Two quotes which seem pertinent in the current bourach. One from the legendary American essayist HL Mencken who thought the most appropriate relationship between journalists and politicians was that of a dog and a lamp post. (Over the years folks have disputed which was the dog.) The other from spin doctor supreme Alistair Campbell who opined that anyone in his trade who became the story for more than three days was a liability.
Nothing, of course, is quite as clear cut as witty aphorisms might suggest. Mr Cummings has been a story for a very long time. He was a story when, as in house policy wonk during Michael Gove’s stint at education, he was outed early on as an incurable slash and burner by pretty well everyone interested in the future of education. He was an even bigger story as the Machiavellian author behind some of the more outrageous claims of the Leave campaign. (Which is where Boris gleaned that he gave good slogan.) So big a story, and such a serial teller of demonstrable untruths, they even made a TV documentary about him. And the tales which have since emerged from the bowels of Number Ten tell of his public trashing of other special advisors, sundry ministers, the civil service, and parliamentary government in general. (Just ask Sajid Jav
His stock in trade is spreading fear as well as loathing. He is not a nice man, whatever his journalist wife may suggest in print. And it is fair to note she is not the most objective source of opinion. Just as the Mail’s Sarah Vine might be thought less than detached when observing her husband, Mr Gove. Cummings’ latest incarnation, as all England unlocked tourist, has brought into sharp focus the way in which government figures, elected and otherwise, are scrutinised by the media. I have some difficulty with the theory that the BBC and some of its most high profile purveyors of opinion, are operating as a sort of government secret service, licensed to kill any rumour liable to embarrass the current UK administration.
For one thing, having worked for the Corporation, I can confirm that they are incapable of organising a coherent conspiracy covering their myriad operations, even if they had the inclination. What I do think is evident, and profoundly unhealthy, is the relationship between lobby correspondents and other media insiders with the ministers on whom they report. Political reporters and broadcasters live or die by their ability to know what really goes on behind firmly closed doors.
Fortunately for them, firmly closed doors have never precluded subsequent “private” briefings. Some ministers leak more than the average sieve – but they cover their backs by usually passing the information to their “trusty” of choice. That way they get to put stuff in the public domain without their hands being visibly dirty. This has led to the infamous “sources close to” formulation which is often the person themselves. I did find it odd when Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s UK political editor, sent a series of early tweets, using an unnamed “source” to deny claims made by another journalist, one of the team which broke the original Cummings story. Not least since Number 10, at that early juncture, was still scrabbling around trying to knit the collective Cummings alibi which was to be punted the next day. Her “source” was obviously desperate to get their own version out first.
Yet political editors don’t usually rush to contradict other journalists. Which brings us closer to home and the stushie over the BBC’s Scotland editor, whose brief is to interpret Scottish politics for the UK as a whole. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I have known Sarah Smith for a long number of years, even before she joined the BBC’s graduate training scheme. When she was first appointed, she was subjected to a barrage of criticism on the grounds that she was the daughter of a previous Labour leader. It is an interesting concept that journalists, or anyone else, get to choose their parents. It would be passing strange if anyone from that background had no interest in politics. Over the years she’s reported from Washington from Channel 4, and hosted London based political shows. One of the reasons she wanted to come back to Scotland was not, oddly, to ensure the SNP got regularly handbagged, but because, unsurprisingly, she has an abiding interest in the Scottish political game. When she made the broadcast with an ill chosen description of Nicola Sturgeon’s motivation, I would guess she knew even before the resulting twitter storm that she had got it wrong. So she said so and apologised. Provoking another onslaught on social media.
Similarly there is a very vocal social media lobby who have convinced themselves that BBC Scotland is little more than a fifth columnist for the forces of unionist darkness. I believe the report card is mixed. The Scottish news selection sometimes seems perversely wedded to what London has deemed important. Coverage of domestic events can sometimes seem bizarre too. I remember a small Orange parade in Edinburgh being deemed more newsworthy than a large independence event. Yet The Nine has proved a robust addition, much hampered by an unforgiving time slot. Its modest viewing figures make the decision not to go for a Scottish Six these many years ago seem wrong headed. And there was, at that time, very definite political pressure not to go down the Six route. The other night, a friend in France, Whatsapped me to declare that covering the Cummings saga was a waste of journalistic resources. Few people take his line, wherever they reside on the political spectrum.
You will have noted that far from accepting he may have made an error of judgement – at the very least – Cummings adopted his usual arrogant, entitled tone with reporters at the weekend. Suggesting his decisions were none of their business. Oh but they are, Dom.
Infiltrating the inner circles of power doesn’t get you a free pass. Especially not one you write yourself.
First published in The National on 25.5.20