SubScribe: 2020 Google+

Thursday 6 August 2020

Cronyism and a tale of two honours lists

It was a textbook case of burying scandalous news.
Having decided to create a raft of new peers from among his family, Brexiters, Press friends and party donors - in spite of vowing to reduce the size of the House of Lords and having postponed the Birthday Honours because of covid - Boris Johnson needed to minimise the flak. 
First step was for the list to be leaked to a selected outlet, in this case The Times, for publication on a Saturday.
Whether steered by Downing Street or of its own volition, the paper made the Ian Botham peerage its lead. And why wouldn't it? A cricketing legend makes a more compelling nose for a weekend story than the real meat of the cronyism and nepotism - which was still all there in the text for anyone to see.
With early Friday deadlines and less scope than in the rest of the week for later editions, many other newspapers were unable to catch up. Those that could generally managed to squeeze in only a small piece inside - and they, naturally, took the same Botham line as The Times.
The Sundays did little and by Monday, the story was too whiskery. After all, at this stage, the list hadn't actually been released. Editors may have taken the view that they'd do it "properly" when it was Gazetted.
Fast forward two weeks and the list is formally announced. On a Friday evening just after Parliament has gone into recess. In this, Johnson was borrowing a trick from David Cameron, whose equally controversial resignation honours of 2016 were also published during the summer recess. 
Cameron could counter that criticism by claiming that his list was published at the earliest opportunity - it came just six weeks after he quit Downing Street - but Johnson had no such argument. These were the "dissolution" honours. And Parliament had been dissolved seven months earlier, on November 6.
Cameron's list included honours for his wife's personal aide and prominent Remain backers. Johnson's list included honours for his brother and prominent Brexit backers.  Both were greeted with cries of cronyism. But there, as far as Press coverage is concerned, the similarity ends. 

By the time he left office, Cameron had few friends left in what used to be called Fleet Street. The Left never cared for him. The Right, which had pushed so hard for his election in preference to "Red Ed" Miliband (a man, incidentally, whose reviled policies have been purloined and enacted by the ensuing Tory administrations), turned against him the moment he acceded to their demands for an EU referendum. They mocked his efforts to negotiate a new deal with Europe and then did their utmost to discredit both his and his Chancellor's record, both during the campaign and after the country voted for Brexit. There was a lot of rewriting of history.
Johnson, by contrast, retains their support - for now - despite tens of thousands of covid deaths and a succession of missteps over the past year, many of which have been pointed up even by generally friendly newspapers. He seems truly to be the cockroach prime minister, able to survive anything. 

And so it has been this week. Just imagine a prime minister Corbyn ennobling the son of a KGB agent - the very week after publication of a damning report about Russian attempts to influence our democracy. Yet even the Mirror and Guardian have been muted in their criticism, compared with their treatment of the Cameron list published exactly four years earlier.

Of course, the news landscape is very different now, with the coronavirus dominating everything. And it is important to note that many of the papers have a new backside on the editor's chair. 
Also, the lists were pre-empted in a different way. The Cameron leak looked like an act of malice, with little titbits coming out drip by drip, day by day. The twists and turns on who had been nominated, who had been rejected, who had said "no", gave the story "legs" and kept it near the top of a silly season news agenda for a full week. 
The Johnson list was leaked (or scooped) in one gush, so that there was nothing for day two and no surprises when it was officially published two weeks later. Covid means there has been no silly season this year and no shortage of material to fill pages; Tory-leaning papers editors trying to support Johnson aren't going out of their way to highlight stories that discredit him (for some, there were too many of those already).

