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Sat 23 October 2021

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Beeb and Gone

A SPECIAL PLACE IN HELL awaits BBC journalists who trash the corporation after they leave. Sir Robbie Gibb regularly pumps out attack lines despite working there for 14 years. Ditto Andrew Neil. John Humphrys laid into it within days of quitting his half million a year job after four decades. Nobody forced Humphrys to work there and he has become a pawn for those who want to destroy one of our greatest institutions. Beneath contempt.


A Sinister Merger

THIS TIME LAST YEAR, Boris Johnson declared war on the Civil Service. Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, legal boss Jonathon Jones, ethics chief Alex Allen, Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam, and many others quit their jobs within a few months of each other.

In theory, it’s against the rules for a prime minister to fire civil servants, but this mass cull was not a coincidence. Ruthless briefing to the client Conservative media portrayed senior mandarins as bureaucratic obstacles to efficient government. 

The reality was different. Downing Street urgently needed to dispose of any public servant with the courage to resist the endemic cronyism, mendacity and law-breaking (both domestic and international) which have become embedded features of the Johnson administration.  

There is an even more sinister agenda. Johnson’s Government, like many authoritarian regimes, wants to merge party and state. Hence the structural hostility to freedom, independent institutions, and public ceremonies which lack an explicit political dimension. This explains the embarrassing (and profoundly unBritish) epidemic of flag-waving and fake patriotism over recent months. As part of the project to convert the British state into the political wing of the Conservative Party, the Home Office has started to publish what are, in effect, party political broadcasts featuring Priti Patel. I can’t imagine Rutnam would have tolerated such abuse of power. That’s why he and others like him had to go.

Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, is another case in point. When Boris Johnson resigned as Foreign Secretary, he hung around like a bad smell in his official Carlton House residence defying repeated instructions from McDonald to leave. McDonald paid the price. He left office, reportedly “at the request” of the Prime Minister, in June last year. 

I sympathise with the new permanent secretary Philip Barton, who I knew slightly when he was a capable though uncharismatic High Commissioner in Islamabad. Barton had just embarked on the plumb posting of New Delhi when was recalled to London after the McDonald defenestration. He therefore knows from unpleasant personal experience that Downing Street will not tolerate high standards and will ruthlessly punish integrity. He will sense that there’s little chance of support from the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab – a sallow figure who has been over-promoted to an embarrassing extent, who is dependant on Johnson’s patronage and has shown no signs of standing up to Downing Street.

So we shouldn’t be too hard on Barton for the recent collapse of Foreign Office standards. Thanks to the (much recommended ) new Declassified site, we learn of a sinister new development. Journalists who make Freedom of Information requests to the Foreign Office may be profiled. This is unlawful. FOI requests should by law be ‘applicant blind’ and answered “without reference to the identity or motives of the requester”.

This is part of a wider decline. Earlier this year, a Foreign Office spokesman assured me that Boris Johnson had summoned the Myanmar Ambassador for a dressing down after the Rohingya genocide. When I discovered that this was false, a press officer blamed “inadvertent error”. I’ve dealt with the Foreign Office press office for 30 years and never come across an error as sloppy as this. Perhaps it was just a happy coincidence that the inadvertent error protected Johnson’s reputation.


Media Enforcement

IN THE PAST, we used to be able to rely on the British media to hunt down and expose this sort of cronyism, greed and law-breaking at the heart of government. This is no longer the case. Large sections of the British written and broadcast media at best ignore wrongdoing or at worst act as a kind of government enforcer. 

Consider the Mail on Sunday report on 5 June that Jolyon Maugham’s Good Law Project was “being targeted by ministers” amid concerns crowd-funding techniques were being abused. No evidence was produced beyond a quote from an unnamed  “government source”. Three days later, the High Court ruled in favour of a Good Law Project complaint that the Government acted unlawfully when it awarded a £560,000 contract to a firm run by former colleagues of Michael Gove and the Prime Minister’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings. I can remember a time when the Mail on Sunday used to expose exactly this kind of scandal rather than run smears against those who expose it. Lord Northcliffe, the genius who founded Mail newspapers, famously remarked that “news is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising”. 


Relaxing the Rules

WHEN I WORKED AS A FINANCIAL JOURNALIST in the 1980s, one of my tasks was tipping shares, which sadly had a habit of collapsing. Nevertheless, even in those free-wheeling days on the city desk of the Evening Standard, we had rules. Had I tipped a share in which I owned some of the stock, there is no question that Anthony Hilton, our grand and intimidating City Editor, would have fired me. Had I claimed ignorance, he would not have believed me. Had I owned up to a mistake, he would not have forgiven me. Yet Lord Geidt, the independent advisor on ministers’ interests, is relaxed that the NHS awarded a Coronavirus contract to a company in which the Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, held 20% of the stock. He feels that Hancock acted with “integrity throughout”. Welcome to Boris Johnson’s Britain.

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