Cummings: Media plays the man while ignoring the lockdown rules

Cummings: Media plays the man while ignoring the lockdown rules

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 25, May, 2020

A SENSIBLE and tenacious media is often critical in saving countries when threatened by an assault on democratic institutions. But an irresponsible and demagogic media can also imperil the freedom of countries, even ones where democracy has been as long-established as Britain. 

The media meltdown over Dominic Cummings is a textbook example of the media throwing off any vestige of prudence in order to try and destroy someone who is now seen as a demon figure by much of the political class. 

Make no mistake: key segments of the British media now view themselves as part of the political class with all the entitlements that membership bestows. Their interest in reporting news as it happens and investigating public interest stories has been replaced by manipulating or suppressing news in order to secure a political objective. Stories are ignored (such as the killing of 7-year-old Emily Jones in a Bolton park on 22 March) because the optics are inconvenient (the woman arrested for her murder being an immigrant from Somalia).

Much of the media is owned by powerful corporations who have invested heavily in the project to turn Britain into a pioneer in creating a borderless world in which a lead culture would be replaced by a mosaic of supposedly harmonious ones. Developments which clash with this narrative, such as the people smuggling into Britain organized by criminal gangs, are downplayed. Instead, it requires a public-spirited politician like Nigel Farage to go out in the English Channel and film what is going on under the noses of the British authorities. His video has been viewed over one million times to the likely consternation of the established media. 

Media bigwigs like Adam Boulton hate to be called out for their bias. Thus he reacted with fury when journalist Tom Harwood of Guido News took him on over his tendency to give a platform on SKY News to government critics from different professions without ever informing the viewers about their often hard-left affiliations. 

Figures like Boulton, Robert Peston and Andrew Marr see themselves as major political players in their own right, far above nearly all MPs and perhaps even most ministers in importance. They have invested heavily in propping up a status quo where power is wielded by small clubs of insiders from the civil service, the archipelago of quangos, corporate business and the devolved administrations with ministers in government being transient actors. What gives coherence to this variegated establishment is a desire to repel and crush any challenge from below that will weaken the hold of metro elites on their power and privileges.

This tight-knit world of a collectivist, anti-traditionalist middle-class order is now under challenge. A talented and cool-headed operator Dominic Cummings has taken on the nabobs of progressive privilege. Disastrous setbacks have already occurred, first in the referendum taking Britain out of the European Union, next in the December 2019 general election when an appeal to the working-class English North and Midlands successfully delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives. The science and data-literate Cummings has been Boris Jonson’s chief adviser for nearly a year. He threatens to disrupt and replace a mediocre decision-making culture with one geared towards improving the quality of governance in post-EU Britain and delivering real improvements for overlooked communities. 

Johnson, an ambitious and ambiguous figure with 1 foot in the establishment and another in the reform camp has listened to Cummings on several key issues . Not only his campaigning skills but his ideas for modernising a sclerotic bureaucracy and readiness to dispose of wasteful and politically-focussed quangos have been listened to at the heart of power. 

Johnson is reviled for being a ‘traitor’ to the liberal elite by embracing Brexit and hiring this dangerous outsider. During the Covid-19 emergency he has been a difficult target: he fell badly ill and not long afterwards his partner gave birth to their child.

Cummings and his family were also affected by Covid-19. But in his case the media, from the Daily Telegraph to the Guardianand Channel 4 and the BBC has not hesitated to release the dogs of war over his alleged infringement of the lockdown rules. He has been assailed for travelling from London to his home town of Durham to leave his 4-year-old child with his sister and go into lockdown near his parent’s home along with his wife who already had Covid-19.

After several days of mounting media fury, Boris Johnson appeared on television on 24 May and stood by his adviser. He argued that a reading of the lockdown regulations showed that there was enough flexibility to justify his Durham trip given the family circumstances. (The Cummings child is in the vulnerable category but this has not been communicated to the media or government supporters). 

The media had wanted the head of Cummings on a platter and the reaction of scribes like Iain Martin of the Times and Beth Rigby of Sky had led to the assumption that his time was up. Packs of journalists had milled around his London home in the previous 48 hours, ignoring the distancing rules as they mobbed him. He ignored their shrill and accusatory questions only to remind them of the need to observe the rules of the Covid era which they were claiming in vain he had broken. 