Even with those caveats, the coverage does seem unbalanced. As Stephen Glover asked in the Mail, where is the outrage at this latest batch? At first, SubScribe put the difference  down to Brexit papers being cross about Remainers being honoured but relaxed about cronyism when their side was benefiting.  That seems not to be the case. The leftist papers and neutral papers were also much harsher in their criticism of Cameron than Johnson.
Another key difference is that Cameron was out of office, a yesterday's man holed up in his shepherd's hut. Johnson is still in power and so, to a large degree, influences and even sets the news agenda. The day before his list was published, he announced that lockdown restrictions which were about to be lifted would have to stay in place because infections were on the rise. So he scooped himself with what was, for the general populace, the far more relevant story. Fears of a "second wave" and the series of Covid spreads every paper runs daily inevitably pushed the honours further back in the book than Cameron's effort.
There is absolutely no question that Johnson timed his lockdown announcement to stifle negative stories about the honours, but the fact of his still being in office does raise the scariest possible explanation of the difference in approach to the two lists: he can make journalists' lives easier or more difficult, according to what they write. It's unpalatable to think of any newspaper being cowed, but it has to be on the menu of reasons for the relative restraint this time.

So let's take a look, title by title, starting with the Brexity papers, and see what you think. 

First the Mail. Paul Dacre was a longstanding and consistent critic of the honours system and, to his credit, has not accepted one, though a knighthood at the very least must surely have been offered more than once. He was apoplectic over the Cameron list, splashing on it on four days out of five from the first leak on August 1 to official publication on the 5th.

The paper was outraged by the elevation of Remainers and party donors and the decision to make George Osborne a Companion of Honour. It listed a "dirty dozen" cronies who had been rewarded and was equally scathing about Jeremy Corbyn's nominees, most notably the peerage for Shami Chakrabarti.
The one crumb of comfort was the vetting committee's rejection of a peerage for party donor Michael Spencer.
Mr Spencer became a peer last week, courtesy of Mr Johnson.

Four years on, Geordie Grieg's Mail seems rather less troubled by the use of the honours system to repay political debts (this time to those on the winning side of the referendum debate).
It picked up the Botham leak for its second edition on July 18 and savoured the denial of a peerage to former Speaker John Bercow ten days later. But when the list was actually published, it made only the 14-15 spread. 

It did angle on the cronyism row and it did throw Boris Johnson's own words about stuffing the Lords back in his face, but if the Cameron list hit 11 on the outrage scale, this was barely a 2. Michael Spencer warrants a photograph with a caption that says "Billionaire financier is a former Conservative party treasurer and has donated about £5m", but, since he is not mentioned in the text, there is no reminder of the previous rebuff that had so pleased the Dacre Mail.

Moving on to The Sun...the Cameron list twice made the prime political slot on page 2 when it was first leaked, and then the front and a spread on publication. That display was entirely a reaction to the holidaymaking former premier's corporation rather any corporate largesse. 

When it came to Johnson's honours, there was a little catch-up single on Lord Beefy, while the full list made only page 8. It angled on Jo Johnson's peerage - "Lord Bro-Jo" - with a subheading on Theresa May's husband being knighted. The text listed nine of the people honoured, with Botham the only prominent Brexit supporter named. And while there was a "crony row", there was no "outrage" or "fury" as with the Cameron list.

Next up, the Telegraph. The Cameron list produced the splash on two successive days when it was first leaked.

And a further two front page stories after publication. There was a revolt. There was fury.

And here it is - under the same editor - with the list produced by its former star columnist, which happens to include a peerage for its former editor and current columnist Charles Moore.
The Botham leak makes a front-page nib, with a story inside saying that the cricketer "earned" his peerage by batting for Brexit. An interesting verb.

