Today
Thu 6 May 2021

From Leveson to Brexit, phone-hacking to Cambridge Analytica, Peter Jukes sees a consistent theme – parties on the run from the rule of law. And how Dominic Cummings could end the cycle of corruption

During the current furore over leaks from Number 10, and the apparent internecine warfare between Boris Johnson and his former senior advisor Dominic Cummings, one piece of information emerged which, if true, does a lot to explain the current febrile state of British politics.

According to Caroline Wheeler and Gabriel Pogrund in The Sunday Times, Cummings has feared arrest for the past three years “since details emerged of irregular spending during the Brexit referendum”. Cummings is not alone in this fear of the rule of law and potential criminal consequences. Most of the media establishment around him have feared the same for a decade.

With a Prime Minister on the ropes and a complicit media not sure if their fate will be bound-up with his, these days are like waiting for a storm to break. But break it will. And the cycle of corruption, the mutual blackmail and private co-dependencies, can be broken at a sweep by one man: a former advisor who’s gone from ‘on the run’ to loose cannon.


The First Hacking Scandal 

It’s nearly 10 years since the phone-hacking scandal around Rupert Murdoch’s News International erupted into global consciousness with the revelation that the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been one of the thousands of victims of the News of the World’s industrial voicemail interception. Then Prime Minister David Cameron’s former chief press spokesperson Andy Coulson was arrested. Then his friend and the chief executive of News International Rebekah Brooks.

The ensuing public inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, revealed the proximity of Britain’s press barons to the political elite, and the unaccountable power they had exerted on Prime Ministers, through a combination of cajolement and coercion, offers of gainful employment and threats of privacy intrusion. 

During that inquiry, two up-and-coming Conservative leaders emerged as mouthpieces for the cartel, which effectively ran much of our media: Michael Gove – with his affinity and friendship with Rupert Murdoch; and Boris Johnson (who initially dismissed phone-hacking as “left-wing codswallop”) who was paid handsomely as a columnist for the Telegraph by the Barclay brothers, who also owned The Spectator, which he used to edit. 

Flash forward a decade, the media moguls’ gambles seem to have paid off and their pals are in power.

The first half of the Leveson Inquiry was always designed to be followed by a second part (investigating the relationship between journalists and the police) once the numerous trials of journalists accused of phone-hacking and bribing public officials were over. Only then could the criminality of the newspapers be investigated without threatening to prejudice the trials. 

But consistent lobbying and pressure from the newspapers managed to get the second part of the Leveson Inquiry half delayed and eventually cancelled. A second Leveson would have been a bloodbath, with potential criminal sanctions for perjury during a public inquiry. Not only would past criminality have been shown to be much worse than expected, but various senior figures had also made statements that even Lord Leveson himself considered to be lies.

Cancelling Leveson Two was not just a priority because of embarrassment or bad publicity: it was, for many in the media, a get-out-of-jail-free card. 


The Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card

What did Boris Johnson and Michael Gove get out of supporting the cancellation of Leveson Two?

In retrospect, it is pretty clear. David Cameron, though supported by Rebekah Brooks, was never a favourite of Murdoch’s. The fury from other quarters, especially Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail, at Cameron for allowing the Leveson Inquiry to go ahead in the first place, was hectoring and incessant. 

One of their key ways of punishing the then Prime Minister was to back to the Brexit campaigns during the 2016 EU Referendum, with the official Vote Leave campaign led by Johnson and Gove.

The Sun actually became a registered campaigner and used the slogan ‘BeLeave’ as a front-page headline just as a youth off-shoot of the Vote Leave campaign, BeLeave, spent £625,000 in an unlawful overspend. 

Whether this coalition of politicians and Leveson-averse media proprietors actually expected to win the referendum is another matter – but they wanted to draw enough blood to make the positions of Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne untenable.

They did that, and a lot more. 

By the time Johnson and Gove eventually joined forces to oust Theresa May in 2019, they both owed (apart from a large slug of their salaries) everything to the newspaper bosses. Their new Government paid-off the favours rapidly, promoting friendly journalists to cushy Government sinecures, removing VAT from digital news services, and keeping the newspapers afloat during the Coronavirus crisis with millions of pounds of public subsidies for information campaigns.

The fix was in. None of the journalists and editors who lied to Leveson would ever face the legal consequences of what they had done, even though civil cases revealing the use of private detectives and various forms of privacy intrusion at the Sun and Mirror group continue in the High Court a decade on. 


The Other Hacking Scandal

For most people watching the unfolding drama of the Leveson Inquiry, this was a warning about how powerful forces in the media could use a mixture of bribes and kompromat to get their way. But for others it was an instruction manual.

At the same time as the phone-hacking trial involving Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and other senior News of the World journalists and executives was underway at the Old Bailey in the autumn of 2013, Breitbart impresario Steve Bannon and hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer were setting up Cambridge Analytica which would hack up to 75 million Facebook users (including their direct messages) to psychometrically profile voters for their digital election campaigns.

