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There’s a memorable scene towards the end of the 1976 classic All the President’s Men when Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s source Deep Throat tells him that he’s “missing the overall”. The Watergate break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters was just the tip of the iceberg.
“They bugged offices, they followed people, planted false press leaks, passed fake letters… they investigated Democratic private lives, they planted spies, they stole documents.” The entire machinery of the White House, Deep Throat – later revealed to be former associate director of the FBI Mark Felt – says, was in on it.
Watching the film again recently, detailing the real-life reporting of Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the scandal that brought down President Nixon, we were struck by this list of unlawful activity for political gain – and how in Britain these ‘dark arts’ had largely been outsourced to sections of the established press, acting in conjunction with those in power for their mutual benefit.
One of the familiar defences of indefensible behaviour, both in the media and Parliament, is ‘well, it isn’t illegal!’ How did that happen? How did law-breaking become the baseline for accountability when it comes to our politicians or the press?
As we saw with the phone-hacking scandal a decade ago, or ‘Partygate’ more recently, this is exactly what it takes to finally bring corrupting influences in Britain to light. And yet, the wrongs a politician or a newspaper can commit cannot only be measured by unlawful activity.
This ethical void, which sits at the heart of the established media – and so increasingly our politics – is what Prince Harry is admirably seeking to expose in his various civil claims against the most powerful tabloid newspaper groups in Britain.
As he told the court in his testimony on Mirror Group Newspapers, “democracy fails when your press fails to scrutinise and hold the government accountable, and instead choose to get into bed with them so they can ensure the status quo”. That it takes a prince of the realm, an establishment insider, to publicly identify how the crises in our press and politics are linked is remarkable. But so it is.
Imagine if, instead of investigating Nixon and his re-election committee, Woodward and Bernstein had been swapping anecdotes with its members over boozy dinners and hoping to get their own feet under the tables of the White House; picking and choosing when to hold Nixon’s feet to the fire and when to hold back for their own leverage.
In return, Nixon’s men might be dangling the reward of some well-paid government sinecure as a press spokesperson or ‘head of comms’ in return for compliance. Or, moving the other way through the revolving door, perhaps been pumping Woodward and Bernstein for some plumb columnist job or TV chat show host role over scotch and cigars.
Such a surreal conversation might sound like satire, but that’s been the basis of press malfeasance long after the police bribes and phone-hacking scandal were closed down. A former BBC journalist-turned-GB News host, Guto Harri, is given a gong for his services to Boris Johnson in the latest ‘dishonours’ list, while Johnson loyalists like Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg get prime-time slots on TalkTV and GB News.
Harry’s stand then – despite what the newspapers want to present as the narrative – has never just been the story of historical allegations driven by the polarising prince’s supposed victimhood. It’s a story about power – and where it really lies in the British elite.
The rise and fall of Johnson should by itself expose how this is not a historic problem. It is about an entire culture, which persists, whereby the private interests of politicians and wealthy proprietors, driven by a fixation on celebrity and a lack of interest in serious issues, is distorting our politics. It is about a fourth estate which is not separate from politics but all too often a pillar of it. About a ‘good chaps’ system of governance, which instead of constraining rogue figures actually pushes a Prime Minister to break the law before anything can really be done.
Johnson the ‘journalist’ who became Prime Minister may be the ultimate example of this enablement in the interests, not of the public, but a privileged few in cahoots.
But that the TV presenter Phillip Schofield continues to dominate headlines, at a time when people are struggling with increasing mortgage rates and many more just to make ends meet, is also indicative of this decay. So was the death of TV presenter Caroline Flack, a friend of Harry’s, whose mother has said she was driven to suicide following her treatment by the tabloids.
It can also be seen in the lack of hard questions being asked about anything that really matters to people’s lives: the consequences of Britain’s hard Brexit, its precarious position on the world stage, our broken public services, rising inequality. And by the continued splashing of “stop the boats” on our front pages and news bulletins.
The argument that is often advanced to counter claims such as Harry’s – from the likes of Andrew Neil and Fraser Nelson – is that the newspaper industry is tanking. With circulations dropping, and the likes of the Telegraph up for sale, how can anyone claim that the press has any power to influence British public life? And yet, its influence operation isn’t targeted at the public – it’s targeted at those in power, bypassing the public almost entirely.
As long as the ‘revolting door’ of journalists and politicians, most recently between the offices of the Spectator and No. 10, continues, so does the “status quo” Harry referred to in his court statement.
The agenda-setting ability of the newspapers, regularly featured in daily reviews in the broadcast media, and providing the topics of debate for talk radio, is self-evident. Unlike the meetings – reported only by this newspaper – that Rishi Sunak held with Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks last December, the minutes of which were not recorded by the Government because they were “not structured or formal government meetings”. Informality and influence go hand-in-hand, it seems.
In any case, when the papers were struggling during the early days of the pandemic, Johnson stepped in with millions in subsidies – taxpayers’ money – which Dominic Cummings later claimed were bungs “dressed up” as COVID relief. Byline Times, the first and only news publication to report on it, has just submitted evidence on this arrangement with others to the COVID Inquiry.
If ever there was an example of the consequences of enabling someone like Boris Johnson to become Prime Minister, it is surely the 227,000 people who have died from the Coronavirus. For their loved ones, there is no comfort in the ‘good chaps’ system of governance in Britain.
This country deserves so much better. Beyond the disinformation and distractions, we need to ask ourselves: what is standing in our way? As we found out when it comes to our media-political class, once you ‘see’ it – you can never unsee it.
Hardeep Matharu is the Editor of Byline Times. Peter Jukes is the Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Byline Times