On the day of publication, while even usually supportive papers angled on the accusations of cronyism, the Telegraph plays it almost entirely straight, with the only hint of comment in the word "firebrand" to describe the former Unite union leader Tony Woodley. Moore and former Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley are mentioned high up in the story, which turns to page 2, where readers find a picture of the Johnson brothers and a full list of those honoured. 
There is absolutely no reaction from anyone with any view, positive or negative, about any of the awards - the most notable omission being Lord Speaker Norman Fowler's remarks about the decision to create so many peers when the Lords is supposed to be slimming down and his concerns about the timing of publication during recess.
In a time of over-editorialising in  news pages, this may be a welcome change. But the absence of any reporting of the widespread criticism is in marked contrast to the approach taken to the Cameron list. That was said in the splash intro to have prompted a "furious Conservative party row" amid claims that it was "devaluing the honours system". 
Maybe furious rows and outrage are worthy of report only when they happen within the party, rather than in wider society? Maybe the thinking is that there's nothing unusual about opponents disliking what a leader does, but when his or her own team objects, it becomes news. It's a feasible argument, but it does rather reinforce the  perception that what is supposed to be a serious newspaper is now a party newsletter, primarily concerned about how any event affects the Conservatives.

Finally, among the Brexit-supporting papers, comes the Express, which had two goes at the Cameron list - when it was leaked and then again on publication.  Like the Mail it was furious about Cameron's "gongs for cronies" and Chakrabarti.

With the Johnson list, it published just the one story on the day of release. It focuses on Botham and other Brexiters, allowing itself a bit of fun with "hitting the EU for six", in what is a pretty straight report. The paper does quote Fowler and also, at the end, criticism from the LibDems and the head of the Electoral Reform Society. But, again, there is no "anger" or "fury".

Three of the four ran leading articles denouncing the Cameron list, with the Express damning him for  "heaping gongs on those accused of  using the most underhand tactics in the Remain campaign". "Frankly it stinks," it continued, "a last desperate bid to claw back some kudos and influence in the Remain's a disgrace."
The Mail described the honours as tawdry badges of shame and said both they and the Lords needed urgent reform. The Sun called for the "whole stinking system" to be scrapped.

Four years on, none of the quartet was minded to find space in the leader column to comment on the Johnson effort and the preferment of Brexit campaigners. The Stephen Glover column in the Mail, pondering the lack of outrage about the nepotism and general unworthiness of many of the nominees, is the only commentary. (So far. The weekend writers may yet pitch up.)

Crossing the Brexit divide takes us to The Times, a Conservative paper that likes to think of itself as more middle-ground than the previous four. It urged readers to vote Remain in the referendum, but then went on to support Theresa May's deal (as, indeed, did the Mail and Express) rather than line up with those seeking a "People's Vote". It came out for Johnson in the leadership election, and even though it has been critical of his performance, it firmly backed his decision to leave Dominic Cummings in post after the Barnard Castle episode.

The Cameron list made the front page twice, occupied five spreads and inspired two leading articles. They were full of words like "corruption". One front page headline said "Cameron packs House of Lords with donors, aides and allies". Replacing  "Cameron" with "Johnson"  would have resulted in an entirely accurate heading for its exclusive four years later. Indeed, if the intention were to imply censure, it could have added the word "brother". 
But instead it gave us "Botham given peerage as reward for Brexit loyalty". And, with a subhead to play with, it didn't look further into the patronage, preferring to amplify with "PM to mark first anniversary in office by making England cricket legend a lord". Perhaps it thought younger readers might need help knowing who Botham was - even with the picture as the clue. 

With the story to themselves, Times columnists and leader writers could have had a field day before the rest of the pack caught up - as the Mail did with Cameron - but it desisted from commentary and restricted coverage to the single story on the front. It took more than a week to return to the subject and report objections - not about cronyism or nepotism, but about the shortage of women among the new peers.
When the list was published officially, it ran a completely straight headline, although the first sentence said "Boris Johnson has faced accusations of cronyism after handing peerages to the newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev, several Tory grandees and Brexiteers, and his own brother." Yup, that sums it up.
The story didn't trouble the leader writers, but Denis MacShane was allowed a Thunderer a couple of days later to have a moan about old Norman Fowler having a moan on the Today programme, and urging wholesale reform of the Lords.

Shifting to more politically neutral territory takes us to the i.

The paper took almost exactly the same front-page line as the Mail with first word of the Cameron list and didn't let up with official publication. The news headlines included "gongs for chums", "cronyism" and a "backlash". Simon Kelner and Andrew Grice weighed in with comment page pieces.

