Sat 23 October 2021

Exclusive to print for a month, Peter Oborne shares his observations of the political media class. For the latest diary subscribe to the October Digital Edition

The Magic Circle

SEVERAL FACTORS HAVE COME TOGETHER to plunge Boris Johnson into the dangerous political crisis he faces this autumn. A lack of general purpose and direction, added to the poisonous rift between Downing Street and the Treasury, create a sense that the Government is unravelling. 

This poses a serious challenge for the press management system installed after the departure of Dominic Cummings nine months ago. 

Cummings operated through favourites, including the BBC’s Laura Kuennsberg and ITV’s Robert Peston, before losing out in a well-publicised power struggle against Carrie Johnson, the Prime Minister’s wife (and a PR professional). 

Since then, the circle of favoured reporters has grown even smaller. The most important is the Sun’s political editor Harry Cole. Again and again, Cole obtains advance access to the most important public announcements (three major examples this year are the defence review, the Government’s immigration announcement, and the Budget). A second member of the inner circle is Politico journalist Alex Wickham (according to the Spectator, Wickham is godfather to Boris and Carrie Johnson’s son Wilfred). Cabinet ministers read him with close attention because (they say) he articulates the Downing Street line so closely. He has led the way with attacks on Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and recently produced a spectacular if (in my view) distasteful scoop setting out granular details of the plan for ‘Operation London Bridge’ – the death of the Queen. 

This system of favouring journalists close to the Johnsons causes resentment. Newspapers which were formerly loyal feel excluded. It may not be a coincidence that both Associated Newspapers and the Telegraph, fawningly loyal for so long, have started to turn on the Prime Minister

An Unhealthy State

IN THE ERA OF CLIENT JOURNALISM, the most revealing reporting comes from outside of the mainstream media. 

Thanks to the Health Service Journal – which covers the NHS – we learnt the sordid details of exactly how Boris Johnson plans to get away with his deceitful plan to build ‘48 new hospitals’. Naturally, the figure is a fabrication. Instead, in an Orwellian touch, civil servants have been ordered to change the meaning of the word ‘hospital’. Renovations, rebuilds, or new wings are now classified as hospitals. It is like a used car salesman putting on a splash of paint and a new gearbox, then passing off a second hand car as new. 

We learnt of this calculated deception courtesy of HSJ reporter Dave Ward, who has exposed the existence of a health department publication called the ‘New Hospitals Programme Communications Playbook’.

The “playbook” states that “the schemes named in the announcement are not all identical and vary across a number of factors. However, they do all satisfy the criteria we set of what a new hospital is and so must always be referred to as a new hospital”.

At best, only around 15 of these 48 hospital schemes can be classified as ‘new hospitals’ in the ordinary sense of hospitals that did not previously exist. 

Ward’s scoop raises troubling questions about the politicisation of civil service officials. Needless to say, his revelations have been largely ignored by newspapers which noisily amplified Boris Johnson’s fabrications of hospital-building.

An Inevitable Fall

THE SUCCESS OF THE TALIBAN bears comparison with both Brexit and Donald Trump. The movement expresses the resentment of small town and country people against foreign dominance and metropolitan values. 

I’ve never forgotten my conversation with a Kabul doctor who lived and slept in the hospital where he worked, and kept a loaded pistol beside his bed. He’d been forced to take these precautions after being kidnapped on his way home from work by bandits posing as intelligence officers. They took him to an underground dungeon where they tortured him for three weeks. While the beatings were going on, the bandits would hold a mobile phone to his mouth so that family members could hear his cries of pain. Then at night, the bandits would handcuff his hands behind his back and hang him from a hook on the ceiling. His kidnappers had political protection and he directed me to many others who had suffered in the same way. “Life was much better under the Taliban,” he said. “Security was 100% in Kabul at the time of the Taliban.”

Every businessman, without exception, told me the same thing. They had no desire to return to the beatings, beheadings, and religious fanaticism of Taliban rule. Yet, they saw that brutal regime as preferable to the chaos, lawlessness, and anarchy that followed it.  

No wonder Afghanistan fell. 

Racing Ahead

I FIRST MET RACING JOURNALIST ALASTAIR DOWN in 1989, the year Desert Orchid won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Now he’s retired. His final column began: “This is a very simple thank you letter from a man who has been lucky enough never to do a day’s work in his life.” 

Asked if he would do it all again, Alastair says: “I would have liked to have gone into the law, been a history teacher or, perhaps most of all, a trawler skipper.” 

Alastair Down was the greatest racing columnist of all time – and an even better writer than his former colleague Jeffrey Bernard. There’s no higher praise.

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