FEATURE 

Toeing the government line

Dominic Cummings is just the latest in a long line of fearsome Downing Street advisers who have sought to control the media. Is he any worse than his predecessors and why do some journalists in our supposedly free press report what the government wants them to report? Liz Gerard investigates.

By Liz Gerard

Toeing the government line
“Just because a photo has been taken doesn’t mean that it has to be published.”

When Al Pacino rocks up on Graham Norton, Hilary Mantel talks to the Guardian or Tim Burgess appears on Radcliffe & Maconie, they are not there because they fancied a chat. They have turned out because they have a film, book or record to promote and their “people” will have “made them available” for interview.

Those “people” will have chosen the broadcaster or publication with a mind to reaching the biggest and / or target audience. They will not accept just any interviewer, they will stipulate that certain topics are off limits and, in the case of newspapers or magazines, will even try to get copy approval. What’s more, celebrity interviewees (though obviously not the three named above!) do not always tell the complete, unvarnished truth and have been known to dodge inconvenient questions.

As viewers, readers or listeners, we make our own judgments, largely based on who is asking the questions, why the subject is there, and the general entertainment value. The result might be that we watch the film, read the book, listen to the music. And if we do, we may discover that, just because we warmed to the person, we won’t necessarily like their work. Equally, a skilled interviewer can expose their subject as a most unpleasant human being, yet we might still admire their acting.

Avoiding Andrew Neil

We know and accept all this in most spheres of culture, science and business. Is politics any different? Indeed, isn’t politics the ultimate PR exercise? How reasonable is it to expect the prime minister to subject himself to a likely hostile grilling in Andrew Neil’s black chair, when he can talk to more of the people he really wants to reach via Holly and Phil’s sofa? Is it not natural that a Conservative leader would prefer to talk to the Sun than to the Mirror? Why should it be OK for a model to say, “I don’t talk about my children”, but not for Boris Johnson? He has not, so far as I’m aware, set himself up as some arbiter of the nation’s morals; his treatment of the women in his life may be questionable, but does that create an open season on his progeny?

But, but, but… accountability? This isn’t entertainment; it’s democracy. He should be made to answer for his actions. He should be challenged over what might generously be termed inconsistencies. Of course he should. That’s what parliament and the opposition are for. It’s what professional journalists and amateur social media pundits do every day.

So, perhaps it’s time to pause our hand-wringing over the government’s media manipulation and take stock.

All governments seek to manage the news and it’s often been pretty brutal.

Warning signals

First, some evidence for the prosecution: the barring of the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar from the Conservative election battle bus; the attempt to exclude her and other journalists from a Brexit policy briefing – which led to a walkout by all journalists present; the threats (some veiled, some overt) to Channel 4 and the BBC; the anonymous leaks and tips from Whitehall and Downing Street “sources” to chosen correspondents; the boycotting of the Today programme and GMB; the disinclination to “waste time answering a stream of false allegations from campaigning newspapers” over Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham.

This last provoked a third protest in less than five months from the Society of Editors. The first – a letter signed by every national newspaper editor – complained about changes to the lobby system and the briefing that led to the journalists’ walkout. It went unanswered. The second concerned the prime minister’s Facebook address to the nation when the UK left the EU. The society’s executive director Ian Murray said at the time: “While it is not unacceptable that the prime minister creates his own video release… this latest development does have worrying overtones of an administration possibly seeking to bypass the mainstream media to achieve an easier ride.

“In a free and liberal democracy, it is always best that the government engages with the media rather than attempt to bypass it.”

On Cummings – where the government retreated and the adviser did, of course, hold a press conference to explain himself in the Downing Street rose garden – Murray said: “No administration that believes in a free media – and this government has repeatedly stood by that assertion – can then decide which media it will respond to and which not.”

Strong stuff from an organisation representing editors whose newspapers are overwhelmingly pro-Conservative and which mostly campaigned for the election of this very government.

John Mair, editor of 35 “hackademic” books about journalism and the media (* the latest being Boris, Brexit and the Media and The Virus and the Media) is equally concerned, describing the government’s attitude to the press and broadcasters as bad Trumpism. He was scathing of the daily Downing Street covid briefings: “in reality, one-way propaganda and the apogee of the Cummings approach.”

“Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain put Alastair Campbell to shame,” he said. “Campbell was the uber-media control freak of the Blair era. Cummings is much worse. He operates in the shadows, briefing friendly hacks constantly and killing careers with nudges. His briefing to Tim Shipman on the BBC in February was an utter disgrace – 100 years of broadcasting history confined to the bin in a secret conversation.”

Mair must be right that the public press conferences suited Cummings. For, just as we were thinking that abandoning the regular covid sessions meant a retreat from open government, we learnt that one of the two daily private briefings for lobby journalists was to be turned into a full White House-style production number, complete with broadcaster host, beamed to anyone who cares to watch from a special media suite in 9 Downing Street.

Naturally, this was a triumph for “transparency”, and was, indeed, widely welcomed. But it came with a side order of job cuts for departmental press officers – specialists in their field – as control of the message was further concentrated into the hands of Cummings and Cain.

Campbell was the uber-media control freak of the Blair era. Cummings is much worse.

Spin doctors past

But is Cummings really worse than his predecessors? He may be rude to MPs, telling them he has no idea who they are or that they don’t matter, but has he actually ordered a foreign secretary to choose between his wife and his lover in an airport lounge?

For some of us, these are horrible times, with the government riding roughshod over people, freedoms and values we hold dear, but are they really unprecedented?

Roy Greenslade, the former Mirror editor and Sun and Sunday Times executive who has been writing about the media for years, is unconvinced.

“All governments seek to manage the news and it’s often been pretty brutal. Joe Haines, Harold Wilson’s press secretary, was often regarded as a fearsome enforcer. Thatcher’s Bernard Ingham was hardly a pussycat.

“But I guess Campbell is still regarded as the spin doctor’s spin doctor because he made no secret of the need to massage the message. To that end, he often did deals with political editors, rewarding them with scoops and tips, while denying those who published anti-Blair material.

“Government press secretaries naturally gravitate towards political reporters they view as sympathetic and attempt to marginalise those who are critical. In that sense, this current government is no different. What is odd, however, are missteps, such as the clumsy banning of journalists from that briefing in February. That forced the pro-Boris press to join forces with his antagonists. Not clever.”

Phil Webster, long-time political editor of The Times and now a contributor to former editor James Harding’s Tortoise “slow news” outlet, also uses the word clumsy to describe the current operation – and also alludes to the Campbell era, which he describes as the template for the Tory governments that followed.

“Today’s government looks ham-fisted in its communications,” he says. “In trying to be controlling, it’s excluding important outlets – Today and Channel 4 remain big agenda setters. Social media is now outdoing traditional means of output, but it cannot be controlled and is utterly unpredictable. No 10 is full of Vote Leavers who think, with some justification, that the BBC, Guardian, Mirror and FT are bad losers refighting the Brexit war they lost. But they end up looking clumsy and upsetting traditional friends – the Mail has been scathing during covid. Keir Starmer is playing it better, not afraid to be seen going to the Telegraph. It’s crazy to try to exclude any outlet. They’ll end up crawling back to Today and the average punter won’t notice they were excluding it anyway.”

A further reminder of the Campbell approach came from Richard Holledge, recalling his days on the Independent. “They would get on the phone the moment the first editions appeared to repudiate any story that was remotely hostile to them. It was pure bullying – or attempted bullying. I always told them to come back tomorrow. They never did.”

Scoop journalism is the fundamental reason that political reporters tend to stay onside.

Why is the free press so compliant?

Therein lies the key. The government can push its message as hard as it likes, but we still have a free press that can print it or not, and then interpret that message as it will. The Daily Express may fall into line, day after day, with its “Boris will sort everything” hero-worship; others are more selective. As Phil Webster noted, the ultra-Conservative Mail has been damning in its coverage of the handling of the covid crisis, from testing to PPE to the care homes scandal. Of course, the Tories are safely in office with a thumping majority, any Corbyn threat has evaporated, so it can afford to tell its friends in power where they are going wrong; it may be less frank in 2024.

But, by and large, if we are hearing and reading positive messages about the government, it’s less because it’s being manipulative than because the media either approves of the message or is being compliant. When Johnson made his big “build, build, build” speech, likening a “new” £5bn investment (that had previously been announced) to Roosevelt’s New Deal, it was no accident that he followed it up with a stroll round a construction site dressed in too-small hard hat and ill-fitting high-vis jacket. And, of course, he jumped on a digger. As Laura Kuenssberg noted on the BBC’s News at Ten: “Boris Johnson can’t see a digger without seeing a photo-opportunity.” Yes, a photo opportunity. But is yet another picture of the prime minister deliberately making himself look scruffily silly newsworthy? Just because a photo has been taken doesn’t mean that it has to be published. Still, every national paper bar the Guardian did – the generally government-sceptical i even put it on page one. Exactly as the government wanted.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of fact checkers, analysts and commentators around – in print, broadcast and social media – to debunk the New Deal comparison, among them the former ambassador Craig Murray, who pointed out that for it to be on the same scale as the FDR version, the government would have to invest £900bn.

Piers Morgan on television and James O’Brien on radio (and both on Twitter) have been relentless in their questioning and rebutting; Jane Merrick in the i did a splendid job on showing how experts whose contributions to those covid briefings hadn’t been “on-message” had been disappeared. For every shadowy move – on Brexit, covid, Whitehall shake-ups – there has been someone somewhere shining a torch. The government may be all-powerful in that no one can stop it doing as it pleases, but, as yet, it cannot stop people noticing and reporting what it’s up to.

Roy Greenslade does, however, detect a different atmosphere from the past in that, despite all the outrage, Cummings got away with that Durham episode: “I cannot imagine if that had been Campbell in the Blair era that he would have survived.”

The fact that there are so many Tory-supporting papers is obviously a factor in the overall positive tone, but he notes that even supposedly neutral outlets – such as the BBC or the Huffington Post – are not troubling the government, and he puts this down to the journalists’ reliance on No 10 for scoops.

“Scoop journalism is the fundamental reason that political reporters tend to stay onside. The government controls the information and spoon-feeds it to favoured journalists, who then race to Twitter to show off their exclusive access – which is how they got into trouble over the false claim that a Labour activist assaulted a Tory adviser.

“A friend of mine has a winning phrase for reporters repeating what their sources tell them without applying normal journalistic rigour: succulent lamb journalism. A culture of sycophantic journalism which makes the reporter wholly dependent on their sources. Plenty of Westminster journalists appear all too happy to accept what they are fed by Cummings and Cain. Never mind the cooks, just enjoy the diet of scoops.”

The government is certainly trying to manage the news and manipulate the media. If we don’t like it, the solution lies in our own hands.

* ‘Brexit, Boris and the Media’, published by Abramis and ‘The Virus and the Media’, published by Bite-Sized Books, are both available on Amazon.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.