And so it was, too, with the Johnson list: a focus on cronyism and a scathing commentary from Ian Birrell. But whereas the Cameron story had made page one and then a series of stories over the following week, Johnson's list was covered with a front-page puff under the Cup Final teaser and one inside page on release day, to return only with Birrell's regular slot a couple of days later. 

Moving to the left, we reach the Mirror.

Cameron's list brought a series of inside stories and a pair of leaders, one denouncing Cameron as a man of no honour and the second attacking Theresa May for failing "to call time on this grubby peddling of favours".

Four years on, it goes full-on "crony" on publication day in the news coverage, accompanied by a leader saying it was time to replace the Lords with an elected chamber. Later in the week it reports protests about Claire Fox's appointment in the light of her apparent for the IRA bombing of Warrington. And that's it.

Finally, the Guardian.

As you'd expect, Alan Rusbridger's Guardian went in all guns blazing on the Cameron list, with days of coverage, condemnatory leaders, hostile commentary.
Kath Viner's tabloid incarnation was equally unimpressed by the Johnson effort. But, like everyone else's, coverage was far more muted. It amounted to one story about too few women peers, a front-page picture and a single inside page on the actual announcement. A leader two days later  called the list "shameless", and John Crace produced a  typically splendid sketch the next day. Maybe there will be more from Marina Hyde and others at the weekend.
Covid and Brexit are changing our perception of everything. With Trump and Cummings we've perhaps become used to discreditable behaviour from our leaders. But when the "quality" paper that should be the most assiduous in calling the Government to account pays such scant attention to a Prime Minister ennobling or knighting

  • His brother (who also happens to be married to one of the paper's star reporters)
  • The son of a Russian oligarch
  • His former boss
  • The newspaper editor who backed his mayoralty
  • A cricketer - not for his playing or his charity work, but because he backed Brexit
  • The husband of his predecessor
  • People who gave him money
  • A woman who defended a terrorist bombing
as well as his political friends and Brexit fellow-travellers, then I really think we have something to worry about.
Do you?

Congratulations on getting this far! If you are interested, here is another take on the Johnson dissolution honours and the postponement of the Queen's Birthday Honours.


Honours uneven

Is there any institution, convention, tradition – up to and including the monarchy – that Boris Johnson will not disrupt, traduce, usurp?

We know the answer to that from the unlawful prorogation of Parliament and the lying to the Queen to achieve that end - albeit temporarily. Yet still, he has this capacity to amaze with his audacity. The latest example being the “Prime Minister’s Honours” published last weekend.

Forget for a moment the controversy over the recipients of his largesse, the ennobling of a marathon-walking cricketer merely for his utterances in support of Brexit. Cronyism and the repayment of personal and political debts have always been part of this game; think Harold Wilson and Marcia Falkender’s Lavender List; think the Cameron resignation honours. 'Twas ever thus.

Inequality and entitlement have also always been part of the game. For those in the right occupations, honours are part of the career progression, starting with the OBE and culminating in a K for the time-serving civil servant who makes permanent secretary or a damehood for the actress who has worn enough Sunday night bustles and lorgnettes.

But honours are supposed to be more than an expected perk of the job or a headline grabber; they are there to recognise ordinary people in all walks of life, from the lollipop lady and sub-postmaster to the small-time entrepreneurs who turn a kitchen table hobby into a viable business. The people who make our country tick.

These are the people who have been done down by Johnson’s latest caprice. People who should already have been recognised, most likely by being appointed an MBE – the lowest rung on the honours ladder – but who have had to wait while his Press chums and party donors troop into the Lords.

Every June, we officially celebrate the anniversary of the coronation with the Trooping the Colour, a spectacular flypast and the Queen’s Birthday Honours. This year, thanks to covid, the Colour was trooped quietly in Windsor and the flypast was limited. The honours were absent.

