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‘The Press Equivalent of the PPE “VIP” Channel’: Submission to COVID Inquiry On Newspaper ‘Bungs’ Calls for Answers on Use of Taxpayer Money

A government ad campaign poured cash into national newspapers during the pandemic. Byline Times is one of a number of signatories to a submission on the scheme to the COVID Inquiry

Rupert Murdoch at his annual party at Spencer House, St James’ Place, London in June 2023. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA/Alamy

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Coronavirus ‘bungs’ – believed to be worth over £100 million – that Boris Johnson gave to newspapers during the pandemic are facing fresh scrutiny as independent media organisations and campaigners urge the COVID Inquiry to examine the payments, Byline Times can reveal.

Evidence presented to COVID Inquiry chair Baroness Hallett, by groups including the Independent Community News Network (ICNN) and the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF), suggests that the decision to give the taxpayer money to some of the biggest newspaper publishers was made without appropriate process or proper oversight of the costs involved – and came following lobbying from editors directly to then Prime Minister Johnson. 

The scheme, ‘All In, All Together’, was arranged for members of the News Media Association (NMA) – which include the Evening Standard, Guardian, Mail, Murdoch, Telegraph and Mirror groups – in April 2020, a time when newspapers were seeing their circulations fall as the pandemic took hold.

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

While the initial agreement was for £35 million for its first three months, the scheme lasted beyond the first lockdown, with articles appearing into 2022.

The ICNN and the PINF believe that the final cost may have approached a staggering £200 million – a figure a Government source has strongly disputed, although for unstated reasons.

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Although Byline Times first reported on the scheme in the month it began, there was no wider interest in the story from the established media – and no questions asked about the possible conflicts of interest created by government money going to newspapers tasked with holding it to account during a public health emergency.

It was only a year later when Johnson’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings lifted the lid on the scheme in a Twitter exchange that it attracted attention.

Asked if he knew of any instance when lobbying had altered Government policy during the pandemic, he replied that “newspapers negotiated direct bungs to themselves with him [Boris Johnson]” and there were “no officials” on the “direct repeated calls”.

Johnson “told officials to send the [money] dressed up as ‘COVID relief’”, Cummings claimed.

According to the submission, the “direct repeated calls” Johnson received from April 2020 onwards were “overwhelmingly likely, given their access” to have been from national newspapers and therefore NMA publications.

The NMA had itself announced on 30 March 2020 that it had made a submission to the Government seeking emergency support, saying that “the crisis posed a grave threat to some publishers because of sharp declines in advertising and some would not survive beyond the next few months without swift intervention”. 

For the NMA, the scheme was a “lobbying success”. On its site, it notes: “At the start of the pandemic, the NMA secured a Government policy decision to support UK news publishers and communicate vital public health information by investing in a multi-million-pound advertising partnership with the news media sector.”

But this omits that independent and community news organisations – including nearly all the non-profit media sector – were not provided with the money.

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According to the submission to the COVID Inquiry, independent news publishers that are members of the ICNN or independent standards body IMPRESS, were desperate for a mere fraction of that investment. But they were locked out of negotiations and denied access to Government support.

IMPRESS members’ exclusion is particularly odd, given that it is the official press regulator (albeit small compared to self-regulator IPSO), set up following the Leveson Inquiry. 

“While the Government very swiftly entered into negotiations with the NMA, ICNN was given no opportunity to put its case to ministers or officials and was not involved in any negotiations,” the submission states.  

After protestations from community papers, just one local independent outlet covering Wokingham received access to the scheme.

The Public Interest News Foundation – as well more than a dozen other signatories to the COVID Inquiry submission including Byline Times – believe there has been a deliberate lack of transparency surrounding the scheme. 

Despite formal requests, no detailed spending data has been published. Submission signatories say any hidden payments would be reminiscent of the “secret funds” handed to news barons under the corrupt rule of King George III to try and influence the press.

Journalist, academic and campaigner Brian Cathcart – a founder of the Hacked Off group for a free and accountable press – who signed the submission to the COVID Inquiry, said: “For me, the key in all this is this: how much of our money did Johnson give Rothermere, Murdoch and [Telegraph owner] the Barclays? I would describe this as the press equivalent of the PPE ‘VIP’ channel.” 

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His and others’ analysis is that no value-for-money test was carried out on the scheme.

Independent outlets want answers, the submission to the COVID Inquiry states. If the scheme was based purely on a media outlet’s ability to engage with audiences, why were non-NMA titles – reaching 14 million people a month – excluded? How much taxpayer money was spent supporting some of the biggest news companies in the UK during a crisis?

A Government spokesperson told Byline Times: “The Government recognises the valued role of all national, local and regional newspapers, and actively supported the whole industry during the COVID pandemic. As part of our All In, All Together campaign we advertised vital public health messaging across hundreds of titles including UK nationals, regional dailies, weeklies, websites and independent media.

“No title received preferential treatment. All outlets were selected by our external media planning and buying agency purely on their ability to engage with audiences at a national, regional and local level, in order to help deliver key public safety messages during the pandemic.”

COVID Inquiry chair Baroness Hallett will be the one to decide whether the public finally sees the receipts – or remains in the dark over these press “bungs”. 

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