Mirror Ball Journalism & the Revolving Disco Dance Floor of British Politics
Mic Wright argues that the private cosiness between political reporters and politicians doesn’t serve the interests of the public
There is a shadow companion to British journalism’s favourite (and most demonstrably false aphorism) – “nobody tells me what to write” – and that is “we all know the things we are not supposed to write”.
Those things include open secrets, inconvenient facts, and details of known behaviours that – were they perpetrated by individuals outside of the circled wagons of the British press – would lead to investigations that would very likely result in newspaper splashes.
In organised crime circles, specifically the Italian (and Italian-American) Mafia groups such as the Camorra, the Cosa Nostra, and the ‘Ndrangheta, it’s known as omertà – the code of silence. In the British media, it’s got no name other than ‘just how things are done’.
On the day of Boris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference this week – Dominic Penna, a young journalist on the Daily Telegraph’s editorial graduate scheme, who was reporting from the event, tweeted:
Laura Kuenssberg and Michael Gove had a dance-off rap battle as one Tory MP sang Ice Ice Baby at karaoke last night.
Kuenssberg’s BBC colleague Lewis Goodall then gave Dancing Queen his best shot – after quipping: “Have we got any Tory scum in the audience?”
The tweet remained up for about 17 hours before being mysteriously memory-holed this morning, 7 October 2021, while the rest of the thread that it was part of remains in place.
Penna’s next tweet referenced Gove again:
People kept putting Gove’s name forward for karaoke and his team wouldn’t let him sing.
“He’s not doing it,” one adviser said.
“Look at that Hancock video from a few years back when someone filmed him. He never recovered.”
Gove told me he would have sung Sunshine on Leith.
At the time of writing, Penna has not responded to the avalanche of questions about why he deleted the tweet. But its disappearance has been followed by the removal of a news piece by Scottish pro-independence paper The National about Penna’s tweet.
Now, it could be that Penna misconstrued the interaction between Kuenssberg and Gove – maybe it was a very unorthodox new style of interviewing – or entirely made up the events. But, the response from other political journalists, like the Daily Mirror’s Whitehall correspondent, Mikey Smith, who tweeted…
Reporters shouldn’t drink with or attend parties also attended by politicians’ discourse is the dumbest, most performative discourse. Grow up.
… suggests otherwise.
Smith’s suggestion that doing karaoke, dancing, and larking about with the very people journalists report on is the same as simply attending the same events with them or speaking to them as sources is deliberately dense.
If it’s grown-up to drink with top politicians you cover, especially when you are employed by the BBC – an organisation perennially attacked by both sides for the nature of its impartiality – then I hope to maintain my state of arrested development forever.
Hours after The National removed its article about the tweet, it published another with the headline ‘BBC Denies Laura Kuenssberg and Michael Gove had ‘Rap Battle’ at Tory Conference’. In it, it stated that the BBC said the incidents alleged in the tweet were “completely untrue”.
On the same night that Penna sent his tweet, the Spectator’s Conservative Party Conference bash was attended by all of the holders of the great offices of state (besides the Prime Minister, who was no doubt polishing up his jokes), many other Cabinet ministers, and a rash of special advisors, while being bankrolled by the Betting and Gaming Council.
Joining them at the party – according to a list supplied by Politico London Playbook in its email newsletter – were the BBC’s Nick Robinson (despite Conservative MPs whinging that he unfairly interviewed Johnson earlier this week); ITV News’ political editor, Robert Peston; the i newspaper’s Hugo Gye (previously of the Sun and MailOnline); Sky News’ Sam Coates; and a gaggle of The Times/The Sunday Times’ staff including the paper’s deputy editor, Tony Gallagher (late of the Sun and Daily Telegraph), its deputy political editor Steven Swinford, the chief political correspondent Henry Zeffman, its home affairs editor Matt Dathan and Mhari Aurora, reporter for the Red Box blog/newsletter.
Despite such a galaxy of reporting talent in the room, the events of the Spectator party will go unreported and the omertà will be maintained.
The same silence is applied to information in the public domain – such as the conviction of The Sunday Times’ columnist India Knight’s partner, Eric Joyce, for possessing images of child sexual abuse. The Times reported on the case with no reference to Knight – whose step-father is chairman of Times Newspaper Holdings – or her relationship to Joyce being used as mitigation in his sentencing.
The connections between politicians and journalists often go unmentioned in a way that would be unthinkable in the more disclosure-heavy culture of US journalism. In Britain, the inter-relations between politicians and hacks are well-known to people within the industry or who observe it closely – but the scaffolding that holds together this culture is generally kept from readers and viewers.
Take James Forsyth, the Spectator’s political editor. He is married to Allegra Stratton – the former BBC and ITV journalist-turned-Government spinner (currently assigned to the COP26 conference) – but Forsyth’s output for the magazine and his Friday Times column never acknowledge this.
Similarly, his friendship with the Chancellor – which stretches back to their school days at Winchester College – is not considered an important fact to put in front of readers, even though they each served as best man at the other’s wedding and are godparents to each other’s children.
The families who dominate the printed press – the Murdochs, the Rothermeres, the Lebedevs, and the Barclays – tend to abide by a non-aggression pact that keeps reporting of their personal lives out of rival newspapers.
In his 2008 review of Nick Davies’ book, Flat Earth News – for the Spectator of all places – Byline Times columnist Peter Oborne wrote that “newspapers have an unwritten compact that they never, under any circumstances, expose each other – one reason why Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black remained in business for so long. Over the last few decades, only Private Eye (which is serialising this book – presumably no paper would do so) has made it its business to draw attention to press corruption and hypocrisy”.
But, while it may be considered sacrilege to say it by some, Private Eye itself is not free from the omertà. Despite its lack of bylines, the magazine has a set of regular contributors, among whom there are individuals subject to the kind of allegations that it would usually pursue. In those cases, it does not. Even for the most crusading corners of the British press, there is a line when silence falls.
In isolation, it may not appear to matter a great deal whether Laura Kuenssberg or Lewis Goodall joined in karaoke with crazy legs Gove, but it is indicative of a wider culture and pattern of behaviour among Westminster journalists.
There is a ‘revolving door’ between the media and government. James Slack, for instance, author of the notorious ‘Enemies of the People’ front page, went from the Daily Mail – where he had replaced James Chapman as political editor after he left to spin for George Osborne at the Treasury – to become the Prime Minister’s official spokesman in February 2017. In March this year, he returned to journalism as the Sun’s deputy editor, replaced in No. 10 by… Jack Doyle, a former Daily Mail political editor.
British political reporting is not the Pompidou Centre; the pollutants that flow through its pipes is concealed from viewers and readers. And the memory-holing of details such as whether or not Laura Kuenssberg chummily traded lines from Ice Ice Baby with Michael Gove only serves to make the whole process more oblique.