The mystery of a disappearing story about Boris Johnson’s wife once again confirms the merger between the political and media classes distorting British democracy, says Hardeep Matharu

Another scandal hit the headlines this weekend – or did it?

The ‘Carriegate’ affair was the story that apparently wasn’t. 

The revelation by The Times that Boris Johnson wanted to appoint his then mistress Carrie Symonds to a £100,000-a-year role as chief of staff when he was Foreign Secretary was quite the scoop.

Published in the early editions of its Saturday newspaper, the story by Simon Walters built on claims that first surfaced in Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft’s biography of the Prime Minister’s now wife – but corroborated these with three other sources. MailOnline followed suit and published an article based on The Times piece. But then the story vanished.

It was not printed in later editions of The Times or on its website and the MailOnline article also disappeared. No explanation of where it had gone was forthcoming from either publisher, while Walters told the New European that he stood by the story. A spokesperson for Carrie Johnson then told the Guardian that the claims had been “totally untrue” – but this didn’t explain why an on-the-record denial had not been provided to Walters ahead of publication when he asked for it.

The exact details of what happened may remain a mystery (although a Downing Street spokesman has suggested to Byline Times’ political editor that it did speak to The Times in between it publishing the story and taking it down) but the symbiotic relationship of Boris Johnson and the most influential press barons in the country does not. 

As Brian Cathcart has repeatedly observed in these pages, in recent years, Britain has seen the culmination of a merger between its political and media classes.

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Spearheading the Vote Leave ‘revolution’, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – rumoured to be considering taking on the editorship of The Times according to Byline Times diarist Peter Oborne – are the journalist-politicians who were propelled to power in no small part due to the support of their friends in the right-wing press.

Having made it all the way to Downing Street, all of their social and professional connections in the media have paid off. In turn, they have paid for this loyalty generously. 

Dominic Cummings recently confirmed just one example.

Tweeting that Johnson had personally negotiated “COVID bungs” for struggling newspaper titles during the pandemic – which he said were later dressed up as “subsidies” – the Prime Minister’s former chief advisor exposed a story Byline Times had reported two years previously. With zero interest by anyone in the established media. 

Despite this newspaper’s attempts to find out, we still don’t know how many millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was handed to the newspapers. What we do know is that the same newspapers that received the money have been largely sympathetic to an administration that has been mired in unparalleled levels of scandal and corruption in modern British political history.

It begs the question: do we have a free press or a paid for press?

In the wake of Cummings’ tweets, I contacted the editor of a reputable online publication not usually seen as part of the ‘mainstream’ circle of titles, to place an article on why the rest of the media had stayed silent on Johnson’s bungs for billionaire press barons and how such a close relationship between the media and the press remains dangerous for our democracy. I received no reply.

But the ‘Partygate’ scandal of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street has shown that the press can hold power to account – when it chooses to. While ITV News and the Mirror led this reporting, the subsequent inquiries and the ramifications for Johnson’s Government with the public meant it could not simply be ignored by the right-wing titles or broadcasters such as the BBC. But Partygate wasn’t the first, or arguably the most egregious, of this administration’s scandals.

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Whether it’s the economic costs of Britain’s hard Brexit; the Government’s ‘herd immunity’ approach in the early days of the Coronavirus crisis; Russian interference in the UK; or the oligarchical cronyism on display around donations, contracts and access – so many big issues are not being properly exposed by influential elements of the established press because it’s not in the Government’s interests for it to do so. The Government’s interests are these newspapers’ interests. Even as they claim that everything they do is driven by the public interest and, in the name of press freedom, they go completely unscrutinised.

What Carriegate has merely confirmed is the huge amount of influence wielded by these newspapers as to what we, as citizens, do and do not find out about our Government. 

And when they decide that keeping the Prime Minister in power is no longer mutually beneficial for them, he will be dispatched. Whether through a fresh scandal they have been holding back for the occasion or because his daily failures of leadership reach an endpoint with the public. And Johnson will accept it.

For, as Carriegate has shown: scratching each others’ backs is a normal day at the office for the Prime Minister and his hacks.

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