By the afternoon of the 24th, a large van had turned up outside his home which was in left-leaning South Islington that had a huge screen on top from which media clips of distressing hospital scenes were blared out along with clips from Johnson speeches. As he returned home in the evening, clips of him being booed by some of his neighbours were gleefully shared on social media.

A chorus of voices proclaimed that this was a sign of ordinary people at last rising up against a sinister unelected figure who had wormed his way to the heart of power. His street is located in one of the most left-wing parts of the country where the majorities for local MPs like Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry perhaps ought to be weighed rather than counted. His neighbours would have included many whose jobs in the arts, lobbying, media or the charity sector were likely to be under threat due to the contraction in the economy caused by the pandemic and who would have needed no excuse for regarding Cummings (with his bold plans for change) as an unacceptable interloper. The former Daily Express political correspondent and UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn feared things would only get worse in this enclave of middle-class radical virtue:

‘Seems pretty clear now that Dominic Cummings is going to be driven out of Islington in a similar way that Boris Johnson was driven out of Camberwell. The London Left taking its cue from 1970s Belfast these days.’ @oflynnsocial

Steve Richards, veteran of the New Statesman and Channel 4 whose output would have been eagerly consumed in Islington opined that Cummings ‘survives but without purpose now he’s part of an elite against the people.’ @steverichards14 

Stephen Daisley of the Spectator, echoed this view.  

Lewis Goodall of BBC Newsnight who probably issued more tweets about Cummings than  any other well-known British journalist, suggested the alleged toxicity of Cummings would make it ‘harder for No 10 to deliver new directives on lockdown while he's in post’. @lewis_goodall

The spectre of militant teaching unions refusing to open schools as long as the PM’s chief adviser remained by his side has now hoved into view. There is a case for suggesting that the massive coverage on the BBC and elsewhere to the views of radical trade-union activists, has legitimised the prospect of 1970s style-disruption (except that it will be middle-class figures to the fore). The grotesque caricature of Cummings which has been blown up by the media, enableing even Anglican bishops to sound like militants from the era of Arthur Scargill in the 1980s.

David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester has urged Anglicans to withhold cooperation from the Johnson government in the crisis. This followed a litany of denunciations from five colleagues which got major BBC giverage on 25 May

Ironically, there has been little media coverage of the unwillingness of the Anglican establishment to re-open churches for prayer or worship. It is yet more evidence that bishops seem far more comfortable being political activists rather than performing their Christian duties.

Some politicians have also behaved with deep incaution. Emily Thornberry, the frontbench Labour politician, applauded the fact that supporters of her party had abused Cummings in his own street without pausing to think of the dangerous precedent she might be encouraging. @EmilyThornberry 

From the government side a string of pro-Remain MPs demanded his head. The Tory MP who gave heart to the media that Cummings might be facing is doom was, however, the well-known Brexiteer, Steve Baker. His main complaint seemed to be that Cummings was personally dislikable and had not been nice to him

The past few days have shown how the politics of sentiment can be effectively harnessed to political warfare. They reveal the lengths to which the media will go to obtain a personal scalp helped by credulous MPs like Baker and a few alienated right-wingers like Tim Montgomerie, editor of Unherd (whose dropping as a senior social policy advisor may have been down to Cummings). @montie

The failure of nearly all Tory MPs to face down the media and defend someone who played a huge role in ensuring a big electoral victory is telling. It suggests there is little fight in the parliamentary party if it is confronted by a reactionary-left power grab. I suspect in Scotland the establishment insurgency that passes as a government led by Nicola Sturgeon has also noticed the weakness of the governing party. It would be no surprise if moves to initiate a Catalan-style breakaway will have been strengthened by an episode revealing how beleaguered the London government actually is despite its big majority. Cummings may or may not go but British democracy has taken quite a pounding in the past few days from which it may not easily recover.

Tom Gallagher has written 16 single or main-authored books on European and British politics and contemporary history. 'Scotland Now: A Warning to the World' appeared in 2016. His latest is a biography of Portugal's Antonio Salazar which Hurst Publishers are bringing out in July on the centenary of his birth.

Photo of Dominic Cummings by Radical Larry 1 - File:Dominic_Cummings_2019.png, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89811697

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