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The press and its shameful indulgence of Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds stand outside 10 Downing Street to join in with a nationwide clap - Credit: PA

There is not a journalist alive unaware that Boris Johnson struggles with the truth. Yet this seems to make them less questioning not more, says ALASTAIR CAMPBELL.

With an admitted bias born of being columnist and editor-at-large, I would argue that The New European has been among the very best new additions to the UK media scene in recent years.

For someone of my generation, it was especially pleasing that the paper started out very much as a print product in the digital age, and has established itself sufficiently for a pretty heavyweight group of people to have taken over ownership, new investment suggesting it will be around for a long time yet. What started as a four-week pop-up spasm provoked by referendum grief in 2016 is already into its fifth year, week in week out displaying its commitment to high quality journalism, with the digital side of things going big now too.

Some years ago, an Australian editor in the Murdoch stable said to me of the British press, “it is the best in the world, and the worst in the world, often in the same issue”.

It is sad, but hard to escape the conclusion, that the worst has very much won out over the best in recent years. Hard to escape the conclusion, too, that the British media, with an all too small number of honourable exceptions, is failing properly to hold the current government to account, whether on Brexit or Covid, or more generally on standards of honesty and competence.

There is a heavy right-wing bias too. It explains why the press can get itself worked up into a mini-frenzy over Keir Starmer mis-speaking in the Commons, for which he apologised, yet which will allow blatant lies by Boris Johnson and his colleagues pass without mention, let alone the pressure to admit or apologise.

My occasional beef with the BBC has never been because I consider them to be institutionally biased one way or the other. It is more that they all too often allow their news agenda to be set by press narratives, and as the right wing press is more numerous, louder, and with less inbuilt concern about facts getting in the way of the owners’ and editors’ views and interests, that means they are overly influenced by the right. Added to which the right wing press falsely and persistently accuse them of left wing bias, for which they tend to over compensate.

Virtually daily I see stories buried away on inside pages, or briefly debated on social media before fizzling out, which had they been happening under a Labour government would have consumed the media for weeks. Let me take two recent examples, one relatively trivial, one anything but.

The trivial. Boris Johnson now has three photographers on the public payroll, whose job is to capture him endlessly parading on the phone, or lounging with his feet on his desk, or swanning around the country in search of a hard hat, a hi-vis jacket or a piece of scientific equipment he can’t work.

I remember we once had a discussion about whether we should have one when Tony Blair was prime minister. Given the media obsession with so called spin, we decided against. Heaven knows how many columns Johnson and Michael Gove, their colleagues and paymasters devoted to portraying Tony Blair as a man obsessed with image not delivery. The Westminster press made a giant new industry of it. Today, too many journalists appear to be willingly exploited puppets in a Putin-style show being put on by Number 10.

I shared the admiration of most of the world for Captain Sir Tom Moore, and the sadness at his passing. But as the UK death toll continued to surpass four figures every day that week, the extent to which the media put those realities largely on hold, instead dancing to Johnson’s exploitative tune of half mast flags and reinstated doorstep clapping, a rare sighting of his partner Carrie as a bonus for the snappers, was worrying. Johnson, typically, had glided from proper tribute and sadness to exploitation and distraction, and the media played along all too easily.

Now a more serious one, though it is related. I read recently that Johnson had held a Zoom call with relatives of the bereaved. He may have, he may not. I don’t know. What I do know is that the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, which represents many families who have lost loved ones, has been trying to raise their concerns with him for months. They have been refused a meeting six times, and now their requests go unanswered. Johnson lied in the Commons when asked about why he would not see them, saying they were involved in legal action against the government and therefore it would not be appropriate. They are not.

There is not a journalist alive unaware that Johnson struggles with the truth. He did as a journalist and he does as a politician. Yet that knowledge seems to have made them less questioning not more, more inclined not less to take what he says at face value, without thinking they might need to interrogate it a little harder. It is all very very strange.

And now, into this right wing landscape, a best pal banker of Rishi Sunak having been made chairman of the BBC, Johnson appears determined to inject Paul Dacre, former editor of the Mail, to run Ofcom. Here I call on another new addition to the media landscape, Byline Times, and a piece by Brian Cathcart – a journalism professor and, as co-founder of Hacked Off, a prominent critic of the former Mail editor – headlined “10 Reasons why Paul Dacre is Unfit to be the new Ofcom Chair”.

These include Dacre’s known, visceral objections to the statutory regulation of journalists, which is one of Ofcom’s most important jobs. Cathcart also describes how Dacre has been a well-known and frequent critic of the most important organisation regulated by Ofcom, (the BBC).

The article also goes back over Dacre’s time in charge of the Mail to raise questions over his suitability for the job. I find it a compelling and damning list drawn up by Cathcart. Yet, if you consider Johnson’s own character and world view you might see why the prime minister is so keen on Dacre for the job.

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