During the election campaign a cloud hung over Grant Shapps, the then chairman of the Conservative party. In April, he was accused of editing his own Wikipedia profile and those of other politicians by Richard Symonds, a Wikipedia member of staff and Lib Dem activist. Symonds claimed that Shapps ‘or someone acting on his behalf’ used an anonymous account ‘Contribsx’ to make edits that appeared to be to Shapps’ benefit. But there has been no hard evidence Shapps edited the pages and Symonds has been censured by Wikipedia for his actions.
Now, it transpires that Wikipedia may not have been acting neutrally. Coffee House has been passed an email that was sent around the board of Wikimedia UK, the charity responsible for Wikipedia in Britain. It suggests that the organisation was concerned about protecting its reputation as a politically-neutral charity:
‘We should be glad that Shapps has a pretty safe seat, because if he lost his seat, we would be open to the accusation that the charity had acted in a partisan manner during an election period’
Speaking to Coffee House about the email, Shapps says the whole affair is ‘pretty disreputable stuff’ and described the saga as ‘a rogue politically motivated Wikipedia editor who was able to trump up a front page story during the general election’. He is particularly concerned with the contents of the email:
‘What is more concerning is that despite this Freedom of Information request showing Wikipedia staff discussing how relieved they were that my Welwyn Hatfield majority would prevent more significant damage to Wikipedia’s own reputation, they have never actually apologised for what happened last April.’
Shapps also criticises Wikipedia for not having procedures in place to deal with stories that can cause reputational damage:
‘I have been in public service long enough to handle this kind of thing, but I do worry that Wikipedia does not appear to have a processes in place to quickly, fairly and effectively deal with this kind of incident where a single rogue employee conspires with a newspaper reporter to invent a story.
‘My concern is that an ordinary member of the public who is equally misrepresented on Wikipedia might never get the opportunity to get the record set straight or receive an apology. Wikipedia is a great resource, but to maintain public trust, they do need to get their house in order.’
Although Shapps was duly returned as the MP for Welwyn Hatfield with a majority of 17,424, he was removed as Tory chairman and now serves as Minister of State at DFID. As a friend of Shapps puts it: ‘Grant may not have lost his seat at the election but he did lose his Cabinet job. It will take time for him to recover’.
A representative from Wikimedia UK declined to comment.