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Liz Gerard’s Notebook

A presentable PM, mask-wearing, the return of sleaze, attacking BBC presenters’ second jobs, migrant headlines back, jumping to conclusions over Liverpool explosion, Netflix-bashing, our ageing monarch and front page of the fortnight.

By Liz Gerard

Liz Gerard’s Notebook

The Press turns on Johnson

Did you see Boris Johnson at the Cenotaph? What a sight! Hair combed, collar and tie straight, decent overcoat with what looked like a suit that fitted underneath.

You may have missed him, since papers that routinely carry drop-in shots of our dishevelled Prime Minister mysteriously looked away when he tidied himself up. Only the Mirror and the Star included him with his wreath in their montages, while a couple of others had him – again with neat hair – taking a selfie with some young service people.

There were more enticing subjects: Kate looking perfect as ever, both solo and as one of the three duchesses lined up in designer black, Chelsea pensioners in wheelchairs.

But for once, those pictures of Johnson were almost newsworthy: if he can keep his hair in place outdoors on an autumn morning, how is it so hard at those indoor press conferences? If he has suits that fit, or at least look respectable with the jacket unfastened, why does he insist on squeezing into those crumpled jobs pulled together by a strained button in the middle? These are the sorts of questions that would be asked, especially by the Mail, if we had a female leader. Or if the leader of the opposition were not dressed in the manner the Press deemed appropriate.

Of course, we all know that the scruffy look is deliberate, a conceit. Are the dead worthy of a respect that Johnson doesn’t care to pay to the living? Or could he be cleaning up his act?

The Prime Minister’s approval rating has been in negative territory for almost his entire time in office, but now his behaviour is hitting his party’s ratings too – as the Mail blazoned across its front on Saturday.

Yesterday he finally apologised to his MPs for the Paterson debacle, admitting that “on a clear day I crashed the car into a ditch”, but even before that, there had been signs of contrition and an acceptance of fallibility that had not previously been in evidence; the Lord Mayor’s banquet speech had some passages that were almost statesmanlike with regard to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Has he been chastened by the battering he has taken of late – a battering he knows he brought on himself? Matthew Parris and Tim Shipman in the Times and Sunday Times (which scored big with its work on Tory treasurers who ended up in the Lords after making their £3m donations to the party), discern a change in the public perception of our Prime Minister; a turning point that might mark the beginning of his downfall. I thought I discerned a change in the Prime Minister’s perception of himself, a realisation that he needs to up his game, that boosterism and jokesmanship are not enough – until the shenanigans at PMQs yesterday.

He has certainly endured quite a fortnight. There was widespread mocking … for his failure to attend the emergency debate on parliamentary standards (when your “friends” headline their stories “Botcher Boris bottles it” or “PM’s chicken run for sleaze debate” you’re in trouble). But what made people in the real world angry was his failure to wear a mask on that unalterable hospital engagement that kept him away from Westminster. “No apology, no shame, no respect & no mask,” thundered the Mirror, never Johnson’s biggest fan.

The mask drops

The Guardian, Metro and i also pointed up his bare-faced appearance and the Times mentioned it in passing. But the Express, Mail and Telegraph let it go. The whitetop tabloids merely noted in their captions to pictures of him with masked hospital staff that he was “visiting a hospital” in Hexham; the Telegraph chose a photograph in which he had actually covered his face in the CT scanning room. This felt not so much that right wing papers were letting him off the hook, as that they were out of touch with the public mood.

I had to visit a hospital yesterday and had a series of letters in advance telling me of the Covid restrictions in place, and of the requirement to wear a face-covering at all times. There were signs on all the doors, internal and external, and on the walls. Surely the PM must have seen these in Northumberland; surely I was not alone in thinking that.

More questions should have been asked, but only the Mirror did so – coming back three days later with one of the best fronts of a rich fortnight. An email had been sent to No 10 in advance, he was reminded on arrival and asked again during the tour to cover his face. To which Downing Street replied that he had followed the rules. But whose rules? The Government’s – which are that face coverings are a matter of personal choice – or the NHS’s – which are that they must be worn at all times?

Greed & Sleaze

The turning point – if there has been one – may have come with the Paterson fall-out, but that fiasco left Johnson with much more to deal with than the perception that he had tried to force through a rule change to help a guilty friend.

For in doing so, he handed Fleet Street a tin-opener and it has since feasted on worms. These aren’t just second-job worms, but whole pallets of sleaze, greed and cronyism from across the top of our society. And this banquet is being served up by papers from across the political spectrum.

It’s quite a change after the way that most have played down questions about the awarding of pandemic contracts, too often leaving it to the likes of Private Eye, Byline Times and much-maligned social media to highlight where and how money has been spent and to what effect. The Eye’s forensic and jaw-dropping “Profits of doom” special last week was exemplary, shaming the mainstream Press. But this time, the nationals have woken up a bit, so it’s worth just listing the goodies they have unearthed.

The Mail led the way on Geoffrey Cox – a story picked up and followed up by almost everyone – and also had a Prince of Wales aide resigning over cash for honours. The Sunday Times came up with a dossier showing that Conservative treasurers who donated £3m to the party coincidentally all ended up in the House of Lords.