The Prime Minister had announced in May that the list would not be published until the autumn to ensure, he said, that it reflected the covid-19 effort and came “at a time when we can properly celebrate the achievements of all those included”.

The decision was reported briefly, without question or challenge. Was it reasonable? Almost certainly, if it was going to deflect Whitehall staffers from more pressing matters. But that was not the case. Mr Johnson acknowledged in his statement that the list had been agreed before the pandemic struck.

Wouldn’t it have been strange to have a list that didn’t recognise covid “heroes”? Well, not really. People would understand that the list had been prepared before they had done their bit and that their time for recognition would come later – as happens in every Olympic year when our summer medallists are honoured in midwinter.

Indeed, if the Prime Minister wished, he could produce a special coronavirus honours list at any time he chose – as happened after the Falklands conflict and the Gulf wars.

Would it not seem tone deaf to be knighting ageing rock stars at a time when hundreds of people were still dying every day? Possibly. But the death rate was falling, garden centres and other businesses were to reopen the weekend after he made the announcement; the anti-lockdown lobby was becoming ever more vociferous in its clamour for a return to normality. In the cautiously optimistic mood he was seeking to promote, postponing the honours was counter-narrative.

 If he had to say anything at all about them, this was an ideal opportunity – the very day after the Queen dubbed Captain Tom in a special one-off ceremony – for Johnson to send a “keep calm and carry on” message while explaining that the covid effort would be properly recognised once the virus had been well and truly beaten.

There would have been positives in it. After all, the honours posed no risk of spreading the virus, but they might have spread some good cheer, even if investitures had to be deferred.

Instead he broke the link between the Queen’s official birthday and the honouring of her subjects, betraying – knowingly or otherwise – a level of contempt for them both. He may have thought he was doing the right thing, but if “circumstances” lead you to treat a fixed event in the national calendar as a movable feast when you don’t absolutely have to, it will be easier to move it again when it suits your purposes in the future. That is how traditions are destroyed, institutions brought down.

As with his request to use the Buckingham Palace tennis court and gardens in preference to more conventional facilities, Johnson doesn’t seem to understand that there are some “royal” areas on which it is unwise for a Prime Minister to tread. It smacks of entitlement and looks disrespectful.

Meanwhile, the public health emergency did not stop him thanking his Brexit friends and sending a further 36 people into an overcrowded House of Lords. Will they be “working” peers? Will Beefy actually turn up and do a bit of legislating? Do we want him to? Hammond probably will, but has Ken had enough?

These were officially the dissolution honours – albeit seven months late – but only the Telegraph described them as such. The Times, beneficiary of a leak two weeks in advance of publication, said that Johnson was “marking his anniversary as leader”; the BBC called it “the Prime Minister’s honours”. And everyone just took it as normal. There were raised eyebrows over some of the people he was elevating, but no questions or explanations of Johnson’s power to dole out baubles – or not, as with the Birthday Honours – whenever he fancies.

We’d seen that before, straight after the election, when he sent Zac Goldsmith, twice rejected by the electorate, to the Lords, along with Nicky Morgan, who hadn’t risked standing for the Commons. That prompted accusations that he was using the Lords as “a job centre for his friends”.

And now family, too. The shameless nepotism and cronyism of the latest list, including – just a week after the Russia report – the son of a Russian spy, again demonstrates how Johnson and his cohort are confident that they can do whatever they like, to hell with any backlash. As one tweeter remarked: “They’re gaslighting the whole nation now.”

There are, we are told, “more to come” in the autumn, presumably under cover of the covid heroes. Will Baron Farage sneak under the radar while the PM points to Sir Radiologist?

And how will the coronavirus effort be reflected? Will the class system again hold sway with knighthoods and CBEs for the doctors and specialists, while 14-hour-shift nurses are palmed off with the MBE? Who can possibly say which paramedic’s efforts were greater than another’s? Will porters, cleaners, ambulancemen, binmen, schoolteachers, carers be recognised? We can only hope.

