New testimony from the Prime Minister’s former chief aide shows how the free press has been bought by the Government

Asked by the human rights lawyer Adam Wagner if he came across any examples of private lobbying leading to lockdown rule changes during the pandemic, Boris Johnson’s now-former chief aide Dominic Cummings said that: “Newspapers negotiated direct bungs to themselves with him [Boris Johnson]”.

There were “no officials on [the calls]”, he added, and Johnson “told officials to send the [money] dressed up as ‘COVID relief’”. 

This was clearly a reference to a special subsidy arrangement for the mainstream press that began in April 2020 and was called ‘All In, All Together’. Budgeted at £35 million for the first three months it still appears to be operating two years later – the Guardian published a story under its banner in March 2022 – but the Government and the industry have repeatedly rebuffed Byline Times’ questions on how much has been spent in total. 

We do know, however, that it was conceived after intense lobbying in the first weeks of the pandemic by the club of newspapers known as the News Media Association (NMA) and there is little doubt that the chief beneficiaries were the big, wealthy news providers: the Mail group, the Murdoch group, the Telegraph group and the Mirror group. 

Though it was explicitly a subsidy – Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that this public money was being spent “in support of the print newspaper industry” – it was combined with an advertising campaign, with wrap-arounds, normal ads and paid-for editorial content labelled as ‘government-sponsored’ (though not always very prominently). 

Content for these articles was seemingly spoon-fed to the papers by the Government, with the same interviews and the same quotes appearing across several titles, though some of the linking text varied. The stories often involved praise for measures taken by the Government and some of it was barely relevant to COVID. 

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The only fragment of information offered by the Cabinet Office was to refer us to its monthly spending data, which showed that the money was delivered to the papers through OmniGov, the branch of global media company Manning Gottlieb that manages Government advertising.

How much it has added up to, we can only guess. If it had continued at its initial rate for 24 months that would take the total well over £200 million, but this is unlikely as activity appears to have tailed off slowly after hitting an early peak. Spending in that early period was clearly high, however, and possibly above budget, so the total to date could well exceed £100 million. 

Barring tiny sums, this money has all gone to the big newspaper groups, including the big regionals and the Guardian. Small, independent news publishers which also lobbied the Government and which were far more vulnerable in the early pandemic period, received next to nothing. 

The chief recipients of this public largesse could hardly have deserved it less. The Mail is owned through trusts based in Jersey and the Bahamas and its proprietor is the billionaire Lord Rothermere, widely reported to enjoy non-dom tax status. The Telegraph is owned by Sir Frederick Barclay, who lives on Brecqhou, a private island in the Channel Islands. Rupert Murdoch is of course an Australian-American media tycoon worth some $19 billion. 

The question is therefore this: how can the media validly claim to be holding power to account – to be exposing the avalanche of corruption and wrongdoing perpetuated by Johnson’s regime – when it is receiving substantial funds from that same administration?

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A Systemic Problem

Moreover, this story confirms a pattern of behaviour – the co-dependence of the Prime Minister and his allies in the media. 

Byline Times has previously revealed that some 25% of the Prime Minister’s recorded meetings with external organisations from July to September last year were held with right-wing publications. According to Cummings, the Prime Minister has referred to the Telegraph as his “real boss” – and has been keen to follow the newspaper’s laissez–faire approach to lockdown restrictions. 

Johnson flew back from the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November – a crucial event in deciding the world’s climate change priorities – in order to attend a reunion party of Telegraph journalists at London’s prestigious Garrick Club.

The Prime Minister has also been criticised for his close relationship with Evgeny Lebedev, the proprietor of the Evening Standard and the Independent. Johnson nominated Lebedev – whose father is a former KGB spy – to the House of Lords under the title ‘Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia’ and overruled security service concerns about his appointment. 

Cummings’ comments come amid renewed support for Johnson’s administration, and attacks on the leader of the opposition, from some right-wing newspapers.

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The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, and The Sun spent weeks in the run up to the local elections pushing for a police investigation into Labour Leader Keir Starmer for an alleged breach of lockdown laws in April 2021.

These newspaper groups have deep connections with Downing Street. The Sun’s deputy editor, James Slack, is Johnson’s former director of communications. A leaving party held in Slack’s honour inside Downing Street is among those events investigated by the Metropolitan Police following the ‘Partygate’ revelations. The Sun’s current political editor, Harry Cole, is also the former partner of Johnson’s current wife, Carrie. 

Downing Street’s connections with the Mail group are also strong. James Slack was the former political editor at the Daily Mail. His successor As Downing Street Director of Communications was Jack Doyle – another former political reporter at the Mail

Asked by Byline Times about Cummings’ claim that the Prime Minister personally negotiated “bungs” to newspapers, without any officials present, a Government spokesman said: “We recognise the valued role of national, local and regional newspapers, and actively supported the whole industry during the COVID pandemic. 

“This included investing more in advertising our public information campaign through national and local media and radio, which saw vital public health messaging advertised across approximately 600 titles including UK nationals, regional dailies, weeklies, and independent media.

“No title received preferred treatment, and all outlets were selected by the Government’s external media planning and buying agency purely on their ability to engage with audiences at a national, regional and local level.”

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