Hodging the question: Dan Hodges, an imaginary 'red' mole, and the difference between reporting and stenography

Britain’s most consistently clownish political columnist does it again.

There are two main ways for journalists to approach the Grensill/Cameron lobbying scandal:

  1. fastidious and forensic investigation, based on multiple sources and a serious engagement with the issues

  2. a focus on cartoonish palace intrigue fed by the usual anonymous sources which barely rises beyond stolid stenography.

No prizes for guessing which option the Mail on Sunday’s most reliably ludicrous contributor, Dan Hodges, chose.

Following The Financial Times, The Times/Sunday Times, and The Wall Street Journal breaking a series of stories on Greensill, David Cameron’s lobbying efforts and the wider scandal of civil servants setting up lucrative second jobs, Hodges threw his effort onto the pile.

It has more in common with an airport thriller than anything resembling journalism and comes with its own far-from-cuddly cartoon character.

Under the headline As we reveal the hunt for a Redthroat mole at the heart of the Government, a Labour insider says: 'We have been getting very juicy stuff. You'd be surprised where it's coming from', Hodges breathlessly begins:

The hunt is on for Redthroat. 'It's pretty clear we've got a Labour mole inside Government,' a Minister tells me. 'There were suspicions before the Greensill affair, but this has basically confirmed it. It's the only explanation for where all this stuff is coming from.'

Roughly 13 paragraphs later he concedes…

Perhaps there is no Redthroat. Everything that has emerged in relation to Greensill may have done so without Sir Humphrey's helping hand.

… before going straight back to writing as if there is no doubt whatsoever that Redthroat exists. Imagine Woodward and Bernstein combined in a single figure suffering from undiagnosed concussion and you’ve got Dan Hodges.

But the government didn’t need to meet up with Hodges in a darkened parking garage to get him to traffic their latest bout of paranoiac finger-pointing at senior civil servants. It could just text him the lines and wait for the article to appear.

A quote early in the piece reveals how much the government is both bothered and not bothered at the same time — it’s Schrödinger's scandal apparently:

'It's been destabilising,' one Minister admits. 'No one knows what's going to come out next. None of this is properly sticking. But it just takes so long to work out what's actually gone on and provide a proper response.'

It’s clear that Hodges is once again being used as a megaphone for briefings from Number 10 against both the Civil Service and Boris Johnson’s perennial frenemy, Michael Gove, who does more plotting than an obsessive cartologist. Hodges’ dictation continues:

The finger of suspicion is currently pointing in one direction. 'You don't need to be a genius to work out which department is behind all this,' says another Minister. 'It's the Cabinet Office.'

Last October, I was told Cabinet Office officials were in the process of drawing up a secret dossier to deploy against senior Johnson officials. And last week, allies of former PM David Cameron accused aides loyal to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove of deliberately fanning the Greensill flames.

But now attention is again turning towards career civil servants. 'They've hung us out to dry,' one Minister complains. 'It's impossible to get them to give clear advice on any of this stuff, and when they do give advice, it's impossible to get them to stand behind it. I've gone to my officials and said, 'OK, what are the rules on this?' And they've been saying, 'Well, it's complicated...'

It’s unsurprising that a government so stuffed full of Vote Leave operatives and supporters finds nuance difficult to handle. If only the Civil Service would boil down their options to a three-word slogan.

Neither is it surprising that those briefing Hodges turned to him in a situation where “you don’t need to be a genius to work it out”. Hodges’ greatest asset is not being a genius once a week for 800 words in the Mail on Sunday.

Hodges blithely comments in the piece that he doesn’t “believe this is the momentous scandal others say it is,” but I suspect if it were players on the red team in the frame rather than his good buddies in blue, he’d have an entirely different conclusion. It’s not for nothing that he always refers to the Labour leader as Keir Starmer while chummily talking of ‘Boris’.

While Hodges’ ‘scoops’ are the subject of derision every other weekend, his great misfortune on this occasion was to blunder out of his Westminster bubble of bullshit and into the territory of reporters who actually commit acts of journalism for a living.

Robert Smith of The Financial Times, whose byline has been on many of the big Greensill scoops, didn’t pull his punches. He coldly compared Hodges’ gossip-driven drivel with his own beat — finance — “where the commentary is more ‘reality-based”. But Hodges thought he’d sprung a trap when The Times’ Gabriel Pogrund said he had talked to civil service sources during his reporting:

But this was cheap dissembling by Hodges — a common tactic at the Mail titles — jumping from his original piece with its picture of a mole dressed in communist uniform and reheated ‘reds under the bed’ rhetoric to the simple claim that journalists reporting on government lobbying had… talked to government officials. That’s a little less thrilling than implying that Labour has a shadowy spy at the very heart of government.

Hodges swiftly crunched into reverse gear, claiming that his article “never said ‘Redthroat’ was ‘affiliated’ with Labour in any way”. Yes, and who could ever have drawn that implication from the name ‘Redthroat’, the hyperbolic references to a mole, and the illustration of a literal mole dolled up in Labour red?

High on the smell of his own farts and his proximity to government ‘sources’, Hodges seems happy to embarrass himself as long as keeps getting Number 10 briefings. If his ‘reporting’ was a foodstuff, he would legally be required to state on the label that it was merely “fact-flavoured”; he writes not about reality but what a small number of people in the Johnson government wish to be true.

Asked whether the corruption discovered and discussed in the original reporting was more important than his tenuous take on whistleblowing — more thinly sourced than a supermarket frozen pizza — desperate Dan replied, “Depends on the context I suppose.”

