There are few spectacles in British life more shameful than the British media in hot pursuit, bent on pulling a prominent public figure down. Over the bank holiday weekend, peak Cummings, there were more questions hurled, more column acres of indignation, than two journeys in a car could possibly justify.
Such has been the media obsession with Cummings that one might at times have wondered whether we really are in the middle of the worst peacetime health, economic, and political crisis of our lifetimes. As I write, the most blatant attack on Cummings and the prime minister came from that bastion of impartial reporting, the BBC. In her opening remarks for an edition of Newsnight TV presenter Emily Maitlis attacked Cummings and the prime minister. Reading a transcript of her words I thought for a moment that I had by accident stumbled across a Guardian editorial.
Maitlis accused the prime minister of ‘blind loyalty’ and said that the public had been made to ‘feel like fools’. Her unrestrained assault opened with the words “Dominic Cummings broke the rules”. Not much room for debate there then, Emily. This was before Durham police had said he might (my emphasis) have broken them and it would have been a ‘minor breach’ of the regulations.
The BBC wriggled a bit in its response but decided that Maitlis’ words ‘did not meet our standards of due impartiality’. She tweeted that she had been overwhelmed by the kindness shown and messages of support. which hardly suggested someone who realised they had made a bad mistake. Maitlis has form when it comes to impartiality. The trouble with celebrity presenters on inflated salaries is that they don’t think the rules apply to them.
We should, though, be grateful to Labour MP David Lammy, leftie commentator Owen Jones and left-wing economist writer Paul Mason for speaking up for the BBC presenter. A bit of a giveaway, really. Any doubts at the BBC’s verdict can be laid to rest.
In an interesting piece of timings, two days after the Maitlis outburst, we learned that the BBC had announced a review on how well BBC journalists maintain impartiality when using social media. What took them so long? Perhaps the Corporation is beginning to recognise that it has a problem with its left wing, ultra-liberal culture.
The hounding of Dominic Cummings extends much wider than the BBC. For me the most dramatic example was the press conference in the garden of Number 10 on bank holiday Monday, jaw-dropping not so much because of anything Dominic Cummings said, but for the unrestrained hostility and even venom displayed by his interrogators.
Not one expressed sympathy or understanding of his position. There was a sense of anger and frustration among the journalists, perhaps outraged that they had not heard a shamefaced apology.
My wife remarked that this courteous and patient man was not the Rasputin figure she’d expected. And Cummings refused to rise to the baiting.
Media frustration was evidenced at the government’s daily coronavirus briefing later that day. Any press officer, however humble, could have told the journalists that the prime minister was unlikely to add anything more than what had been said in Cummings’ earlier, hour-long statement-questions-and- answers press conference. And that unless they were first in the queue, they might suppose that any Cummings’ question they’d thought of would have already been asked. Yet, with one exception, every question was about Dominic Cummings.
The prime minister had announced a significant relaxing of lockdown rules. Journalists might have asked whether such measures were premature, with the R number infection rate between 0.7 and 1. Or how small shops would cope with social distancing rules. They didn’t.
Their response might be that it was Cummings’ flouting of the rules that distracted them from the government’s coronavirus update. And there’s little doubt the affair has been a distraction the government could have done without.
But the media doesn’t just report a political storm. In this case the media, as so often is the case, helps create the turbulent political weather. The obsession with Cummings and the hostility fuelling it has played a major part in the Get Cummings campaign.
There can be little doubt that much of the orchestrated indignation at the Cummings’ family trip to Durham is Remainers’ revenge. They have never forgiven him and Boris Johnson for their crucial roles in the EU referendum campaign, scuppering a second referendum and winning a Conservative majority in last year’s general election.
No stone has been left unturned that can be thrown at Dominic Cummings. A common theme of media coverage is to remind us of families who have lost loved ones and been unable to comfort them in their last moments or attend their funerals. Such stories are heart breaking but far from the Cummings’ saga.
The reason these harsh restrictions are in place is to protect families and NHS staff from the virus. Cummings acted to safeguard the health and wellbeing of his child and there is no evidence that his actions put anyone at risk. His visit to his family was a necessary part of this. We are not, surely, arguing for equality of suffering?
Of course, public anger was fuelled by the false contrast of Cumming’s actions and the sufferings of others who had ‘obeyed the rules’. The Guardian printed a photo of demonstrators outside Cumming’s house, carrying placards saying Cummings Full of Shit, One Rule for the Elite and Demonic Scummings (sic) Must Go. The paper would say that this was evidence of people’s anger though three demonstrators does not constitute a mob. And it’s a helpful photo if you’re not quite certain which house he and his family live in.
Perhaps the paper believes Cummings deserves this. Its editorial the day after bank holiday Monday said unequivocally that Cummings ‘broke lockdown rules’. The Mail and the Mirror echoed this. While TV news programmes I watched did not express this as a certainty, they questioned his defence and implied he was guilty. And public anger has been stoked by a widespread perception that Cummings flouted lockdown rules many observed.
