JAMES BALL on the man behind the governments war on the media… and it isn’t Dominic Cummings.
It is only ten months since Boris Johnson won an election with a majority of 80 with commanding support from the majority of the UK’s newspapers. It is a mere six months since the Conservatives enjoyed a 26-point lead in the opinion polls. On paper, the government should be flying high.
In practice, it appears to be at war with almost everything that moves: it’s a Conservative government at odds with major employers over returning to offices; it’s locked in a battle with its own senior officials as it tries to seize control of the civil service; at least notionally, it’s at war with a deadly virus. But perhaps most bizarrely of all, it’s at war with the media.
The Conservative party holds a home field advantage in the British media. In the newspaper sector, only two titles – the Mirror and the Guardian – would naturally back Labour, and some of that party’s supporters would regard the latter as an unreliable ally.
In most situations, Conservatives could expect relatively friendly coverage from papers with around 80% of national circulation, especially when in government, and thus in control of most of the lobby’s access to news.
Even though the right like to complain perennially about the BBC and its coverage, its natural tendency to bias (even accidentally) towards the establishment – if nothing else as the primary source of political news – would put Johnson’s party in pole position.
As such, there is absolutely no sensible reason for a new government to launch into a war on the media, but – perhaps thanks to Dominic Cummings’ natural disdain of established institutions – that is exactly what it is doing.
When it comes to broadcast, ministers are boycotting multiple news programmes across the BBC and Channel 4, not letting even a global pandemic initially stop its decision to avoid the Today programme in the early weeks of the crisis.
The war on print media is less obvious but is becoming just as bitter, and the man behind it is not Dominic Cummings, but Lee Cain, a former journalist appointed as Number 10’s director of communications since July 2019.
Relations between the lobby and the Downing Street media operation can often get frosty, but multiple Westminster journalists complain frequently that they have rarely been so needlessly frosty.
They complain that all but one or two select journalists are virtually frozen out of access to ministers and exclusives from the Number 10 operation, usually for reasons of perceived disloyalty.
This can often be a damaging last resort, but only when used sparingly: as political correspondents see exclusive policy announcements or ministerial interviews handed to rival newspapers, things get tricky for them with their editors. Some take the clue and fall into line.
But when even traditionally pro-Tory newspapers like the Sunday Times are routinely locked out or briefed against, the tactic begins to fail. If almost no-one is getting anything good from Number 10, the fear factor wanes. And once your access has been cut, there’s really nothing else the director of comms can threaten you with.
Cain and his hapless team have taken it further. Statements from Downing Street might never have been a traditional bastion of honesty and truthfulness – it is fortunate they are not given under oath – but traditionally the incumbents have the sense to stick to evasions and half-truths.
Instead, multiple journalists have complained that things have got worse. They cite instances where details briefed by the Number 10 team have been shown to be false, within days of even hours.
A final bad habit has been to brief out or release stories brought to them by a journalist or newspaper they dislike – losing them the scoop as it gets handed out to everyone.
Understandably, this irritates the journalist concerned and makes them less inclined to give Number 10 a reasonable period to consider and respond to a potential story.
At least one national newsdesk has brought in a general policy of giving Number 10 just 30 minutes to respond to most scoops.
The core of government is staffed by people who won first a referendum and then an election by picking fights with the establishment, dragging them onto their home turf, and beating them there.
That works brilliantly in campaigns but terribly in government. When Johnson’s government finally agreed a withdrawal deal with the EU last year it was left to a junior aide to try to brief the lobby on the terms of how it related to Northern Ireland.
When journalists tried to get more detailed responses from Cain to explain the exit terms and future Northern Ireland relationship, he reportedly responded instead with ‘why don’t you start asking questions about the great trade deal we are going to do?’
Irritated hacks then began doing just that – asking detailed or technical questions on trade to which the spokesmen had no answer. The fractiousness of the meeting showed in the coverage, and helped create problems months later, when it became clear even Johnson wasn’t pleased with the actual detail of the deal – leaving hacks wondering if he’d ever really understood it.
Number 10’s war on the media brings zero visible advantage to them and makes even less apparent sense. But perhaps the oddest element of it is that the government is dominated by people who have worked in the media.
The prime minister is a former Spectator editor and Telegraph columnist, engaged to a former Conservative party head of press. His chief strategist Dominic Cummings is a former online editor of the Spectator, married to a Spectator journalist. His ministerial fixer Michael Gove is a former Times columnist married to a Daily Mail columnist.
Boris Johnson is running a government by the media, needlessly at war with the media.
The consequences outside of the Westminster bubble are a continuing crisis of trust against mainstream outlets and the government itself – the consequences of which are very real during a public health crisis.
When trying to stop conspiracy theories and snake oil salesmen it helps to have trusted sources of information and clear lines of communication. Failing to have these is why thousands of people will fill Trafalgar Square in opposition to anti-pandemic measures, and why they will continue to win over many more.
The war on the media is yet another consequence of the Johnson administration’s doomed attempt to run the government like a divisive campaign of some 100 staff – with micro-managing dashboards, all power flowing from the centre, and a constantly pusillanimous approach.
Others see it even more simply.
Referencing one of Lee Cain’s former journalistic roles – when his newsdesk sent him to taunt David Cameron during the 2010 election campaign dressed as a giant feathered bird – one exasperated former Conservative SpAd sighed: ‘This is what you get when you let the Mirror chicken run comms.’