Journalists have left it too late to start protesting against the Downing Street machine
- Credit: PA
While the mass walkout from journalists in Downing Street earlier in the week was welcome, LIZ GERARD fears it will have little impact on the relationship between the media and Boris Johnson's team of advisers.
Three cheers for Lee Cain and his clumsy Downing Street rug apartheid. Two cheers for the political journalists who walked out in sympathy with those on the "wrong" side of the mat. One cheer for the Tory loyalists who remonstrated in print, on radio and on Twitter.
Why three cheers for Cain, the villain of the piece? Because the prime minister's communications director's crassness finally prodded a dozing mainstream media into action, exposing to a wider public both Boris Johnson's chronic accountability-dodging and the way the hand-in-glove political lobby system can be manipulated to control what information reaches the people.
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Why only two cheers for Laura Kuenssberg, Robert Peston et al? Because while their protest is welcome, it is also late. Because those on the "right" side of the rug have been far too cosy to Johnson and his chief of staff Dominic Cummings; tweeting, broadcasting and printing "Boris says" stories - essentially propaganda shared in private "briefings" - without the most basic checks. Remember the Matt Hancock aide who was "assaulted" by "Labour activists" on a visit to a hospital where a child patient was photographed lying on the floor? Except he wasn't, he walked into a cyclist's waving hand.
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The Sunday Telegraph was at it again only last weekend: Boris was "privately furious" because the EU was reneging on its offer of a Canada-style Brexit trade deal. Except it wasn't, as the most cursory glance at the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration the prime minister so boastfully negotiated and signed would have told both briefer and briefed.
Why only one cheer for Stephen Glover in the Mail, Michael Deacon in the Telegraph, the Times and Mail leader writers, the Julia Hartley-Brewers? They are absolutely right that the government should not impede journalists, sympathetic or hostile, in their task of scrutinising the executive and explaining to their audiences what policies mean to them. Right to point out that there would be uproar if Jeremy Corbyn's team tried such a stunt. But what took them so long?
Boris Johnson has been refusing to answer to anyone but the softest audience ever since he put himself up for the Tory leadership. He holds "press conferences" for children, but shirks real press conferences with real journalists. And when he can't avoid them, he can, Trump-like, choose which "friendly" publications are allowed to pose their questions. He holds "People's Question Times" on Facebook, where, as Deacon pointed out, he is quizzed on such vital issues as what shampoo he uses. But in forcing through the biggest change to the country in a generation, he swerved real Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons (only three appearances in his first 20 weeks in office).
He sits on Holly and Phil's sofa, but not Andrew Neil's black chair. And all the time he is flooding social media timelines with videos where he can speak without interruption or challenge.
During the election campaign Pippa Crerar of the Mirror - one of those on the wrong side of the rug on Monday - was refused a place on the Tory battlebus. Did other journalists covering Johnson's journey disembark in solidarity? Nope. Because that was "party" business, rather than "government" business? Even though it was the same team pushing the same agenda?
One of the reasons given for denying her access to David Frost's Brexit wisdom this week was that she wasn't invited. A Times journalist was apparently also barred, because he or she wasn't the one who had been asked to the party. "We are welcome to brief whoever we want whenever we want," said Cain, who accused those not on the approved list of "barging in".
Now there's a thing. One of the occasions that Johnson chose not to be put on the spot was Channel 4's pre-election climate change debate. As you may recall, he and Nigel Farage were represented by ice sculptures. There was a bit of barging in that day, too. Michael Gove and Johnson's father Stanley turned up, uninvited. Gove said he wanted to appear on the programme and was told he couldn't; the event was for party leaders only. Rather as Monday's invitation was for political editors only. (Bear in mind, the Channel 4 News debate was open to all party leaders, the press briefing only to selected political editors.) Sauce. Goose. Gander?
And how did Johnson's party respond? By complaining to Ofcom and threatening Channel 4's licence. Yet the press corps' justifiable complaint that a briefing from a politically neutral civil servant was being politicised is written off as snowflakery; the exclusion of some reporters justified, according to Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith, "because the public backs the prime minister". So they should get their information only from publications that generally support him?
The prime minister and his team are making media enemies everywhere - having already ordered ministers to boycott the Today programme and Newsnight, they have now fired the first wounding shot in what is going to be a nasty war against the BBC - and the journalists on Monday were right to take a stand. But it was these very people who allowed this situation to develop, by dancing to Cummings's tune for fear of being cast out into the cold.
They all want to be in Dom's contacts book. If he whispers in their ear (or gets someone to do it for him), they are happy to take dictation. If he calls two or three of them, they don't ask "why aren't you telling everyone this?" They take the "scoop" with thanks. It's their job to be on the inside track.
There's nothing particularly new about it. Look back to the Blair-Campbell years. Joe Haines wrote to The Times to remind us that Harold Wilson tried exactly the same stunt as Johnson back in the 60s, adding that he was so aggrieved to be excluded as a junior reporter that when he became Wilson's press secretary he stopped lobby briefings altogether.
Today an exclusive one-to-one briefing or a nod and a wink to two or three favoured journos are accepted practice. If only the favoured few had turned up on Monday, would our heroes and heroines have said: "Why isn't there anyone here from the i or Mirror?" Possibly not. They'd probably have thought it was a limited briefing - which was, of course, what No 10 intended. But it all gets a bit uncomfortable when you actually see a fellow journalist being sent on their way, when you see enacted before your very eyes how you are all being controlled.
There is a genuine point to be made about the importance of a free press across the political spectrum, but there is also a sense of grandstanding virtue-signalling in Wednesday's papers; a sudden concern that is absent when moves are being made to stifle the BBC. The Daily Mail did not think the Downing Street walkout worthy of reporting on Tuesday, but the next day it ran a leader alongside Glover's thousand-word essay - which still managed to bash the Beeb in what was supposed to be a defence of media freedom.
This response could be taken as a warning shot to Johnson "don't take us for granted" - or the dawning realisation that "we may be his friends now, but for how long?", a reluctant recollection of that chilling poem "They came first for the socialists..."
Of course journalists want to cultivate friends in high places. Of course politicians want to nurture friendly journalists. But for rather too long, our media have given the impression of being used. The fear of being locked out, of not getting the story, has been getting in the way of objective reporting.
There was supposed to be a public inquiry into the relationship between politicians and the press: Leveson 2. Neither the Tories nor the papers wanted it - the existing snuggle suits them both too well - and it was duly squashed.
So while Monday's protest was a welcome reminder to Johnson and Cummings that they shouldn't - and won't - get it all their own way, don't expect the "Boris says" splashes to dry up any time soon.