The media’s watchdog role is an illusion. The latest scandal reveals just how dependent journalists are on government
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s head is on the chopping block. Each day, the media digs up more embarrassing details of parties hosted at his No 10 residence or other government buildings, in flagrant violation of strict lockdown rules enforced on the rest of the country.
Ostensibly, the current furore creates the impression that Britain is a vigorous, functioning democracy where the media serves as a watchdog on power, holding the government to account when it breaks its word or the law, or is exposed for hypocrisy.
Prompted by the media’s revelations, Johnson is now facing scrutiny from Sue Gray, a senior civil servant whose investigation is expected later this month and may plunge him into further trouble. There are demands that the police should investigate too.
The image of an embattled prime minister fending off tenacious reporters is the one being promoted by the media, of course. But it is almost certainly an illusion. Britain is looking far more like a managed democracy, where political and media elites work in partnership to control the flow of information – and decide what remains in the shadows. What we, the public, sees is largely what we are allowed or supposed to see.
The media’s watchdog role is an illusion. The latest scandal reveals just how dependent journalists are on government
Indications that British democracy is dysfunctional have been apparent for years, but the evidence has grown particularly stark under Johnson. He has been able to exploit the vulnerabilities of a political system whose checks and balances have been hollowed out over decades.
Until relatively recently, the tsunami of often outrageous lies Johnson has told since becoming prime minister barely registered on the media’s radar. It has been outsiders – from the Telegraph’s former political commentator, Peter Oborne, now with Middle East Eye, and lawyer Peter Stefanovic – who have done the legwork to bring these deceptions and fabrications to public attention.
But the sudden onslaught of critical coverage of Johnson over a series of lockdown parties – dubbed “partygate” – risks obscuring this failure and wrongly restoring the media’s reputation for hard-hitting investigations and truth-telling.
The reality is very different. “Partygate” completely undermines any claim the media have to be acting as a watchdog on government. How were the press corps so slow to learn of the regular, rule-breaking parties that took place in Downing Street and elsewhere in Westminster through the lockdowns of 2020 and early 2021?
It is not as if the worlds of politics and media are far apart. There has long been a revolving door policy, with sympathetic journalists, especially senior political correspondents, much in demand by the main parties for their media relations offices.
James Slack joined the Sun newspaper as deputy editor in 2021 after nearly four years serving as a spokesperson for No 10, including during the period of the lockdown-busting parties. His own leaving do also reportedly violated the rules.
As David Yelland, a former Sun editor, observed on Twitter of the original revelations of a lockdown party attended by Johnson at No 10: “I can easily name ten, maybe as many as 20 UK political journalists who must have known or should have known about this Johnson party. Their editors would fire them. Except some of these mates of Boris are editors.”
More parties have come to light since.
The main job of political correspondents and political editors is to be plugged into the famously indiscreet and backstabbing Westminster rumour mill.
The idea that not one of Britain’s high-powered political journalists heard a peep about the lockdown parties until the first revelations appeared many months later – just before Christmas – stretches credulity to breaking point.
The only serious conclusion to be drawn is that either Britain’s broadcasting and press corps are woefully incompetent, or they turned a blind eye until it became professionally inconvenient to continue doing so. Either possibility is cause for deep concern.
If not one of them was able to dig out one of the many nuggets of dirt on Johnson’s government, what other skeletons are there in Westminster’s closet that they – and we – don’t know about? It means the media are no watchdog at all.
But it is even worse if the media knew about the parties – or had heard rumours about them – but did not bring that information to public notice or failed to ferret out the truth.
Given the intimate professional, and sometimes romantic, connections between media and Westminster circles – the constant gossip, the vendettas – it seems unlikely in the extreme that not one correspondent knew the truth.
But why would they keep the information from us? What possible excuse could there be for such a failure?
It is true that there are sometimes technical or legal reasons for journalistic reticence, such as the danger of a defamation suit. But that seems an improbable explanation in this case. Johnson’s government was never going to sue over verifiably true revelations.
In other cases, journalists know things, such as indiscretions by senior politicians, but publication is hard to defend as in the public interest – though that doesn’t stop the tabloids from sometimes seizing a “gotcha” moment.
But again, that was not the issue here. Revelations that the government had broken its own rules – rules designed to protect public health – were most certainly in the public interest.
Doubtless more significant has been the need for journalists to keep sources inside the government happy – sometimes referred to as the problem of “access journalism”. Because political correspondents depend on senior politicians and their staff for juicy tidbits and exclusives, they have every incentive to stay on side.
