My column in this week’s New European ponders the question why the media gives Boris Johnson and the government he leads such an easy ride.
An example from yesterday to add to those I raised in the paper. If a Labour health minister had set out plans for a reorganisation of the NHS in the middle of a pandemic which had thrown up huge questions about competence and corruption, said minister would not get a word in on the new plans, because the media wouldn’t let him. There are just too many unanswered questions about why friends and donors of Tory ministers have landed so many large contracts for work they appear unqualified for. Most of our media don’t even ask the question, let alone root around for the answers.
A couple of examples from the piece. If a Labour Prime Minister had lied in the Commons about why he was not meeting bereaved families – Johnson said it was because they were engaged in legal action against the government – we would never have heard the end of it. Now, blatant untruths from the mouth of the PM barely register on the Westminster hacks’ radar.
Another more trivial one (but getting away with the small things is the way to pave the ground for getting away with bigger things, the Putin model)… three photographers on the public payroll to capture Johnson in various states of hard hat, white coat and hi-vis jacket. Total waste of money, a fee for one man’s vanity. Barely a murmur from the media. So when one of those snappers puts out photos of Johnson’s dog frolicking in the Number 10 garden, you know, the entire government is taking the piss. Because the media lets them. Uses the photos, even though their purpose is to deny proper access to the media. Goes along with the farce of the virtual briefings, held that way so Number 10 can press a mute button on difficult questions. Goes along with the latest prediction or promise from Johnson as bulletin-leading ‘news’ while barely stopping to reflect on how the last predictions and promises turned out to be wrong or broken.
When Margaret Thatcher was in power, and I worked for the Daily Mirror, I saw close up the right-wing press bias and how it worked, not least in the way it influenced the broadcasters. But it is far worse today. And now, into this right-wing landscape, a best pal banker of Rishi Sunak having been made chairman of the BBC, Johnson appears determined to inject Paul Dacre, former editor of the Mail, to run Ofcom. This is closer to the values of China, Russia and Orban’s Hungary, than it is a country supposedly committed to a genuinely free media as an important pillar of democracy.
I refer in the New European to an excellent piece in Byline Times, by journalism professor Brian Cathcart, headlined ’10 Reasons why Paul Dacre is Unfit to be the new Ofcom Chair.’
Here they are. I ask you to have Johnson in mind as you read them.
1. Dacre has a known, visceral objection to the statutory regulation of journalists, which is one of Ofcom’s most important jobs.
2. He has a 20-year record of repeatedly breaching regulatory codes and of failing to improve his conduct in response to regulatory action.
3. He failed to notice his own Daily Mail staff commissioning unlawful activities and failed to investigate this when it was pointed out to him.
4. He repeatedly published misinformation on an important medical matter (MMR) affecting the lives of millions of children.
5. He has a well-known and frequently expressed hatred for the most important organisation regulated by Ofcom, (the BBC).
6. He has limited respect for, and understanding of, the rule of law.
7. He has shown no understanding of ethical boundaries when challenging those whose beliefs he dislikes.
8. He created myths about the Stephen Lawrence case that have been used to defend him against charges of racism.
9. He broke a public promise made by his employer to the readers of his newspaper (about use of paparazzi).
10. His workplace conduct is widely reported to be far below what is reasonably expected of a very senior public servant.
It was a brilliant piece, all ten points elaborated with detail to back them up. From 1-10, someone like Cathcart, genuinely motivated by the belief that good journalism is essential to a good society and a healthy democracy, feels strongly that every single point should disbar Dacre, whose Daily Mail represented the worst of British values posing as the best, from public office.
However, if you run through 1-10 with Johnson’s character and view of the world in mind …
… thinking you should be able to do and say what you like, without accountability, or worrying too much about the truth; breaking promises; dislike of rules and, if they get in the way, judges and the law; confusing ethics with one’s own views and prejudices; undermining and intimidating any individual or organisation that might stand up to you; exploiting people’s tragedies to paint a better, and dishonest, picture of yourself; not treating people with basic respect …
… you can see why he is so keen to appoint Dacre. Which he will. Because he can. In part because Parliament and the media are so supine, and will let him.