MANDRAKE: BBC denies external pressure over Dominic Cummings documentary
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TIM WALKER wonders why some revelations about Boris Johnson's key adviser Dominic Cummings were dropped by the BBC.
It was no great surprise that Dominic Cummings proved to be a harder nut for Emily Maitlis to crack than Prince Andrew, but Mandrake hears a great deal of her investigation into Boris Johnson's chief adviser ended up on the cutting room floor.
'A number of the people invited to talk about Cummings in the documentary were startled to see how little of what they'd said made it into the programme,' one corporation toiler tells me of Taking Control: The Dominic Cummings Story, which was aired on BBC Two last week. 'Emily telephoned a few of them to apologise as she had taken up a great deal of their time. It was clear to everyone that there was a lot of nervousness about the whole project.'
Cummings had declined to be interviewed by Maitlis but had subsequently taken what I am told was 'a very close interest' in the programme. It was more notable in many respects for what it didn't say about Cummings than what it did: his period working in post-Soviet Russia from 1994 to 1997 went unmentioned. Last week the art critic James Beechey told me that Russia had been an obsession of Cummings when he had known him during his period working as Iain Duncan Smith's director of strategy.
Maitlis declined to comment and a BBC spokesman insisted: 'There was no external pressure and the best material made it into the programme. We report without fear or favour and stand by our journalism.' The former Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve – featured briefly in the programme – was typically relaxed about the affair. 'I haven't actually seen it,' he told me. 'I only read the reviews.'
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The documentary has since been largely eclipsed by the disclosure in the Sunday Times by Tim Shipman – a journalist known to be close to Johnson – that at a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings' view of the government's coronavirus strategy was summarised as: 'herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.'
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Mandrake wonders if Boris Johnson has been entirely fair to Michael Gove in appointing him to his 'C-19 squad,' along with Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab and man of the hour Rishi Sunak.
'Michael has been in a state of terror about coronavirus right from the outset,' whispers an aide to the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. 'He was among the first to start cancelling his public engagements and doing his constituency surgeries by telephone.'
One of Gove's friends was quoted in the Times a few years ago as saying: 'It's widely known that Michael is a hypochondriac. It's a standing joke that he is prone to confuse a mild bout of indigestion with a headache, which he would call a cardiac infarction.'
My comment last week that Lord Heseltine and I elected not to shake hands when I interviewed him for The New European – in normal circumstances we would have – appears to have made me the envy of some of my colleagues.
Michael White realised that coronavirus could not be blamed for the very few handshakes he'd had with Heseltine during his long and illustrious career in political journalism. 'I can only remember him once shaking my hand and that was in 2015 after we left Andrew Neil's studio,' laments White, a life-long Labour supporter. 'This one exception may have been because Brillo had asked me who I thought would win the election and I'd replied that I thought the Tories would edge it.'
Although Theresa May's skills as a public speaker were something of an acquired taste – who could forget her performance at the 2017 Tory Party conference? – she's still managed to rake in more than £1 million on the rubber chicken circuit since she left Downing Street.
Before coronavirus, May had got used to travelling in some style, too. She managed to use the swanky Windsor Suite at Heathrow – normally the preserve of members of the royal family – no fewer than 14 times since last August. The airport chose not to invoice her, which meant she had to record it as a perk worth a total of £58,800.
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