It may not be the first thing people remember about Dominic Cummings and his 264-mile trip to Barnard Castle, but the government’s initial response was to condemn the reports published by the Guardian and the Mirror as “fake news” put about by charlatans, or “campaigning newspapers”. A while later the prime minister’s senior adviser made his infamous non-apology explanation for the trip in front of the press in the Downing Street Rose Garden, confirming the story was actually true.
Almost a year later, you could be forgiven for thinking that times have changed. Not only are we no longer in the dark days of the first lockdown, when Donald Trump was US president and his ability to call the truth lies still admired by many of the world’s politicians, including our own – but the acrimonious reign of Cummings has come to an end, too.
A newly installed communications team in Downing Street, headed by former Guardian and broadcast journalist Allegra Stratton, seems far keener on working with journalists again, rather than calling them liars just for doing their jobs. And yet the leader of the House of Commons is happy to question verified facts and the integrity of journalists, using parliamentary privilege to do so, without any rebuke.
The recent attack by Jacob Rees-Mogg concerns the ordinary business of government – future trade deals rather than public health in a pandemic. But the consequences in terms of corroding public trust and questioning the idea of truth – the heart of the matter with the Cummings affair, after all – is just as important.
Gaslighting journalists still seems to be a thing this government is comfortable doing.
The latest row started when the HuffPost published a story based on a leaked recording of the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, suggesting that human rights contraventions would not necessarily rule out trade deals. In comments made to department officials, Raab said: “If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.”
Two days later, Rees-Mogg said this report had been “shockingly distorted by low-quality journalism”. Unforgivably, he called Arj Singh, the HuffPost’s deputy political editor, who had first reported the story, “either a knave or a fool” and went on to say, “I think we should look at that type of poor-quality online journalism. It’s not the sort of thing that would happen in the Times.” This despite the fact that the story had indeed been followed up in the pages of many newspapers, including the Times.
The government, meanwhile, didn’t deny the story, it simply insisted that more quotes from the recording were added. What’s more, in an apparent attempt to distance itself from the row, Downing Street said that the prime minister “would not have made” the same comments. In fact, on Monday Raab admitted it was government policy.
Yet still there is no apology from or sanction for Rees-Mogg, suggesting either that the government is losing control of the cabinet – or it is perfectly happy for its members to impugn the integrity of journalists.
Those in power have often denied news stories, of course. What seems different now is the ad hominem attacks on the journalists themselves when the evidence is hard to argue with.
Singh published the taped evidence on Twitter to confirm his story and his case has been taken up by the National Union of Journalists. Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, accused cabinet ministers of being “playground bullies, undermining the work of journalists, bringing their work into disrepute”.
The verbal bullying has consequences of course. When another HuffPost journalist, Nadine White, dared to question Kemi Badenoch earlier this year, she was called “creepy and bizarre” by the minister for equalities on Twitter. The subsequent abuse White received online led to her making her social media accounts private. HuffPost editor-in-chief, Jess Brammar, complained to the Cabinet Office about Badenoch’s behaviour, but received no apology.
Stratton suggested the row over the minister’s offensive tweets was a “misunderstanding” and that both women were “great”: the press secretary may be attempting to cultivate a less combative Downing Street regime, but the facts suggest that an elected official called a journalist names for asking questions.
Journalists make mistakes, of course – a misplaced word, a misjudged headline can detract from a brilliant scoop. But mistakes can and should be rectified. Asking questions and reporting facts is the essence of the job and no one deserves to be vilified for doing so. The ministerial code insists that ministers “give accurate and truthful information”; a working democracy insists that the fourth estate is allowed to report the truth and hold the powerful to account.
That both recent cases involve the HuffPost, a news team in the midst of a severe restructuring and layoffs, suggests ministers are picking on Fleet Street’s weaker targets, especially those like the HuffPost whose political stories are often followed up by others.
Some may argue that the government is simply picking on those who do not necessarily support it. So Matt Hancock is happy to call the Guardian “a rag” in WhatsApp messages.
Yet picking on weaker targets has always been the recourse of playground bullies, long before Eton was founded. By calling their victims liars they sow doubt where there should be none and, in so doing, attempt to send messages to bigger targets not to mess with them.
Allowing ministers to call journalists names for doing their job is not just a matter for HuffPost, it should be a matter for us all.
Jane Martinson is a Guardian columnist