Scooped: it was the ‘mainstream media’ that brought Boris Johnson low

As public anger over the No 10 drinks events spreads, even the PM’s press allies joined the effort to uncover the truth

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the crisis surrounding Boris Johnson is just how long it has taken to happen. Almost by definition, any party to which 100 people are invited is not a secret event. And that “almost” can be dispensed with if the invitees work in politics. Yet for more than 18 months, the public was ignorant of the prime minister’s attendance at the infamous No 10 social gathering on 20 May 2020 – and indeed of the gathering itself.

The journalist who first wrote about Downing Street parties during lockdown, the Daily Mirror’s political editor, Pippa Crerar, initially heard about them almost a year earlier. She said it took 11 months to stand up the story, though the Mirror may also have been waiting for an opportune moment. With Johnson under pressure after the Owen Paterson fiasco, that moment duly arrived.

The key point, however, in the age of social media, is that the story didn’t leak. It’s said in Westminster that a couple of Tory-supporting journalists also attended social gatherings in Downing Street. Rumours circulated. Nevertheless, there were no Instagram photos or revelatory blogposts, no viral internet rumours. New media played little part in uncovering the egregious flouting of government rules and national laws by Johnson and his staff. Rather, what finally brought to public attention that boozy May day and the various other lockdown parties was the work of the often-derided mainstream media.

Daily Mail front page with the headline: Is the party over for PM?
The Daily Mail’s front page, 12 January Photograph: No Credit

As media academic and commentator Jane Martinson says: “The relationship between Fleet Street and Downing Street is an interesting one, but we wouldn’t have found out about any of these stories without journalists.”

It was ITV News that broke the story of the email sent by the PM’s private secretary, Martin Reynolds, to scores of No 10 staff, inviting them to “make the most of the lovely weather” and bring their own booze to the garden party. The Guardian ran the photo of another wine-and-cheese get-together that took place five days earlier in No 10’s garden; the Independent discovered that the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, attended a gathering, which meant he had to recuse himself from the inquiry now being led by Sue Gray; and the Daily Telegraph told us about two parties held by Downing Street staff that took place on 21 April, the night before the Queen attended Prince Philip’s funeral, sitting alone.

Aside from placing Johnson’s position under question, “partygate”, as it has inevitably been labelled, has also shown the old-fashioned strengths of the broadcast media and the press when it comes to establishing the facts. We may have to wait for Gray’s report to discover if Johnson knew that a gathering of 40 or so people drinking alcohol was (a) a party and (b) against the rules he’d instructed the rest of the nation to follow, but it’s thanks to TV and press journalists that we know there was a gathering, that Johnson was there, and that so were 40 others.

That, ironically, is Johnson’s potential lifeline. The PM, after all, is a former journalist, someone who knows all about news cycles and the various ways of distracting and distracting the press’s attention. If he and his allies can portray partygate as a media confection, as gossip dressed up as news, while focusing on the success of the booster drive, falling Covid numbers, and the relative health of the British economy among G7 members, he may be able to ride out the storm.

Veteran broadcaster and journalist Andrew Marr believes that, although the story has entered a lull, it’s far from over, and won’t be until Gray’s report is delivered. “It might be a damp squib and the rebellion against Boris Johnson collapses like an elderly meringue,” he says. “Or it could get everything going. I don’t think anybody knows at the moment.”

Times front page with the headline: You are in last chance saloon, PM is warned
The Times’s front page, 15 January Photograph: croberts3/No Credit

But if Johnson’s attempt to shift the agenda is to work, he will need the media to disseminate his message. This is where intrigue develops, and news values are weighed against political expediency.

A study of two Daily Mail front pages a week apart illustrates the point. On 12 January, it ran with the ominous question: “Is the party over for PM?” The piece was gloomy and spoke of “draining support”, a “ferocious backlash” from aggrieved families, and Johnson being “engulfed” by the crisis.

Eight days later, it placed a leader comment on the front page denouncing a “narcissistic rabble of Tory MPs” trying to topple a PM “who’s leading us out of Covid” and ended with the demand: “In the name of God, Grow Up!” There was a visible progression from a recognition that Johnson was a deeply flawed leader to a realisation that he might actually be forced out.

With its cloak-and-dagger comings and goings of senior figures, Associated Newspapers has of late resembled the court of the Medicis. But it seems Ted Verity, the editor of the Mail, perhaps with the support of his editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, has done the moral calculus and decided that an untrustworthy and hypocritical PM is preferable to the alternatives – in particular, a resurgent Keir Starmer, about whom the Mail ran two scolding front pages.

Whatever the reason, it’s a significant decision. The Mail prides itself on taking a strong moral line in tune with “middle England”, and here it has gone against its instincts. Presumably, the thinking is that the public will soon tire of the party revelations. That might be an optimistic assumption.

Marr believes details of the parties amount to much more than a fanfare of gossip. “It’s a very rare story, which is certainly about events deep inside the Westminster village but goes to the heart of millions of people’s ordinary experiences during the pandemic. That’s why it was so dangerous for Boris Johnson,” he says.

The reason it has kept going is not because of any great appetite for knowledge of the social arrangements within No 10, but because it exposes the double standard of “do as you are told, not as I do”. That’s never an attractive look. During the sacrifices of lockdown it could turn out to be fatally ugly.

Daily Telegraph news page with the headline: Downing Street partied as Queen and country mourned death of Prince Philip
Page 7 of the Daily Telegraph, 14 January Photograph: No Credit

One of the complexities in the media’s reporting of this story is the position of the BBC. With Johnson’s most devoted loyalist, culture secretary Nadine Dorries, preparing to scrap the licence fee, the corporation has never been under greater threat of being dismantled. Martinson says it’s “desperately difficult” for the corporation, and wonders if the hovering axe has had a subconscious effect on its response.

Another media observer is adamant that the corporation has been timid in pursuing the story. “They’ve shown little appetite for it,” he says.

Marr, who left the BBC last year after 21 years, disagrees. “You’ve got several hundred top-rate journalists competing to break these stories and you can’t turn to any one organisation and say they didn’t get the stories so therefore they’re not trying. I think the BBC has done fine.”

The same can be said for most newspapers. Although staunchly Tory and a supporter of Johnson’s, the Telegraph has actively pursued this story. It exposed the parties which arguably did most damage with traditional Conservative supporters: the two boozy events held in Downing Street the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral.

After the veteran MP David Davis’s intervention last week, calling on Johnson to resign, it led with a sober assessment of Johnson’s plight and ran a sympathetic interview with Davis inside. Likewise, the Sunday Times and the Times, less to the right than the Telegraph but still firmly Conservative, have not shied from putting Johnson and his flailing No 10 regime under the spotlight.

A conspicuous exception to this robust approach is the Times newspapers’ stablemate, the Sun. When Johnson was avoiding saying whether he attended the No 10 garden party, the paper ran a rather lame front page with the headline “It’s my party and I’ll lie low if I want to”. Inside it suggested he should go if he didn’t sort out the problem, but last week it was back to solid support, with feelgood front pages about dropping Covid restrictions.

Instead, its main target has been another character who has also had to apologise to the Queen recently: Prince Andrew. That may well be because royals sell more tabloids than politicians, even one as populist and media-savvy as Johnson. But there could also be another disincentive for the paper to make a fuss.

One of the two events that took place on 21 April last year, on the eve of Philip’s funeral, was a leaving do for director of communications James Slack. By all accounts it was a lively affair, with staff sent out to fill a suitcase with alcohol as lockdown measures remained in place. Shortly afterwards, Slack began his new job – as deputy editor of the Sun.


Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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