Thu 28 October 2021

Brian Cathcart explains why Britain’s right-wing newspapers will try their best to support the Government in its attempts to ‘move on’ from the scandal of the Prime Minister’s chief advisor.

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The billionaire press – the Sun, The Times, the Telegraph and the Mail – finds itself in a tight corner right now, and it is all its own doing. 

These organisations believe, with some justice, that they made Boris Johnson Prime Minister. Others may have contributed, but by frenzied puffery, by shamelessly covering up his defects and his past – and by their hysterical and often dishonest onslaught against Labour – these newspapers more than anyone else put him in 10 Downing Street. 

Now Johnson has been comprehensively exposed as weak, blustering, arrogant and dishonest and – worse, far worse – his Government has become a laughing stock.

So disastrous were the events of the bank holiday weekend, in fact, that it is possible the Johnson Government may never regain the public’s trust. Remember – if you are old enough to – the fate of John Major: after the humiliation of Black Wednesday in 1992 nothing he did in five years could win back an unforgiving public and his doom in 1997 was catastrophic. 

These newspapers’ freedom from any reasonable form of accountability; their official licence to lie and abuse… they know only the Johnson right of the Conservative Party will defend that.

The Dominic Cummings affair is a nightmare for the proprietors and editors of these newspapers. They have lost control of the narrative in a way, and to a degree, that rarely happens. Think of the Princess Diana week in 1997, of the Milly Dowler phone hacking story in 2011; of the 2017 General Election. Just as it did on those occasions, public opinion has now veered off violently in a direction which the press did not choose and does not like – and for people who see it as their job to manage what their readers think, that is always deeply shocking.

Their instinct now must be to go with the flow, to embrace and even amplify the popular fury about the Cummings scandal. That way, they could get in step again and, like an embarrassed army recruit on parade, bravely pretend that they had never been out of it. 

But though the Mail has dabbled in this, the other newspapers have recoiled, and you can see why. If they tear down the Prime Minister’s chief advisor – as it is probably in their power to do – they almost certainly tear down Johnson with him.

For so emphatically has Johnson defended Cummings, publicly repeating and endorsing his ludicrous excuses, that the latter’s forced departure would be a devastating humiliation for him. And it is even worse than that because the respective behaviour of the two men has shown us all, with excruciating clarity, which is the monkey and which the organ-grinder. Indeed it now looks as though Cummings’ personality may be all that is holding this Government of fools together.

Nor is it an option for the billionaire newspapers to abandon Johnson in favour of their other arch-crony in Government, Michael Gove. For one thing, Gove has been just as embarrassingly ardent in promoting Cummings’ fairy stories as Johnson, so he can hardly be sold as a clean pair of hands. He also suffers from a kind of reverse charisma.

No, their only option is to cling on and hope for the best: to join the Government’s desperate ‘time to move on’ movement, to distract wildly and to wait and see whether the public anger sticks – as it did in 1992 – or simply fades away. 

For kingmakers, for people who after last December’s General Election saw themselves as the masters of the universe, this sudden impotence is as unwelcome as it is undignified. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, it reveals something extremely important, which is how limited their options are. 

Outside of the far-right of the Conservative Party, outside the ring of second-raters who are making such a shocking hash of the COVID-19 crisis, they have no friends in politics, only enemies. It is no exaggeration to say that they have bet the farm on Johnson and that his failure would be an utter disaster for them. 

In their zeal to promote Brexit, and then Johnson, they have alienated everyone else, to a degree that has no parallel in recent British political history. 

Moderate Conservatives, and not just the many Remainers, have been condemned as traitors and snowflakes; they have been personally vilified and pilloried; and they have watched with horror the creation of a Johnson personality cult worthy of Maoist China. Could the Mail, the Sun, The Times and the Telegraph win those people back? While it is always unwise to underestimate their slipperiness, it is hard to imagine. 

Consider what would have to give. These newspapers are now the hardest of hard Brexiters, several of them just gagging for a ‘no deal’. They resent every aspect of the state, including the NHS, and they want everything privatised. They despise foreigners, vulnerable minorities and the poor. They deny climate change. They want to roll back our human rights and tear up every protection ordinary people may have from the excesses of the market. They are the far-right. So which bits of their manifesto would they jettison? 

For the same reason, a liaison with the Labour Party seems impossible. In the past, believe it or not, even the Mail and the Telegraph have had periods when they had respectful, even cordial, relations with Labour leaders. And the Sun was once an out-and-out Labour paper. It used to be that thinking editors and proprietors considered it prudent to give themselves options. Not any more.  

And there is another very important factor in this, which is what these organisations call ‘press freedom’ but which is – in reality – their freedom from any reasonable form of accountability; their official licence to lie and abuse. Today, as they know, only the Johnson right of the Conservative Party will defend that.

As every MP of every party knows, and has known for years, the national corporate press is hated. The depth of public revulsion for their conduct is something that, on the face of it, only this far-right Government is prepared to indulge. 

If the odium from the Cummings fiasco sticks, this will become even worse. The newspapers that gave us Johnson will be tainted by his failure and embarrassed by his very existence. All of their gushing about him, all their cover-ups, all their Churchill nonsense, will return to haunt them. 

Of course they will try to distract – and they are very good at that. But circumstances are not in their favour. For example, Jeremy Corbyn was always a reliable distraction from the awfulness of Theresa’s May Government, but it is obvious that Keir Starmer is not providing nearly so handy a target. 

There is also the legacy of COVID-19 to consider. The Government will try to prevent a meaningful public inquiry and the press will undoubtedly help (‘let’s look to the future, not the past’), but some kind of reckoning is unavoidable and everything suggests it will not be comfortable for the Government. 

When we look back on the sunny spring bank holiday weekend of 2020 we will certainly remember the Cummings affair, but we should also remember that this was the moment that the magic spell cast by the billionaire press on Boris Johnson suddenly wore off. And that in turn revealed to us just how dependent on him the corporate papers have allowed themselves to become. 

This crisis may not be the one to break their grip on power – but that moment will come. 

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London


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