The Guardian has gone back over the Prime Minister’s flat redecoration and his recent holiday, as well as reigniting cronyism claims over public appointments and Covid contracts.

The i homed in on Natalie Elphicke, who tweeted that Marcus Rashford should stop politicking and “stick to the day job” after he missed a penalty in the Euros final. She apparently earns £36,000 a year from her eight-hour-a-week second job.

The Mirror splashed yesterday on a Tory donor paying off a £1.5m loan for Prince Andrew – a story that made a puff even for the ever-loyalist-royalist Express.

The Times developed one strand of the Geoffrey Cox story to find that 14 MPs were using parliamentary expenses to rent homes in London while letting out their own homes for more than £10,000 a year.

Quite the haul. Let’s hope the papers have now developed a taste for journalism.

Raking it in?

The Mail has been galloping ahead on its high horse in the second jobs stakes – and it hasn’t confined its tutting to MPs. Last Wednesday, it also had a page lead on “BBC stars cashing in from jobs on the side”. Presenters were “raking in thousands of pounds”, it said.

The story came from the BBC’s second quarterly report on staff’s outside earnings, which said that nine presenters, including Huw Edwards, Emily Maitlis, Naga Munchetty and Amol Rajan, had earned between £5,000 and £10,000 from speaking engagements or hosting events for other companies. Two – Stephen Sackur and Maryam Moshiri – had earned more than £10,000.

This set me wondering. There must be dozens of organisations that hire such stars for their events – ITV’s Charlene White was supposed to do the Press Awards that were cancelled amid the racism and bigotry row last year; John Bird and John Fortune, Emma Barnett and Nick Ferrari have all done it. Jeremy Vine has a wonderful story about an agricultural event at which he was a speaker alongside Boris Johnson. I looked him up. If you want him at your do, it will cost you between £5,000 and £10,000. So just one booking would get a top BBC bod on that list – and yet there were only nine. Doesn’t seem so many.

And isn’t there a celebrated Mail columnist who used to work for the BBC? John Humphrys is on the books of half a dozen agencies, and – like Linda Evangelista – he apparently won’t get out of bed for less than 10k. So he’d need to speak only once to beat the people described by his newspaper as “raking it in”.

But maybe this is a recent sideline. Maybe he didn’t go moonlighting when he was on the Today programme? Hmmm. In 2009, the Mail reported on a Humphrys after-dinner speech in which he described hosting Mastermind as “money for old rope”. That story said that, even back then, he was “paid around £10,000 for speaking engagements”.

Anyone remember that headline “Mail columnist coining it”?

Migrants back on the front page

Since before the referendum, certain newspapers have been obsessed with migration. The Express, Mail and Sun demonised refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants, using the word “migrant” as a pejorative term to encompass all, in the campaign for a Leave vote. They set an agenda that others were forced to follow, with only the Mirror standing entirely aloof.

Once the desired result had been achieved, the rhetoric was dialled down, but now it’s being turned up again to attack the French and, perhaps, justify growing concerns about our divorce agreement with the EU. This time, it is the Times and Telegraph who are the most obsessed. “Halt migrants, France told” was a Times splash this week which, coupled with a big picture, dominated the front page. The sound and fury from Fleet Street is palpable, but the words from our maybe-reformed leader have been more restrained.

There is a bigger migration problem a few hundred miles away. Liz Truss has approached President Putin about it (as has the rather less influential Emmanuel Macron) and Johnson reinforced her sentiments at the Guildhall. The Sunday Telegraph led on Truss’s remonstrations, which seemed to imbue them with an unwarranted air of international authority, but did have the merit of telling readers about a different – and more scandalous – migration problem that, for now, doesn’t impinge on us.

It would be nice to see our papers making front-page news of the horrors on the Belarus-Poland border and Lukushenko’s cynical use of vulnerable people to wage Putin’s war on the EU, but only The Guardian and Telegraph have done so. We have become insular. Nevertheless, there has been good coverage on inside pages, some liberal allocation of space and thoughtful writing. Certainly, some take a self-interested approach – the role of British troops or the possible knock-on effects for Britain if this isn’t sorted – but at least most titles are sitting up and taking notice.

Jumping to conclusions

Trying to persuade people that migrants aren’t a threat to your family or way of life can be a tall order and when you get an incident such as the explosion outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital last Sunday, it becomes harder. Your heart sinks when you hear that the perpetrator was Syrian, a failed asylum-seeker. The choice of a home-made bomb as a weapon of self-destruction only adds to the prevailing prejudice and leaves the authorities with little choice but to label the incident a terror attack. It didn’t take long for the home secretary – with the help of an ever-ready Press – to widen the story into an attack on all asylum-seekers “gaming the system”.

For the time being, all we know is that this was a suicide of one man. We don’t know why he acted as he did or even be certain that he intended to kill others as well as himself. We have been told countless times by people who understand these things that there are almost always many factors that lead a person to take their own life. To cite “mental health issues” is unhelpful and to attempt to ascribe a single cause, as the Sun did on Tuesday with “Bomber’s rage over asylum”, is a complete no-no.

