Three Cheersfor Downing Street's Attempts to Muzzle the Press
Fleet Street veteran Liz Gerard commends journalists for standing up to Boris Johnson’s attempts to control them – but says that they should also shoulder some of the blame.
Three cheers for Lee Cain for trying to exclude certain journalists from a Number 10 Downing Street event on Monday! Two cheers for the political journalists who walked out in sympathy with those on the “wrong” side of the Downing Street mat! One cheer for the Conservative loyalists who remonstrated in print, on radio and social media!
Why three cheers for the Prime Minister’s communications director, the villain of the piece?
Because Lee Cain finally prodded a dozing mainstream media into action, exposing to a wider public both Boris Johnson’s accountability-dodging (again) and the way that the hand-in-glove political lobby system can be manipulated to control what information reaches the people.
Why only two cheers for the top political editors, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston and others?
Because while their protest is welcome, it is also late.
Those on the “right” side of the rug have been far too cosy to Johnson and his top advisor Dominic Cummings – tweeting, broadcasting and printing “Boris says” stories, which essentially consist of propaganda shared in private “briefings”, without the most basic checks. Remember the Matt Hancock aide who was “assaulted” by “Labour activists” on a visit to a hospital where a child patient was photographed lying on the floor during the 2019 General Election campaign? Except he wasn’t, he walked into a cyclist’s waving hand.
The Sunday Telegraph was at it again only this weekend. It reported that Johnson was “privately furious” because the EU was reneging on its offer of a Canada-style Brexit trade deal. Except it wasn’t – as the most cursory glance at the withdrawal agreement and political declaration the Prime Minister so boastfully negotiated and signed would have told both briefer and briefed.
Why only one cheer for Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail, Michael Deacon of the Telegraph, The Times and Daily Mail leader writers, and commentators such as Julia Hartley-Brewer?
They are absolutely right that the Government should not impede journalists, whether sympathetic or hostile, in their task of scrutinising the executive and explaining to their audiences what policies mean to them.
They are right to point out that there would be uproar if Jeremy Corbyn’s team tried such a stunt. But what took them so long to say this?
Boris Johnson has been refusing to answer to anyone but the softest audience ever since he entered the Conservative Party leadership race. He holds ‘press conferences’ for children, but avoids real press conferences with real journalists. And, when they are unavoidable, he can, like Donald Trump, choose which “friendly” publications are allowed to pose their questions.
He holds a “People’s Question Time” on social media, in which he is quizzed on such vital issues as what shampoo he uses. But, in forcing through the biggest change to the country in a generation, he avoided real Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons (he made only three appearances in his first 20 weeks in office). He sits on the This Morning sofa, but not in Andrew Neil’s black chair. And all the time he is flooding Twitter timelines with videos where he can speak without interruption or challenge.
During last year’s General Election campaign, Pippa Crerar of the Mirror – one of those on the ‘wrong’ side of the rug on Monday – was refused a place on the Conservative battlebus. Did other journalists covering the Prime Minister’s journey disembark in solidarity? No. Because that was “party” business, rather than “government” business? Even though it was the same team pushing the same agenda?
For rather too long, our media have given the impression of being used. The fear of being locked out, of not getting the stories, has been getting in the way of objective reporting.
One of the reasons given for denying Crerar access to David Frost’s Brexit wisdom this week was that she wasn’t invited. A Times journalist was apparently also barred, because they weren’t the one who had been asked to the party. “We are welcome to brief whoever we want whenever we want,” said Cain, who accused those not on the approved list of “barging in”.
Now there’s a thing. One of the occasions during the General Election that Johnson chose not to be put on the spot was Channel 4’s climate change debate. As you may recall, he and Nigel Farage were represented by ice sculptures. But there was a bit of barging in that day, too. Michael Gove and Johnson’s father Stanley turned up, uninvited. Gove said that he wanted to appear on the programme and was told he couldn’t. The invitation was to party leaders only. Rather as Monday’s invitation was for political editors only. Sauce. Goose. Gander?
And how did Johnson’s party respond? By complaining to Ofcom and threatening Channel 4’s licence. Yet the press corps’ protest is written off as snowflakery; the exclusion of uninvited guests justified, according to Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith “because the public backs the Prime Minister”. So they need their information only from publications that generally support him?
Taking a (Temporary) Stand
The Prime Minister and his team are making media enemies everywhere and now they have fired the first real shot in what is going to be a nasty war against the BBC. The journalists on Monday were right to take a stand.
But it was these very people who allowed this situation to develop, by dancing to Dominic Cummings’ tune for fear of being cast out into the cold. They all want to be in his contacts book. If he whispers in their ear (or gets someone else to do it for him), they are happy to take dictation. If he calls two or three of them, they don’t ask “why aren’t you telling everyone this?” They take the scoop with thanks.
There’s nothing particularly new about it. Look back to the Tony Blair-Alastair Campbell years. Joe Haines wrote to The Times to remind us that Harold Wilson tried exactly the same stunt as Johnson back in the 1960s, adding that he was so aggrieved to be excluded as a junior reporter that, when he became Wilson’s press secretary, he stopped lobby briefings altogether.
Of course, journalists want to cultivate friends in high places. Of course, politicians want to nurture friendly journalists. But, for rather too long, our media have given the impression of being used. The fear of being locked out, of not getting the stories, has been getting in the way of objective reporting.
There was supposed to be a public inquiry into the relationship between politicians and the press – Leveson 2 – but neither the Conservatives nor the newspapers wanted it. The existing snuggle suits them both too well.
So, while Monday’s protest was a welcome reminder to Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings that they won’t get it all their own way, I don’t expect the “Boris says” splashes to dry up any time soon.