I’d like to see damehoods and knighthoods for the care home owners who resisted pressure to take untested hospital patients and instigated their own procedures to keep residents safe long before Hancock came up with his imaginary “protective ring”. But that’s not going to happen. You don’t get rewarded for defying this Government.

No doubt Chris Whitty will get his knighthood, Vallance might be sent to the Lords. We can be pretty sure that, as ever, the highest honours will go to the closest “friends”.

But at least Mrs Lollipop Lady will, at last, be able to celebrate her MBE “properly”.




Tuesday 26 May 2020

Double speak and double standards

They are playing us for fools.

They said we were prepared for the coronavirus. That we had “fantastic, world-beating” testing; that the NHS was fully equipped and ready.

Then the bug arrived. And it turned out that we’d sold all the fantastic equipment abroad or run it down in austerity.

They told us not to worry. We must wash our hands, but apart from that, it should be “business as usual”. Shaking hands – even with people treating virus patients – was just fine.

But, just in case, they put out an appeal for ventilators (having "missed the email" about joining a European procurement programme. Maybe, post-Brexit, anything from the EU goes to spam). Ventilator manufacturers and suppliers put up their hands, but they didn't return the calls. Maybe a “patriotic” vacuum cleaner tycoon with a Singapore HQ could help? Or maybe not.

The World Health Organisation urged every country to “test, test, test”. So at that very moment, we stopped. Because “the science” said so. Except it didn't; we simply didn't have the capacity to carry out the tests. Because they had ignored offers from university research labs up and down the land and instead relied on friends in private industry.

It didn't matter, though, because there was a “game-changer” antibody test round the corner that would check whether healthy people had ever been ill. That, they said, would be far more effective in this battle/war against our invisible invader/enemy/foe than a system to check whether ill people had covid and, if so, who else they might have infected. That was more than two months ago. They are still promising both.

Then they toyed with the idea that it would a good thing if more than half the country became ill because that might stop them becoming ill later. Then they denied ever thinking such a thing.

People started dying. But they had "underlying health conditions", were very elderly and "probably would have died soon anyway". There was still not much to worry about. Most people would get only "very mild" symptoms.

While China, South Korea and New Zealand limited movement - and their death tolls - the British way was to keep calm and carry on. It seemed that "they" valued “liberty” and “freedom” over life. The liberty to watch football in Liverpool in the company of fans from covid-riven Spain; the freedom to travel from across the country to bet on horses jumping over fences in Cheltenham.

Everything would be fine. We just needed to wash our hands while singing Happy Birthday – or, if you were Jacob Rees-Mogg, the National Anthem.

People started dying in larger numbers. Including younger, healthier people. And it didn't look so fine. So they told us to make only essential journeys and not to visit or even isolate in our holiday homes - apparently without realising that millions of families don’t have a second bedroom, let alone a second home. So we went to the seaside instead and created essential traffic jams all the way to Cornwall, the Lakes and the Peak District.

Tougher measures had to follow. Schools were to close. Pubs could stay open until midnight, but customers were urged, pleeeeease, to forgo the "Englishman's inalienable right" to enter them one last time. Funnily enough, the advice was again disregarded.

Finally, they told us all to stay indoors, full stop. The Queen was enlisted to tell us we were all in it together and - in keeping with the favoured wartime motif - to echo Vera Lynn’s promise that we would meet again.

A week later, a cabinet minister was caught jaunting to his second home. Was he sacked? Did he resign? No. He was wheeled out to speak for the Government at the Downing Street briefing that very day..

There were mumblings about a lack of hospital equipment, and Michael Gove promised on national television that “thousands” of ventilators would start arriving the following week. A few turned up on time. Have the rest ever surfaced? Who knows?

Soldiers built pop-up hospitals in exhibition centres, stadiums, airports. Look at our Great British heroes, achieving so much in so little time. Anything Wuhan can do, we can do too. Except protect lives. But there were no extra nurses or doctors to work in the new hospitals, so they couldn’t take any patients and were mothballed.