We are interested that this man tried to seek asylum, that he was turned down, that he changed his name, that he converted to Christianity. These are all relevant pieces to a jigsaw that will take a while to complete.

But guidance on suicide reporting, repeatedly flouted by the Sun, is there for a reason: to protect other people’s lives, to stop others from emulating those whose deaths have made front-page news. No one, including the Sun, benefits from these glib, easy-answer “exclusives”. Give us the facts as you’ve uncovered them, by all means, but please resist the temptation to turn detective, prosecutor, judge and jury. We can wait a day or two for more facts to emerge, a month or two for the coroner to reach a reasoned conclusion.

The Sun v Netflix

We’ve had a feast of royals this past couple of weeks: the Queen’s health, Kate stepping out with Holocaust survivors, investitures (notably those of Elton John and Marcus Rashford), Remembrance Sunday, Prince Charles’s aide, Prince Andrew’s loan, and more.

The Sun seems to have got it in for Netflix. Last time, it was the Crown “defying” Wills to include the Bashir interview in the upcoming series. Now we have a splash – “Crown v The Crown” – saying that Palace has been given legal advice that it could sue for libel. An interesting take, given the paper’s longstanding view that royals shouldn’t bother the courts (especially Meg and Hal, more of whom later).

But also, if true, an excellent story. What aspect of the series are they upset about? Whose reputation are they going to sue over? Well, there’s lots they seem not to like, but nothing bad enough – yet – to move them to litigation. Still, just watch out if Netflix oversteps the line in the next series.

“Friends” of “the Firm” who feature in the new series have, the paper says, consulted solicitors about their own portrayals and been told that they might have grounds to sue. And they’ve told the royals. So this “Crown v The Crown” is based on third-hand “advice” on something that hasn’t appeared yet.

One possible danger area mentioned in the story is the Queen’s reaction to the death of Diana. A solicitor with Carter-Ruck, (not one of the firms listed as having been consulted by these “friends”) is quoted as saying Netflix could “easily” defend a depiction of the Queen as cold, because that would be a matter of opinion. But if it suggested that she was “failing in her duties as sovereign or harming the country”, that would be a different matter.

Er, quite. The show hasn’t been broadcast. We don’t know what it says. The chances of it suggesting that the Queen failed in her duties or harmed the country – angles we’ve just dreamt up – are remote. But if it does, it might be actionable.

The solicitor goes on to say: “The fact she is being given initial advice about libel action says that she considers her portrayal a false one.” But the story doesn’t say she has been given advice; it says that friends have consulted lawyers and passed on the information gleaned. How can that be taken as a guide to what the Queen thinks about anything?

And, even if she were fuming, what is the likelihood of the Queen suing anyone? Especially given that the Press has just spent a week telling us that the entire Royal Family told M&H not to go anywhere near the courts – with more of that story on the very same spread as the Crown turn. Netflix must be quaking in its boots.

Our ageing monarch

Still with the Sun and the Queen. Apart from being completely wrong in the end – which was hardly the paper’s fault – its splash on the Queen’s determination to watch the Remembrance Day ceremonies from Whitehall was an example of a common pitfall where subs take a line from a song, poem or other piece of literature and use it to project a completely different meaning from that in the original.

In this case, it was the overline “Age shall not weary Her Majesty”. This was wrong in both the literal and poetic senses. Age has wearied the Queen, which is why she has been advised by doctors to rest. And, in any case, the point of Laurence Binyon’s poem was that the soldiers we will remember have died. That’s why age shall not weary them. Not because they were resilient or determined or cussed or any of the other characteristics of we that are left who grew old.

John Rentoul created a joy forever with his take on (specifically Daily Mail) “questions to which the answer is No!” So here’s a rare one to set alongside his collection. For the answer to this puff question is such a resounding Yes! that you wonder why the paper bothered to ask. She pulled out of a visit to Northern Ireland, she pulled out of Cop26, she went into hospital, she pulled out of the Cenotaph. For all the Palace and Prime Ministerial reassurances, there are worries. For a paper that so unerringly hits the mark day after day, this was a shocker.

Front page of the fortnight

And then there was Meghan. As previously noted, coverage of the Duchess of Sussex (and her husband) is not exactly supportive. The industry feels under attack, thanks to the couple’s lawsuit over her letter to her father and general attitudes to protecting their privacy, so when her case against the Mail on Sunday returned to court this week, the whole of Fleet Street had a field day.

Let’s see how it goes when it gets to the other side of the story as the hearing rumbles on, whether there will be quite so many prominent headlines.

I am generally sympathetic to her and feel she has a raw deal. But, my, she doesn’t help herself. So, in the face of stiff competition from all the Mail’s sleaze covers and the Mirror on maskless Johnson, I have to hand it to the Sun for coming up with this completely off-the-wall front.

Liz Gerard’s Notebook is a fortnightly column published in the InPubWeekly newsletter. To be added to the mailing list, enter your email address here.