The context is that attacking Labour and making excuses for the Tories is just what Dan Hodges does. Given that his mother, the Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson was also a long-serving Labour MP, Hodges’ whole career looks like the longest bout of teenage rebellion in modern history. Dan Hodges is 52 years old.

His column on the previous Sunday was dedicated to a screed about what he says is Labour’s lack of patriotism — despite Keir Starmer’s constant flag chasing — and the one before that was… a defence of David Cameron.

Supplied with lines by Cameron ‘allies’ — David Cameron in a series of outfits from his children’s dress-up box — Hodges wrote:

… what really lies at the heart of the Greensill affair [is] not greed, or entitlement – though both are present. But a much more basic struggle for political relevance. David Cameron was sitting in his posh shed, watching the political project he'd devoted his life to being dismantled before his eyes.

Then the 'smiling Australian' appeared. He had big contacts and bigger plans. And claimed he wanted an expert guide to lead him through the Westminster jungle. Of course, David Cameron picked up the phone. What else was he going to do that day?

Don’t you see? David Cameron was just bored and needed a hobby. He should have dropped Hodges’ a line instead of hooking up with Greensil. The Mail on Sunday columnist has a well-received sideline in creating board games — his two creations Where There Is Discord: War in the South Atlantic and Codeword Cromwell: The German Invasion of England, 8 June 1940 are both well-reviewed.

Just as it’s bad for politics that David Cameron turned his hand to lobbying, it’s a crying shame that Dan Hodges has spent so many years committed to being the worst columnist in Britain when he could have been a board game superstar. And unlike his journalism, his games are rooted in events that actually happened.

Still, it’s not surprising that Hodges sprinkles his reporting with fantasy. Many of his Mail on Sunday colleagues do exactly the same thing. Elsewhere in the paper yesterday, the Mail on Sunday’s political editor, Glen Owen, offered his own take on the ‘scoop’ — Hunt for Labour's Downing Street moles: Network of civil servant 'spies' are feeding information to Sir Keir Starmer's team to try to destabilise the Government, senior Tories claim.

Owen, seemingly relying on the same briefings at Hodges, opts for even more dramatic language. He writes:

A network of Labour Party 'spies' is operating at the heart of Whitehall, feeding secret information to Sir Keir Starmer's team to destabilise the Government, senior Tory sources claim.

The moles – Labour-sympathising civil servants – are believed to have played a key role in triggering the lobbying scandal which has allowed Sir Keir's party to construct a narrative of 'Tory sleaze' by leaking details of David Cameron's contacts with Ministers and officials.

… The Tory spy-hunters believe a 'cell' of Labour supporters, centred on the Cabinet Office, was activated last year after Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson's former senior adviser in No 10, declared that a 'hard rain' was coming for the Civil Service as part of planned reforms to break up Whitehall's grip on the establishment.

Just as the design of the mole cartoon accompanying Hodges’ column mimicked cold war anti-communist propaganda, it’s no coincidence that Owen’s article sounds like the ravings of a paranoiac in a Berlin hotel room.

A more honest analysis of what meagre parcel of facts lies behind Owen’s over-written twaddle might read:

‘Civil servants have leaked details about rule-breaking within government and we at the Mail on Sunday are annoyed because it’s only okay when they leak to us about things we think are important/useful/exploitable.’

That Owen and the Mail on Sunday have an axe to grind about competitors breaking stories is made apparent by the following paragraph:

Disruptive leaks from inside No 10 soon started appearing in sympathetic media outlets – such as the revelation in the Financial Times last September that the Government was planning legislation which would breach international law by letting the UK unilaterally rewrite parts of the Brexit departure agreement.

Only in the hyper-partisan pages of the Mail titles is it possible to claim with a straight face that the Financial Times is a “sympathetic media outlet” on Labour’s side. Presumably, the financial paper’s famous pink pages are a little too close to red for Owen’s liking.

Owen also engages in words so weaselly they practically squeak when raising the Barnard Castle scandal — which incidentally did nothing to shake Dominic Cummings from his perch in Downing Street. He writes:

These Whitehall wars were being fought as the story broke about Mr Cummings' infamous 260-mile trip from London to his parents' home in Durham during lockdown, leading some sources to speculate at the time that 'dark forces' had been behind the exposé.

“Leading some sources to speculate… that ‘dark forces’ had been behind the exposé…” is tabloidese for “we didn’t like that story and Dominic Cummings was a good source for us.”

Former regional chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal, who compiled a 225-page dossier on Cummings’ rule-breaking road trip and submitted it to the Crown Prosecution Service, disputed Owen’s unsourced insinuations:

Hodges and Owen — which sounds like a particularly disreputable firm of estate agents — would be purely laughable if it were not for the fact that they write for one of Britain’s most-read newspapers.

The ‘Redthroat’ story — and it is just that, ‘a story’ — is part of a concerted effort to distract from the facts of corruption, pushing the narrative towards one of ‘red’ spies at the heart of government and a civil service out to sabotage ‘the people’s government’.

It’s horseshit but it’s potentially dangerous horseshit that dismisses actual journalism in favour of gossip and fiction deployed in service of Boris Johnson’s interests and the Mail group’s party line.

One day — probably not too long from now — Dan Hodges will be Lord Hodges and it will be for this kind of service to the Conservative Party that he will receive that ‘honour’; from mole hunts to an ermine outfit in just a few easy steps.