And still people died. But the only ones they were counting were those who had gone to hospital and had been tested – while alive - to see if they really had the virus. And they still weren’t doing that many tests. So the numbers weren’t too frightening. Anyway, everyone was too busy praying for the Prime Minister, who was in intensive care "fighting for his life".

Even when the death toll hit 1,000 a day, there were reasons for rejoicing: Boris was safely back at Chequers with Carrie and an old man called Captain Tom had raised a million pounds for the NHS by walking round his garden, the last lap witnessed and saluted by a military guard of honour.

Doctors and nurses begged to be tested because they couldn’t work if they had a sniffle, even if it wasn't the dreaded Covid. Who was to know?

"They" promised that testing would be “ramped up”. It wasn’t. But they ostentatiously clapped for carers on Thursdays.

Doctors and nurses begged for protective equipment so that they could do their jobs safely. "They" said they'd bought billions of "items" (a single glove counting as an "item"). There was plenty to go round - "if used properly". And they clapped on Thursdays.

Doctors and nurses started dying. "They" paused for a minute’s silence, then carried on telling us how wonderful the country and its heroes were. Especially Captain Tom, whose reward for a walk that had raised £10m, then £20m, then £30m, was to “virtually” open one of the ghost Nightingale hospitals.

They promised again and again that testing would be ramped up – to 100,000 day by the end of April. A target “smashed” by sending 40,000 in the post (who knows if they arrived, were conducted properly or ever processed) and 30,000 or so to university labs for research purposes.

Hidden away from all of this, old people were dying by the dozen in care homes all over the country. But they weren’t counted. Was that because they didn’t count? Hadn’t that genius pulling the strings of government expressed the sentiment that if a few old people died, so be it?
Hadn't over-60s been warned that if they fell ill they would be at the back of the queue for a ventilator? Hadn't over-85s been asked not to go to hospital because they might want to avoid "being a burden on the NHS" and "dying alone"? Hadn't over-90s been telephoned by their GPs asking them to sign DNR forms - and been overruled when they declined?

One old person, however, was to be venerated above all others. Captain Tom, now the proud owner of an England Test cricket cap, was promoted to colonel for his 100th birthday.

Carers pleaded for protective equipment, but there was none to be had, because the rest of the world had gone to market in January while they were worrying about bongs for Brexit, and the limited supplies were needed for the NHS heroes. Never let it be said that they weren't imaginative in trying to make up the shortfall: they bought some gowns from a Turkish T-shirt salesman, but they weren't up to standard, and the Daily Mail helped out by flying in a few bits and pieces amid great fanfare.

At last they started counting everyone whose death certificate included the word Covid. And even after they’d counted them in, there were still 10,000 more deaths this spring than last that they couldn’t explain.

But no one should think that they didn’t care about the aged dying: "Lockdown started for them before the general population". Had it? Other than the blanket order for over-70s to shut themselves away for 12 weeks?

They’d thrown a “protective ring” around care homes “from the outset”. By block-booking 160,000 places to free up hospital beds? Great idea, if only they’d tested the patients before discharging them.

Families may have been barred from visiting care home residents, but the carers themselves were coming and going with not a test or a bit of PPE in sight.

Never mind. We were soon rejoicing again because Carrie had had a baby.

Yet the natives were still restless, stuck indoors, home-schooling their kids and Zooming. So "they" let us visit garden centres – though not for tea and cake. The Queen was rolled out again for the VE Day celebrations – not commemorations? And they knighted Captain Tom. For walking round his garden.

He ended up raising £39m, against an original target of £1,000. Amazing. Would he have been honoured for the £1,000? The actual walking would have taken no less effort, his personal achievement no smaller. Of course not.

The difference was a PR-savvy daughter and a government/country desperate for something joyous.