That is even truer in the case of a prime minister and his or her inner circle – unless the government is already in serious trouble.
Loss of access
Picking such a fight is a very high-risk gamble for any political journalist. He or she can be excluded from briefings and contact with government officials. A political correspondent who loses all access to the government is effectively useless to their news organisation.
An example of a Westminster-media feud going public was the government’s decision to boycott ITV’s Good Morning Britain show after its host, Piers Morgan, began grilling government ministers a little too aggressively over their early failures in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That was a rare case of the access system breaking down, with the dispute forced out into the open.
Political reporters – in contrast to TV celebrities, such as Morgan – usually play by the rules because they are far more vulnerable to the loss of access and have less to gain from a public confrontation.
The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 political editors set the day’s political news agenda. If they upset the prime minister, they risk losing access to the very people who provide them with the vast majority of their stories.
That makes it easy for a powerful prime minister to play them off against each other, making them worried their rivals will be given big stories while they are left out in the cold. That would be career suicide – and governments such as Johnson’s know it.
That is why in practice, political correspondents tend to work as a pack. Either they all go on the attack together, as we see now, or they hold their fire collectively. If one or two break ranks, and the rest stick with the government, the risk-takers can come out of the confrontation professionally savaged, with their careers in ruins.
Rules of the game
But there is a further reason why political reporters are likely to have collectively kept their peace over the lockdown parties for so long. And that applies whether they work for papers on the right – the vast bulk of them – or those few that profess to be liberal or soft-left.
Political reporters are not only professionally close to Westminster politics, as the revolving door indicates. Most are drawn from the same small social and cultural worlds. They have attended the same elite schools and universities, and they inhabit the same social circles. In fact, this might even be considered a qualification for a political reporter’s job.
Johnson highlights the problem of the incestuousness of political journalism especially starkly. Many senior political correspondents have worked either alongside him or for him during his own career in journalism, which preceded his reinvention as a politician.
They indulged his deceptions when he was a journalist, just as they have his deceptions as a politician. He was seen as one of their own.
Take the example of Allegra Stratton, a senior government spokesperson until her indiscretions – caught on film – effectively started the current feeding frenzy over the lockdown parties.
Stratton has been a senior political journalist for the Guardian, the BBC and ITV, working with some of the biggest names in the business. Her husband is James Forsyth, the political editor of the Spectator, a right-wing magazine that used to be edited by Johnson. Johnson’s chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was best man at the couple’s wedding, and Stratton is reportedly friends with Johnson’s wife.
Her connections to the prime minister and her trustworthiness were presumably some of the reasons she was hired to speak for the government. But she resigned last month after footage was leaked of her joking with aides at a press conference rehearsal a year earlier – in December 2020 – about how she might answer a question about a recent Downing Street party that violated lockdown rules.
Overlooked in the ensuing furore are two matters. The first is that Stratton and her aides were aware that such a question might theoretically arise – presumably because they either knew or assumed the information was available to Stratton’s former colleagues. But they were relaxed enough about the fact that the lockdown parties had taken place to joke about them, knowing it was unlikely any political reporter would raise the matter or, if they did, would ask probing questions.
So what has roused political reporters out of their normal passivity into so belatedly taking on the government?
There may be little comfort to be had here either. The drip-drip of leaks look more like they have been stage-managed by a political enemy or rival of Johnson’s, than sniffed out by the political lobby.
Johnson has been in power long enough – and made enough bad decisions and enemies – for any insider, or former insider, to undermine him with sensational leaks to ratings-hungry media outlets. He is being brought down, just as a bull is weakened by stabs to its upper back until it can fight no more.
Who is the matador? The political reporters hardly seem to qualify. They had the chance to damage Johnson in real time and apparently chose not to. It is still a game of access for them, but there is now a source they need who is more prized than Johnson himself.
Suspicions may point to Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s disgruntled former chief adviser, or others who have grown tired of the shambolic way his government has lurched from crisis to crisis. Certainly, the current revelations follow months of wounding criticisms from Cummings over the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Whichever insider is leaking against Johnson presumably wants a Conservative government that will appear more competent than the present one, and won’t be slumping in the polls and in danger of losing the next election.
If Johnson is brought down, as seems more likely by the day, the media will celebrate the moment as an example of its vital role in holding the powerful to account, and of its ability to breathe life back into our democratic institutions. But far more likely is that this episode will serve only to hide the fetid stench of a media system that is just as corrupt as the political system.
• First published in Middle East Eye