The Advertising Standards Authority must be rueing the day they had their remit extended to website jurisdiction, after unwittingly becoming a political football in an increasingly virulent fracas over the integrity of Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps.
It all began innocuously enough when blogger The Plashing Vole drew our attention to the upwardly mobile Tory minister’s multiple personality disorder. In his younger days, Mr Shapps had posed as a certain “Michael Green”, web entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer millionaire. Mr Green, unlike Mr Shapps, was far from being a person of stainless reputation. Mr Green’s line of work was creating internet companies like howtocorp.com which peddled “Self Help” and “Get Rich Quickly” software packages at $500 a time, rather in the manner of snake-oil salesmen and the travelling apothecaries of the Wild West.
For example, one of How To Corp’s top products was something called TrafficPaymaster, which purported to bring gullible or unscrupulous customers instant riches by “scraping” – or, to use the vernacular, “plagiarising” – other people’s web content and claiming the resultant Google-generated ad revenue. Google does not entirely approve of this type of operation and has reprimanded TrafficPaymaster for being ‘unethical’, though it was not strictly – I hasten to add – acting illegally.
Most of Michael Green’s websites have now disappeared from the internet and Mr Shapps assures us that he has long since overcome the Green personality psychosis. Part of the therapy has involved displacing the Green identity onto his wife Belinda, who has manfully managed the internet marketing company all on her own since 2008. Alas, there has been the occasional relapse. In 2010 for instance, Michael popped up as the author of a book called How to Bounce Back from Recession, replete with Samuel Smiles-style self-help platitudes and lots of ‘$20,000 in 20 days’ guarantees. The exposure of a Shapp’s relapse might be considered embarrassment enough for a Tory politician clambering up the greasy political pole, but there was worse to come.
Mr Vole, aka Dr Aidan Byrne, senior lecturer in English, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, has descried a third Shapps alter ego in the person of “Sebastian Fox”. It turns out Mr Fox has taken a proprietorial interest in How To Corp, to the extent that the website is now called Sebastian Fox’s How to Corp – The Home of Great Toolkits on the Net. Vole – and he cannot be alone in this – felt this kind of conduct unbecoming of a former, and no doubt future, minister of the crown.
“After a bit of digging,” he tells us,”I decided that the enthusiastic endorsements by happy customers of HowToCorp might be just as fictional as Grant’s alter egos.” So, he complained to the ASA about it. And great was his joy when they agreed to do something about it and investigate: “I have a reply from the ASA. They’re going to conduct a proper investigation. This might be a little uncomfortable for Shapps and his wife Belinda. They will have to demonstrate the existence of Fox, Green and the endorsers… which might be a tad difficult.”
That was on September 28th, and things have moved on a bit since then. The ASA have got into a state of high dudgeon over Dr Vole sharing with his readers their “confidential” missive to him and are threatening to can the investigation. All trace of Sebastian Fox’s How to Corp now seems to have been expunged from the internet, although readers eager for an insight may treasure this memento still lingering on YouTube:
Meantime, Shapps is at the centre of a media circus, and not enjoying every minute of it. In fact, he’s acting like a wild beast cornered, lashing out at anyone with the temerity to have a go at him – Ed Milliband being the latest victim. Not surprisingly really: at best, in the light of these revelations, we must regard Shapps as slightly crackers, and at worst, downright dodgy. Is this the kind of man who should be put in a position of public trust?
And it’s not just Shapps’ conduct that should be taken into consideration. He is part of a pattern – of bad judgement on the part of David Cameron. Or, as Volely puts it:
So far we’ve had David Laws fiddling his expenses. Jeremy Hunt hides between trees and secretly promotes the interests of Rupert Murdoch over the public good, Michael Gove using his wife’s email address to hide his dodgy and partisan dealings in the education sphere (in an attempt to evade the Freedom of Information Act), and Liam Fox forced to resign after he failed to make any distinction between his friends’ arms-dealing and intelligence businesses, sinister military-industrial pressure groups and his responsibilities as a government minister.
The only person omitted from this lamentable catalogue, may I respectfully suggest, is Shapps’ immediate predecessor as Party chairman: Baroness Warsi.
Nevertheless, you’ve scored a palpable hit, Dr Byrne, a palpable hit. Just what’s needed before the annual Tory Party conference.