January 2021The BBC, the Lobby, Wine & Assange
Exclusive to print for a month, Peter Oborne shares his observations of the political scene, at home and abroad. Here is his January column
Don’t be taken in by the fawning media response to Boris Johnson’s Christmas Brexit trade deal. The grovelling headlines told us nothing meaningful about the deal itself. It was, however, profoundly instructive about collaboration between the media and political power in the era of Brexit.
The Murdoch press, the Telegraph and Associated Newspapers have become part of the Government machine. So has the BBC. Politics and journalism have merged.
This involves a new set of rules governing political reporting. Whatever Johnson does is good. Hence the frenzied adulation, of which the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg’s gushing prose is only one relatively restrained example: “It is a massive achievement for both sides that they have done such a huge trade deal on the timetable that was said to be impossible at the start.” This is such nonsense that it is hard to know where to start. There was always going to be a deal. Who said it was impossible? Wisely, she does not indicate. To be fair to Kuenssberg, the written press was equally sycophantic.
The merger of the British media and the Government machine explains one baffling feature of recent politics. In the past, a Prime Minister notorious for lies, venality and incompetence would collapse at the polls. But Johnson consistently enjoys higher ratings than his Labour rival, Keir Starmer.
A government by journalists for journalists
Michael Gove is Rupert Murdoch’s favourite journalist (the tycoon was reportedly in the room when Gove respectfully interviewed Donald Trump), while Johnson is a manifestation of the Telegraph and Spectator empire and vice versa. Former Daily Mail leader writers occupy key communication posts.
Even though the circulation of the British press is in sharp decline, newspapers have never been as well-connected. So far, the Johnson Government has been sustained by lies and fantasies regurgitated by a client press. The newspapers will come to regret this submissive relationship with Downing Street.
When the mood changes, I suspect that voters will turn not just against the Johnson Government, but against the newspapers that formed part of what is in essence a government by journalists for journalists.
Government Source Strikes Again
Here is an example of the nightmare complicity between Boris Johnson’s 10 Downing Street machine and British lobby correspondents.
Last October, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, distanced himself significantly from the Government over the Coronavirus crisis when he warned that it had “lost control of the virus”. He added that it was “no longer following the scientific advice” and called for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown.
Subsequent events vindicated Starmer. But Johnson’s Downing Street Machine, aided and abetted by the client press, went into action. A “senior Government source” issued a statement that declared: “Keir Starmer is a shameless opportunist playing political games in the middle of a global pandemic.” Many of the country’s most senior political journalists tweeted out this political attack on the Labour leader – the Sun’s Harry Cole, Sky News’ Beth Rigby, Times Radio’s Tom Newton Dunn and the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. The language used was strikingly similar to the wider political attack launched by the Conservative Party chairman Amanda Milling and Tory MPs.
The term “Government source” is lobby code for an official spokesperson who is emphatically not a party political appointment but someone who is paid for by the taxpayer. It has long been axiomatic that government officials should be impartial and never get involved in political activity. It is part of the task of a political reporter to expose wrongdoing in Government. And yet, here were four of Britain’s most senior and experienced political editors going along with an abuse of power by cheerfully collaborating in a political attack made on the leader of the Labour Party by a Government official. They should have exposed this improper use of a Government source. Instead, they enabled it.
This is only one of many examples of how political journalists have abandoned their role of holding the Government to account and instead put themselves at the service of Johnson and his Conservative Party.
The newly appointed Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, is also open to criticism on this front. It’s his job to police integrity in government. Had he been worth his salt, Case would have launched an immediate inquiry into the identity of the “Government source” who had abused their position and had them disciplined.
So here is a public appeal: are there any honest lobby correspondents out there who are ready to tell me the identity of the Government official who trashed Starmer? Confidentiality guaranteed.
Browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Frome, Somerset I came across a long, out-of-print volume that I wish I had discovered in the 1970s when I embarked on a drinking career spanning nearly half a century and still going strong.
The Plain Man’s Guide to Wine, by Raymond Postgate, is written in dry, clean prose. It’s informative about important matters, such as the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy. Above all, it is the enemy of the Wine Snob, defined by Postgate as “a man (the vice is much more masculine than feminine) who uses a knowledge of wine, often imperfect, to impress others with a sense of his superiority”.
Postgate was a founder member of the British Communist Party, writing a book about Bolshevik theory admired by HG Wells, who gave it to Lenin. Though a pacifist during World War One, anti-fascism led him to support World War Two, editing the socialist weekly Tribune in the early years of the war.
The Plain Man’s Guide to Wine democratised wine-drinking at the same moment that the Attlee Government democratised Britain. I found it easily obtainable for £2.50 including postage through Abe Books and gave it to friends and relations for Christmas. The book, an essay on the art of living and European civilisation as much as wine, deserves to be brought back into general circulation.
I am bothered by the indifference in most of the British media to the plight of Julian Assange, whose extradition to the United States has been blocked by a British judge on the grounds of his mental health. The Assange case presents a far graver threat to investigative journalism than Lord Leveson did and the reforms he suggested a decade ago.
Yet the same newspapers that screamed blue murder that Leveson threatened to kill off investigative journalism have been silent about Assange. This raises serious questions about whether they cared a damn about it in the first place.
For exclusive access to this month’s diary, please subscribe to Byline Times
what the papers don’t say
Thank youfor reading this article
New to Byline Times? Find out about us
Our leading investigations include Brexit Bites, Empire & the Culture War, Russian Interference, Coronavirus, Cronyism and Far Right Radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.
Support our journalists
To have an impact, our investigations need an audience.
But emails don’t pay our journalists, and nor do billionaires or intrusive ads. We’re funded by readers’ subscription fees: