Don’t assume it couldn’t happen here, warns ALASTAIR CAMPBELL.
There was something almost comical about the way Boris Johnson and his media sycophants sought to distance him and his cabinet from their previous ‘upsucking’ to Donald Trump.
Whether Johnson backing Trump for a Nobel peace prize; Dominic Raab even quite recently refusing to criticise Trump’s failure to accept the election result; Michael Gove with his little ‘thumbs-up’ photo-op, (playdate organiser Rupert Murdoch in the room but out of shot); or Jacob Rees-Mogg with his call that a redder than red carpet should be rolled out for the Narcissist-in-Chief; they are up to their necks in Trump Upsuckery.
But of course it really does help to have so many media owners, editors, columnists and reporters willing to dance to a new tune, no matter how discordant it may be set against the tunes of the recent past, when the Sycophant Orchestra was booming out whole sunny upland symphonies on the fantastic post-Brexit trade deal that the love-in between Trump and the man he called ‘Britain Trump’ would deliver.
When Barack Obama directly condemned his successor for instigating the violence at the Capitol, so creating “a moment of great dishonour and shame for our nation”, he was clear that though Trump was the chief culprit, he had been aided and abetted by “a political party and its accompanying media ecosystem”.
That the Republican Party morphed into a vehicle for the ambitions of a conman its key figures knew to be such, that it took an election defeat, an attempt at mob rule, a handful of deaths and a risk to their own security to bring once serious politicians to their senses, is a big part of the story of how America was led to the dishonour and shame.
So too is the “accompanying media ecosystem”; the cable channels set up to challenge the traditional triopoly of ABC, NBC and CBS, engendering new levels of craziness, matched by shock jocks, crazier still; the drive to the right given a veneer of professionalism by ‘fair and balanced’ (sic) Fox News, even less fair and balanced channels like Newsmax and OANN, all given booster rockets by social media, which Trump turned into anti-social media, key to the whole paraphernalia of polarisation on whose algorithms of hate he joyfully gorged, QAnon conspiracy theories and all.
Noble exceptions called out the Trump lies and delusions, but they were often drowned out, not least by the incessant bleat of “fake news”. Just as Republican politicians normalised his abnormalities for fear of upsetting him or the party’s base, the media ecosystem normalised the lying and delusions by amplifying and supporting them rather than exposing them for what they were.
“Their fantasy narrative,” said Obama of the Republicans and their media ecosystem, “has spiralled further and further from reality, and it builds upon years of sown resentments. Now we’re seeing the consequences, whipped up into a violent crescendo.”
But before we allow the Johnson sycophant media to whitewash his upsucking, yet another personal and strategic failure, and before we descend into a ‘couldn’t happen here’ sense of superiority, let me say this: every word of that paragraph could apply to the UK, up to the last six words.
Johnson loves fantasy narratives, and he has a vast media ecosystem that loves promoting them for him. Most days the Mail, the Express, the Sun, the Telegraph are little more than propaganda outlets echoing whatever new false promise he is making and some days parts of the Times join in.
Like Trump, Johnson became famous, and came to be viewed by his party as a credible figure, through the fantasy narrative that what politics needed was celebrity, comedy, ‘something different’. He became London mayor on the fantasy narrative that he was a progressive. He fought and won the Brexit campaign on fantasy narratives about the NHS, about Turks invading the UK, about having cake and eating it, getting out of the EU but staying in the single market. In the world of Johnson and his sycophant ecosystem, one false narrative merely replaces another.
His handling of Covid has delivered a whole catalogue of fantasy narratives, most with a touch of UK exceptionalism, from the start, when we were to be the country that stood up to the virus without shutting down, to where we are now, the death toll topping 80,000, and ministers rushing to tweet ‘this is a great day,’ on account of the Queen having had the jab.
A whole new fantasy narrative is being woven from “the new variant” of Covid. Unlike the weirdoes and conspiracy theorists, I do not doubt it is real. However, it has been used by the government, helped by the usual suspects, to erase the memory of the huge and catastrophic failings of their management (sic) of the crisis long before we learned we had this world-beating new variant.
The fantasy narratives are also now being combined, so that as the Brexit fantasies crash with reality, and the guarantees of frictionless trade join the encyclopaedia of referendum lies and broken promises, Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Gove are already preparing the ground to blame the Brexit economic hit on Covid. The media sycophants will need no encouragement, let alone a peerage or knighthood, to ventilate yet another false narrative.
If we had a frank, fearless and free media, they would not have simply rolled over and given up investigating stories which under any previous government would have stayed part of our debate until unanswered questions were met with answers.
The multiple allegations against Robert Jenrick – his handling of Tory donor Richard Desmond’s housing development; the awarding of a regeneration grant to his constituency; his travelling between homes during lockdown; the investment fund co-founded by Jacob Rees-Mogg moving to Ireland; Rees-Mogg closing shutting down the Brexit scrutiny committee; the Priti Patel bullying report, and Johnson’s decision to junk the code on ministerial standards; the many allegations raised against Tory- and Leave- donating firms securing large pandemic contracts.
Dido Harding and the billions spaffed on test and trace. The venture capitalist vaccine supremo married to a Treasury minister, now replaced by another Tory minister. Leak inquiries that lead the news when they are announced, never to be followed up again. The Brexit campaign law-breaking. Russian interference in the referendum and our life and national politics now.
Johnson stuffing the House of Lords with donors and cronies, including in defiance of the independent commission on appointments. Jennifer Arcuri. The many loose ends arising from Dominic Cummings’ time in No 10. Stanley Johnson’s repeated breaches of rules. The ignored Sage advice. The missed Cobra meetings. Hand-shaking. Cheltenham. Three late lockdowns. Schools fiasco. Christmas farce. Care home infection (false narrative ring of steel). False claims re new hospitals. I could go on…
Every single one of them, had Labour been in power, would have dominated the news for days, weeks, months. The Tories and their media ecosystem, with its influence over the rest of the media, including most of our broadcasters, just move on. Yesterday is a foreign country. The news is what the government says it is, here and now. Let’s roll out another promise, that will keep them quiet.
‘When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.’ Bertolt Brecht.
That is part of what helped Trump win, and helped him control the agenda until, thankfully, he was beaten at the ballot box, and then he went too far. Johnson, contrary to the white-washing, has so many of the same characteristics as Trump. But the Tory Party and the UK media ecosystem are even more favourably disposed to Johnson’s fantasy narratives than the Americans were to Trump’s. In the US, the main print titles tend to be neutral or liberal, and several remain committed to proper investigative reporting. It is far from fantastical to imagine a scenario in which, within a decade, not merely print but also broadcast media are skewed to the right.
It is why we should be a lot more alert, a lot angrier, a lot more fearful, and a lot more determined about calling Johnson out, taking him on and ensuring that, like Trump, he does not last too long.