How does Boris Johnson get away with it? How does he lie and cheat and break the rules with apparent impunity? Plenty of theories are aired in the media: his alleged charisma, the weakness of the opposition, the success of the vaccine programme. But the most likely explanation isn’t Johnson’s character or circumstances. It’s the one staring back from the mirror. For most of his career, he has been protected by the news organisations that should have held him to account.
Surely the media are doing a great job. First the Cameron story and now Boris Johnson’s dirty business have been plastered all over the front pages. The recent scandals show that journalism in the UK is the lively scourge of dishonesty and corruption. Really?
Information about the government’s lobbying outrages has been trickling out for almost a year. The way the government issued contracts for PPE and other vital goods and services during the first wave of the pandemic is – or should have been – a much bigger scandal than David Cameron’s lobbying, Boris Johnson’s text messages or the refurbishment of his flat. While qualified suppliers were desperately trying to sell their wares, the government ignored them and established a “VIP lane” for its chums. Billions were spent on unadvertised, untendered contracts. In some cases – for instance, the research company owned by people close to No 10 – the recipients had special relationships with ministers and officials.
Nobody died as a result of Cameron’s lobbying or Johnson’s home furnishings. But health and other frontline workers died because vital protective equipment was either missing or inadequate. The procurement fiasco was likely to have been partly to blame.
There was a range of problems. The first hint that something odd was happening with the government’s procurement processes emerged on 7 May 2020, with a story in the Telegraph about useless surgical gowns sourced by bizarre means from Turkey. It was picked up briefly, then the media moved on. On 13 May, openDemocracy exposed strange decisions made by the government’s fixer, Deloitte. On 14 May, the campaign group We Own It published a detailed report on the collapse of the NHS supply chain for PPE. It was completely ignored.
In early June, the Good Law Project lodged its first pre-action protocol about a massive contract granted, out of public sight, to a company without relevant qualifications. This crowdfunded legal campaign then released a stream of shocking and astonishing claims that friends of ministers and civil servants and other well-connected people, including party donors, were operating through special channels. Companies with apparently no prior experience secured contracts for vital equipment. In some cases, the equipment either turned out to be useless or wasn’t delivered at all.
Far from making procurement faster and more efficient, as the government now claims, this system caused total chaos and catastrophic decisions. According to the Good Law Project’s suit, civil servants complained about “drowning in VIP requests” to favour companies that were unable to meet the necessary standards.
These stories were covered sporadically by several newspapers, and individual journalists did brilliant work. But none of the media, with the exception of openDemocracy and Byline Times, gave the issue the intense and unwavering coverage it deserved: in my view it should have hit the headlines day after day.
In mid-July I published a column asking why this scandal wasn’t all over the front pages. Above all, I was mystified by the BBC’s failure to cover it. By this stage, the corporation had touched on the issue just once, as far as I could tell, with a short and muted story that sank without trace.
In October, the Guardian revealed how Serco had given crucial roles in the government’s test-and-trace programme, previously discharged by qualified clinicians, to unqualified teenage call centre workers, who had to make crucial clinical decisions. It was a big story, or so I thought, but the BBC and other outlets took weeks to pick it up. Only when the National Audit Office published its report on the fiasco in November did the media as a whole bestir itself, but just for a few days.
Last month, I criticised the sluggishness of the BBC’s coverage of Covid contracts. In response, Nick Robinson, presenter of the Today programme and former BBC political editor, claimed: “It was the BBC’s Lucy Manning who first broke the story.” Manning is an excellent correspondent, but when I checked with her she told me that the first time she covered it was on 6 August. In other words, Robinson, arguably the BBC’s most senior political journalist, appears to have been unaware, for the first three months of its existence, of what should have been the UK’s biggest political scandal.
This is part of what I see as a pattern of failure. As the former BBC reporter Patrick Howse remarks, “top BBC managers are absolutely terrified of the government and are bending over backwards to appease it”. He points out that it scarcely mentioned the latest revelations about Boris Johnson’s relationship with Jennifer Arcuri. I can find only two stories on its website published about the issue this year, both of which were mild, dull and remarkably late. I single out the BBC not because it is worse than most other outlets, but because it should be better. Funded by us, with vast reach and resources, it should be the leading investigator of government malfeasance.
Vigilance? Diligence? Initiative? For most of the past year, most of the media have been fast asleep.
George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist