SubScribe: Cronyism and a tale of two honours lists 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.


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