious to our potential readers. A lot of people pass us in WH Smith and think 'These guys are wall-to-wall politics.' That doesn't help us. When we put Cameron on our front page we tend to take a sales hit rather than a sales jump."

So Charlie Whelan and his smoking gun may not be a best-seller after all, though that doesn't mean he won't be speaking once more to his friends from Carter Ruck.

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