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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: We must fight to protect hard-pressed democracy

Protestations of a belief in free speech by the likes of Matt Hancock fail to show in their actions. Photo: Twitter - Credit: Archant

These ministers are not the champions of free speech, writes ALASTAIR CAMPBELL. If they were, they’d welcome rather than hide from scrutiny.

As one British business in particular – Rupert Murdoch’s – and one British industry in general – newspapers – were briefly disrupted by direct action last weekend, Boris Johnson led a cabinet charge to attack Extinction Rebellion, and defend the freedom of the press.

There was even talk of new ‘anti-subversion’ laws, and putting the eco-warriors on a par with organised crime. Just the kind of knee-jerk over-reaction we have come to expect from a prime minister who, according to Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador Johnson shafted at the altar of Donald Trump’s sociopathic narcissism, looks to the US president for inspiration in how he campaigns and governs.

Politicians interested in getting a good press are generally on an easy wicket when standing up for the freedom of newspapers to print what they please, and go about their business without regulation, let alone disruption. Hence the betrayal to the victims of phone-hacking in not fully implementing the recommendations of ‘Leveson 1’, and not even bothering to hold the promised ‘Leveson 2’ inquiry into relations between press and police.

The recent BBC series on Murdoch captured well his outwitting of the politicians on that front, though frankly it is not difficult to outwit politicians who want to be outwitted because the right-wing media landscape suits the Tories very nicely, thank you very much.

Health secretary Matt Hancock, one of the first out there to attack the protesters, got himself photographed holding a clutch of newspapers. It looked like an aide had helped fold the papers into his arm, Hancock somehow managing to make several mastheads visible, the increasingly propagandist Telegraph to the fore, then the Financial Times (‘Look at me, I’m serious’) and the Sun (‘Hey Rupert, I’m advertising for you’).

‘Totally outrageous that Extinction Rebellion are trying to suppress free speech by blockading newspapers,’ he tweeted. ‘They must be dealt with by the full force of the law.’

Talking of the law, home secretary Priti Patel was fast on the button too. ‘This morning people across the country will be prevented from reading their newspaper because of the actions of Extinction Rebellion. This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable.’ If only they got this upset when the Russians do it.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s photo was of a very unusual news-stand – there were just three mastheads in shot, the Sun, the Mail and the Times. I think we all know what they have in common. ‘A good day to buy a newspaper,’ he tweeted. ‘A free press matters to all of us who value a free society. They mustn’t be silenced by an intolerant minority.’ Or, I might have added, by a cabinet minister whose deals with media magnate turned property magnate Richard Desmond have left many unanswered questions on which Jenrick refuses to engage.

Johnson’s tweet said simply: ‘A free press is vital in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account on issues critical for the future of our country, including the fight against climate change. It is completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news in this way.’

Hancock had twice as many replies (over 8,000) as likes. Johnson’s tweet got over 10,000 likes. It also got over 10,000 replies. Priti Patel’s got 11,200 likes, 11,400 replies. I know Twitter is not the world. However, I also know from my own experience that when the replies are outnumbering the likes and retweets, it is unlikely that you have hit the mark with the public.

The problem for Johnson is that a belief in freedom of the press is what we call a ‘principle,’ and he is somewhat short on those. His government is not upholding that belief as a principle, but as a political tactic. They were not rushing to defend the free press but to make sure Murdoch and Co stayed broadly on side. They support and stand up for the press that supports and stands up for them. Hancock and Jenrick would have been far smarter to have included a Mirror, a Guardian or, even better, a New European, in their staged photos.

Johnson can talk all he likes about his support for a free media, but his actions point consistently in the opposite direction. Indeed, as ministers were hitting the send button on their tweets, it emerged the Council of Europe had issued a ‘level 2’ press freedom alert against the UK over the blacklisting of a foreign policy news website. Another small step in the Trumpisation/Orbanisation/Putinisation of the country that likes to see itself as one of the great democracies of the world.

Pippa Crerar, political editor of the Daily Mirror, was one of the 10,000 plus to reply to Johnson’s tweet. ‘I agree with this completely,’ she said. ‘Which is why it surprised me you banned the Mirror from the Tory election bus, selected media from civil service briefings and refuse to put ministers up on Channel 4, GMTV etc. Get your own house in order.’

Piers Morgan replied to Matt Hancock: ‘Quite right… Nothing worse than suppressing free speech by blocking media outlets. Ps, it’s been 130 days since you and your government colleagues started boycotting Good Morning Britain.’ And to Johnson’s gush for a free press: ‘Says the man who has banned all his cabinet ministers from appearing on GMB since April because he didn’t like them being held to account.’ There are four words I don’t always feel comfortable saying, but say them I must – Piers has a point.

If you believe in the importance of a free press ‘in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account on issues critical for the future of our country’, then the outright boycott of any media flies in the face of that. When that boycott includes outlets read, watched and listened to by millions of citizens, supporters and opponents alike, then the claim to support the principle is false, hypocritical and self-serving.

There was another response to Johnson’s tweet that caught my eye, from Stefan Rousseau, whose Twitter bio describes himself, accurately in my experience, as the ‘completely impartial and unbiased Chief Political Photographer of The Press Association’. He said: ‘As long as newspapers use government vetted PR pictures, the government will continue to exclude news photographers from events and continue to issue their own pictures. It’s simple. Stop using their pictures.’

This speaks to another part of the Johnson media strategy, the use of home videos and photos taken by his taxpayer-funded personal photographer as a way of ‘seeking to limit the public’s access to news’ about those in power.

It is clear from his manner at Prime Minister’s Questions, and his tendency to hide from all but the tamest of media environments, that Johnson does not enjoy being asked difficult questions. Nor does he seem to think that providing truthful, factual answers to them is remotely part of his job. If he truly believed in a free press, he would, and he would welcome proper questioning and scrutiny, because in a properly functioning democracy, it goes with the job he currently holds.

All that political capital and energy to stand up and fight for one industry in the face of one, admittedly annoying and disruptive, protest; and by Monday culture secretary Oliver Dowden was writing for the Telegraph – Patel had already bagged the Mail – to say the real issue was that Labour leader Keir Starmer had been too slow to join the chorus of condemnation.

Compare and contrast the lack of cabinet effort in dealing with the concerns raised by the travel industry about the government’s chaotic and job-shredding handling of Covid travel rules; or the cavalier dismissal of Brexit worries raised by sectors as varied as the car industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the creative industries, manufacturing, construction, food, hospitality, financial services, health, higher education and so many more as we career haplessly towards the end of the negotiations, Johnson now telling us the no-deal he said would never happen would be a good outcome… which the slavish press will say it is, even as their readers get poorer, and the chaos grows – chaos far greater than anything Extinction Rebellion managed to achieve last weekend.

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