The decision by the Durham police that the trip to Durham by the Cummings family did not breach the regulations should not have come as any great surprise to anyone who had looked at the facts. Lockdown guidelines stated at the time that people should stay at home ‘to the best of your ability’. The deputy chief medical officer for England Jenny Harries clarified this by saying that any lockdown rules could be overruled by safeguarding concerns or prevention of harm. And she gave the example of a child with both parents too ill to provide medical care.
Cummings interpreted those rules as allowing him to take precautionary actions to safeguard his child. I would have done the same. Who can blame him, particularly since his son later became ill and both parents suffered from coronavirus.
I doubt if many commentators seriously asked themselves what they would do in Cummings’ circumstances. Would the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg have contacted social services and asked them to stand by for a four-year old child? Would Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, have rung a media mate and asked for help? Either of these actions could have meant people catching the virus from the child.
Cummings went to his family, as most of us would do. His nieces were young enough not to be seriously ill if infected and willing to take the risk. He believed that qualifications to the rules that allowed him to take his precautions aren’t, as has been said, ‘loopholes’ or ‘small print’. One only needs a moment’s thought to realise that there are situations where staying at home and praying may not be the sensible thing to do. It would have been strange if guidelines didn’t in some way acknowledge this.
The verdict by Durham police that the drive to Barnard Castle would have only been a minor breach of the regulations seems proportional and sensible. We may have forgotten the fact that Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, travelled to his parents to deliver, he said, food and medicine.
Sir Keir Starmer, still calling for Cummings’ head, may have missed the news that Labour MP Stephen Kinnock travelled to London for his father’s birthday. Or that Labour MP Tahir Ali attended a large family funeral. Yet Labour lockdown offenders didn’t prevent John Ashworth, shadow health minister, saying of Cummings’s defence that “the hypocrisy stinks”.
The politicians also accused of breaking the lockdown aren’t as important and controversial as Dominic Cummings though their justifications are weaker. It seems as if all the public anger over ‘one rule for them and one for us’ has been heaped by the media on the prime minister’s chief advisor. While the flouting MPs appear to have suffered no adverse consequences from their lockdown breaches. We can conclude there is one rule for politicians and another rule for prime minister’s advisers.
You know they’re out to get you when they chuck in every detail that might sound damaging, even when it has little relevance. The fact that Cummings drove 260 miles to Durham does not answer the question as to whether he broke lockdown rules. I found no maximum mileage laid down when you have safeguarding concerns for a child in the government’s coronavirus guidelines. Yet this statistic has been endlessly repeated.
Another charge is that old media favourite that the accused has failed to apologise. No Regrets No Apology screamed the Mirror. And No Apology No Regrets (surprisingly) was the Mail headline.
My dictionary defines apology as ‘regretful acknowledgement of fault or failure’. But Cummings doesn’t think his actions to protect his family were a fault or failure and doesn’t regret them. For him to apologise would, indeed, be hypocrisy.
There’s little doubt that much of the media determination to ‘Get Cummings’ is driven by anger at the part he and Boris played in Brexit, killing off the second referendum campaign and winning a substantial majority in last year’s general election. But whatever the causes, media hostility leaks out in various ways.
A Guardian editorial commented: “If everyone considers their circumstances to be unusual and decides that they can move around the country in search of childcare then the virus will spread”.
This is a grotesque parody of Cummings’ actions. He did not consider his circumstances ‘unusual’, he considered them a threat to the health and wellbeing of his child. Nor did he ‘move around the country in search of childcare’. His childcare, if needed, was in Durham and he drove straight there.
Remorseless media focus on Dominic Cummings has been given impetus by Tory MPs who have added their voices to the call for Cummings to be sacked, some of whom may owe their seats to his work. They complain the row is a ‘distraction’ while adding to it.
They should be careful what they wish for. If Cummings goes (and as I write there’s reports he may leave later this year) then the PM will be weakened, the government will be weakened, and the Conservative Party will be weakened. And I believe our country will be weakened. We badly need Cummings’ intelligence and drive to help get through the coronavirus crisis, conclude the Brexit negotiations, level up the country, and reform our failing system of government.
A BBC TV News report on the enveloping row showed, not for the first time, a fox running across Downing Street. It was an apt image. The government hopes that the Durham police decision might dampen the fires. Fat chance. By the time you’re reading this article the press hounds, urged on by Newsnight presenters, may have finally got their fox.
While momentum built up quickly to get Cummings ousted, the government was slow and poor in its response. The Cummings’ press conference was too late. People had made up their minds and were angry. The explanation is probably that there were many other things urgently demanding government attention as each day people died and problems emerged as we moved towards easing the lockdown.
One hint that Cummings gave in his press conference was that while coronavirus may not have overwhelmed the NHS, it has probably overwhelmed the government. That would not be surprising, but it reinforces the views of people like me that we need to reform the ways our government works.
When handling of the coronavirus crisis is finally judged, we may learn that government failures can cost lives. The Cummings madness will be a footnote.
Brian Morris is a former producer of What the Papers Say, a long-running TV weekly review of the press.
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