Profile: Matt Drudge - Webmaster of pork pies

IT WAS there only briefly, before being whipped offline by those who monitor the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Written and posted in haste, it contained even more grammatical slips than usual webspeak. But it didn't miss its target: "The Drudge Report is a Heap of Shit US-based news aggregation website run by Matt Drudge, Who is a C***... Occasionally Drudge authors news stories himself, such as the one about prince harry being deployed. what a tit."

Welcome to the world of Matt Drudge, the man labelled "the most important journalist in the world" and "the Walter Cronkyte of his generation". The fact that he has also been dubbed "a moron with a modem" shows that he splits opinion as effectively as he breaks stories which can destroy political careers.

Drudge is hardly a secret – his website attracts 600 million visitors a month. But in Britain, at least, he has been something of a niche product favoured by journalists looking to see what's likely to make the next day's US newspapers. That changed last week when Drudge made a rare foray into 'British' news when he revealed that Prince Harry was in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban.

The army's deployment of Harry with the Household Cavalry was supposed to be a secret. Although some UK reporters were flown out to interview him, it was on the understanding that nothing would be reported until the Prince was safely home. What the Ministry of Defence didn't bank on was something that Drudge has been dining out on for a decade: journalists keep secrets as well as male royals keep their hair.

An Australian website was first to hint at Harry's adventure, then German magazine Frau Im Spiegel ran a gossip item. By Thursday, Drudge had it splashed across his website and the story could not be contained. Within hours Harry was bound for Blighty, with the head of the British army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, saying he was "very disappointed".

Thousands of miles away, in his 1m Florida home, surrounded by a bank of computers monitoring events around the world, Drudge rubbed it in with a quote from Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow on the freedom of the press: "I never thought I'd find myself saying thank God for Drudge."

Matthew Drudge – for that is his real name – was born into middle-class comfort 41 years ago in Takoma Park, Maryland. It surprises many who view Drudge as part of a right-wing conspiracy that his parents were liberal Jewish Democrats – his mother, Claire, worked as an attorney for Ted Kennedy. The couple divorced when Drudge was six, however, setting up a troubled early life for their only child.

Viewed as a loner by classmates – one claims he started wearing his trademark pork pie hat at high school to cover premature baldness – Drudge had a double crisis at the age of 15. First, his mother was hospitalised, reportedly with schizophrenia. Then he was arrested for making harassing phone calls to a girl, leading to a referral for psychiatric treatment. Drudge left school with as few qualifications as he had ideas about what to do with himself. Jobs at a convenience store and a McDonald's followed before two events that changed his life. First, Drudge moved to Los Angeles and entered the media as a runner for quiz show The Price Is Right. His next job, in the gift shop at TV network CBS, was hardly the big time but it introduced him to the gossipy world of journalists. He began "daydreaming" about working for ABC news and describes staring "up at the Washington Post newsroom over on 15th Street, looking up longingly, knowing I'd never get in".

The second life-changing event came in 1994, when Drudge's father Robert bought him his first computer. Within a year he was e-mailing gossip to a network of internet friends; in 1996 he started charging $10 a year subscription; concentrating on politics, he soon had 85,000 subscribers and developed a website which attracted so much advertising he killed off the e-mail service.

Drudge's ploy was to tirelessly harvest newspapers and broadcasters from around the world for their best and most quirky stories, and then create landing points on the Drudge Report. But he also gained a name for exclusives, usually by providing an outlet for the gossip and half-stories other journalists were unable to publish or broadcast.

Some decent breaks resulted, such as revealing the identity of Bob Dole's running mate in the 1996 presidential campaign, Jack Kemp. The big one came two years later when Newsweek magazine sat on a story which suggested an inappropriate relationship between President Bill Clinton and an intern called Monica Lewinski. When Drudge published it on January 17 the scandal of the year went up in a puff of cigar smoke and he earned fame, fortune and the lifelong hatred of many Democrats.

Other stories followed, though Drudge's claim that he 'broke' the news of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, probably has more to do with his willingness to take a 'flyer' on rumours than his own journalistic endeavour.

This approach has had its casualties too: Drudge had to retract a 1997 claim that White House assistant Sidney Blumenthal had beat his wife; in 2004 he wrongly linked Democratic presidential contender John Kerry with an unnamed intern; and a report on a prostitute who claimed to have had Clinton's love child turned out to be based on a hoax. But in a month in which the hugely respected (none more so than by itself) New York Times printed a spurious article detailing a relationship between Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting John McCain and a female lobbyist, many US commentators fear that Drudge's brand of journalism is winning the day. When a photo emerged last week of Barack Obama in an African outfit with headgear that looked suspiciously like a turban – allegedly leaked in a bit to boost Hillary Clinton's flagging campaign – it appeared first on Drudge's website then in every mainstream news outlet.

But if Drudge was a pioneer of seat-of-the-pants news-breaking, his website now has many mimics and rivals. And, asked about the new breed of bloggers two years ago, he insisted: "There's a danger of the internet just becoming loud, ugly and boring with a thousand voices screaming for attention... I don't read them. I like to create waves and not surf them. And who are these influential bloggers? You can't name one because they don't exist."

A sign, perhaps, that Drudge is now part of the media establishment – and in danger of being overtaken by the world he helped bring into existence.

You've been Googled

Asked in 2005 what would constitute his perfect story, Drudge replied: "An earthquake hitting a hospital with Bill Clinton having surgery and President Bush in the waiting room and an asteroid coming its way."

&#149 The Drudge Report was co-produced by Drudge's friend Andrew Breitbart, who left to help set up the rival, more liberal-minded The Huffington Post. He now has his own site.

&149 Drudge has twice taken his journalism to the US airwaves. His Drudge TV show for Fox ran for 16 months; the radio version of the Drudge Report was syndicated across the US in the early 2000s.

&#149 When Time magazine named Drudge one of the 100 most influential people in the world, it described his website – which receives a reported five billion hits a year – as "a ludicrous combination of gossip, political intrigue and extreme weather reports... Still put together mostly by the guy who started out as a convenience-store clerk."