Apart from being Donald Trump’s election engine, Cambridge Analytica worked directly for Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign during the 2016 referendum. Cambridge Analytica’s off-shoot firm, AIQ, was the main recipient of election spending for the official Vote Leave campaign.  

When Carole Cadwalladr exposed this and in the Observer and New York Times, Cambridge Analytica, like the News of the World before it, was shut down because of the scandal. Billions were knocked off Facebook’s share value;  congressional inquiries were called in the US and Canada; and the Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, chaired by Conservative MP Damian Collins, produced one of the most comprehensive reports of its time on election interference through dark money and dirty data. 

But Dominic Cummings, director of the Vote Leave campaign, refused to attend the DCMS Committee to answer its questions, as part of its inquiry into disinformation and fake news, and was then held in contempt of Parliament. Many in the media dismissed the allegations as ‘conspiracist’ or minimised the unlawful activities as ‘rule-breaking’ and, in the past three years, have mounted a concerted push-back to discredit both the Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave stories. 

The fact that Cummings has reportedly feared arrest for all of this time not only emphasises how credible Cadwalladr’s investigations always were, it also explains the culture of aggression coming from Johnson and his entourage. These are not normal politicians with just votes or reputations to lose, but public figures fearing fine or imprisonment. Like the newspaper proprietors who feared the consequences of Leveson, they have doubled-down and sought to undermine any agency or voice who could expose the original wrongdoing. 

Together, the two hacking scandals explain much of the psychological force of the past decade; a politics of prevention, intimidation and cover-up, which – rather than give voice to any clear-cut policy agenda or vision of the future – is neurotically obsessed with silencing the past. 


The Way Out 

Facts are facts, and though the Metropolitan Police tried to ignore the stash of documents that proved the extent of phone-hacking for five years, the persistence of journalists such as Nick Davies, politicians like Tom Watson, and the slow process of legal civil disclosures eventually caused the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, to re-open the criminal investigations which led to the phone-hacking scandal a decade ago. 

Also important in this process were whistleblowers who came forward to document what had really happened in the tabloid newsrooms (two of these – Graham Johnson and Dan Evans – run Byline Times’ sister site Byline Investigates). I had the honour of getting to know and help the whistleblowers over the Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave scandals – Chris Wylie and Shahmir Sanni.

But, when it comes to the misfeasance or malfeasance of Johnson’s Vote Leave administration, where are the whistleblowers to be found?

I’m going to shock most of my readers by naming the key whistleblower who could unravel all of the corruption and negligence that vitiates us now: Dominic Cummings.

Cummings is clearly compromised. But the truth is that most whistleblowers are compromised and are often able to divulge historic malfeasance only because they have been engaged in it. There is no moral simplicity or sanctimony about informing on your past bad behaviours or those of former colleagues. But it is a social and political necessity and the only way to rescue institutions from continuing corruption.

For all of his many flaws, and no doubt an element of vengeance, I do believe that Cummings can be a legitimate whistleblower, especially when (unlike the DCMS Committee) he attends Parliament in the next month to reveal what happened during the disastrously late second Coronavirus lockdown last winter. 

At Byline Times, we have pinned blame for the original otiose ‘herd immunity’ approach, which the Government and many of its advisors were promoting in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, on Johnson’s former chief advisor. Cummings attended SAGE and COBRA meetings in Johnson’s absence in the spring of last year, and was reported (though he denies this) to have originally supported the idea of shielding the vulnerable and letting the virus run ‘hot’.

But the same reports emphasise a ‘Domoscene conversion’ to the need for a rapid lockdown in late March. And he has been pretty consistently fighting the COVID minimisers and denialists ever since. 

Cummings is one of the few in Johnson’s circle who was scientifically literate enough to see that the original plans for mitigation, letting the virus spread among the young and healthy while protecting the vulnerable, was modelled on the flu virus, and that – once the realities of this novel Coronavirus became clearer – it would have led to a soaring death rate last spring as critical care services were overwhelmed. 

Cummings also has a young and vulnerable family and, though his excuses for breaking lockdown by driving around Durham are laughably implausible, the underlying panic is not. 

More importantly, as all the reports consistently attest, by last autumn Cummings was well aware of the rising levels of Coronavirus infections as schools returned after the holidays, and SAGE, supported by the Labour leadership, was urging a quick ‘circuit-breaker’. 

Johnson’s failure to do so, after meeting with Chancellor Rishi Sunak and a group of largely discredited anti-lockdown sceptics, led to a much worse second wave in the UK compared to other European countries. More British citizens died in that second wave than the first. The recently reported comments that the Prime Minister wanted to allegedly see “bodies pile high in their thousands” before committing to a second lockdown became tragically true. 

Given the stakes of this decision, the scale of the outcome, and the breach of a Government’s first duty – to protect the lives of its citizens – I (for one) would rapidly forgive Cummings for his role in Vote Leave, or his iconoclastic attitudes towards data, governance and the Civil Service, if he could come clean about this: one of the most deadly and disastrous episodes in modern British history which, through needless incompetence and venality, will have cost more lives than any single event since the last world war.

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