We needed it. We now have the highest death toll in bald numbers in Europe and, last week, the highest per capita in the world. But, having spent seven weeks proclaiming our “success” in combating the virus, they suddenly declared international comparisons "unhelpful" once we’d claimed the European championship.

The scientist whose research prompted the lockdown was caught having a visit from his lover in breach of the rules; a man who worked on the SAGE committee for nothing. They got rid of him pronto.

The man who effectively runs the country - and probably wrote the rules - was caught driving with his wife and son 260 miles to isolate at his parents’ country farm when both adults thought they had Covid. "They" clung to him like ivy to a willow tree. For he was all they had. Without him, they'd be even more clueless.

These were, they said, exceptional circumstances. Because who would care for the boy if both were ill? As though no other parents in the country had faced such a dilemma over the past two months. He was, they said, right to follow his instincts as a father. As though no other father in the land ever gave a thought to the care of his child or set aside his paternal instincts in order to obey the rules as most of us understood them.

It was reasonable, they said, for a man to drive 30 miles to a beauty spot when his vision was “weird” to test whether he could see well enough to drive back to London. On Easter Sunday, his wife’s birthday, or Day 15 as he pointedly called it, in the full knowledge that infected households are supposed to isolate for 14 days.

So reasonable that Michael Gove asserted on LBC that he, too, “on occasion” had driven to test his eyesight.

So reasonable that a succession of Cabinet ministers dutifully and desperately tweeted in unison that it was so - unaware or untroubled that their arrogant corvid tone jarred with the nation's Covid ear.

To take our minds - or rather media minds - off Cummings, they launched the "track and trace" programme early - but it didn't work - and upped testing capacity to 200,000 - but didn't actually do that many. On the back of these "advances", they started doling out daily treats, patronisingly aimed at what they thought the proles wanted: promises of pubs re-opening, horses racing again. The Premiership helpfully announced that the season would soon resume.

The supportive papers duly obliged with the good news non-Dom headlines, but for once the people were not convinced.

"See friends and family from Monday," they said on Thursday. But please not over the coming sunny weekend (the last weekend before many go back to school or work), they added on Friday - knowing full well that we wouldn’t listen to that bit.

Having declared for months that they were “following the science”, they defied the scientists to tempt us with goodies as dangerous as anything Snow White, Hansel or Gretel might be offered in the woods. “Go outside”, they told the vulnerable. By their own measures, the infection rate was still at "level 4", yet - to save Cummings - lockdown was being eased as though it were at level 1, which was supposed to be when the greatest risk had passed and a vaccine was available.

People are dying. The economy is wrecked. We’re heading for a no-deal Brexit precipice. And still they use words like “fantastic” and “world-beating”. Don't they understand that this isn't a competition; we don't want to beat the world. We just want our families to be kept safe and to be able to hold our Mum's hand as she dies.

Instead we’re living in an Orwellian dystopia "led" by an absentee figurehead prime minister of Churchillian delusion who signed up for the glory, not the gory. A man devoid of integrity, insight and ideas; a man totally lacking the appetite, application or ability to perform the job attached to the title he craved; a man who thinks charging immigrant health workers extra for the service they provide - whether they use it or not - is the "right thing to do".

A world where three-word slogans masquerade as policy. A world where clapping on Thursdays and feting 100-year-olds who see the NHS as a charity case (another embarrassing blip and Captain Tom will be in the Lords) have become a substitute for paying and equipping health staff properly. A world where they fly the Union Flag, publish photos of babies, dogs and princesses, and get the Queen to talk to the nation from time to time. In the hope that we won’t notice the rest.

They are playing us for fools.

Wednesday 5 February 2020

That Downing Street walkout

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 this morning.

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.

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 Mr 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.
The Sunday Telegraph was at it again only this 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 this morning, 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 C4 debate was open to all party leaders, the press briefing only to selected political editors.) Sauce. Goose. Gander?
And how did Mr 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 today to remind us that Harold Wilson tried exactly the same stunt as Johnson back in the Sixties, 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 this morning'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 today 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.