In the month of May, Dominic Cummings’ name gripped to the headlines of the newspaper like sticky slime. His name never stayed out of anyone’s lips, as the nation raged and gossiped in a state of shock about his recent trips, leaked by the Daily Mirror. How could the Prime Minister’s closest special advisor, the man who orchestrated the successful campaign to Leave in the EU referendum, break the rules about the national imposed lockdown, when the virus was taking around one thousand deaths a day? When the nation stayed at home, some separated from their loved ones when they were needed the most, this man had taken a trip to Durham to visit his family and subsequently a castle, two hundred and sixty miles away from London?
Some may not have known who Dominic Cummings was until this point. He is an unelected special advisor, not a government minister that appears in the House of Commons or the Daily Press Conference. Some may have known him as an odd figure within the workings of government with odd hair and an odd sense of fashion. But after an unprecedented report by the newspaper the Daily Mirror which revealed he had allegedly drove two hundred and sixty miles from London to up north to Durham, his name smashed beyond the Westminster bubble of discourse, and into the general utterances of the country. So much so, that forty eight hours Cummings addressed the MSM (mainstream media) outlets and the nation live on television to explain his actions. An unelected special advisor to the Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson led to a government addressing the nation about his actions is an unheard of event, but as such are many events in these times. In this conference, he did not deny his actions and admitted that he did make that round trip, indeed also to Barnard Castle. He explained that both his wife and himself were falling ill with suspected COVID-19 symptoms, and was worried about who would care for their child if they both became very ill. With no childcare seemingly in London,despite it being the capital of the country and so heavily populated, they made a two hundred and sixty mile trip to Durham where his parents resigned, in case there was a need for emergency childcare. On the way back from this round trip as the whole nation was staying at home, Dominic felt sick thirty miles into the journey so they decided to stop and get some fresh air, conveniently at a local beauty spot named Barnard Castle, on his wife’s birthday. Although this explanation is logical in most social climates of the world, this isn’t most social climates. Not in the pandemic of COVID-19. Instead, this is a slap in the face to anyone who had to struggle without childcare for any particular reason, couldn’t be with their parents in whatever setting, or couldn’t be with their loved ones as they passed away alone. Families adapted in menacing ways because they wanted to keep to the instructions from the government in the middle of a devastating pandemic. This particular individual however who indeed helped draft the government’s strategy could not keep to his own rules.
There have been hundreds of articles written about the ‘scandal’ of Dominic Cummings, defences and critiques. Analysis has surrounded Cummings’ intentions, the truth and the lies, Prime Minister Johnson’s absolute defence in his special advisor, the police response to the breaking of the rules and so on. This blog post however will not focus on these things. Instead, I am going to talk about the effects of this scandal, and how Cummings is managing to turn public discourse from an inquiry of his breaches of lockdown measures into a war against the UK press and journalists.
Cummings has had a long term sceptical view of the media, and a long term advocate of the fake news trend that according to him is infecting large quarters of the British press and their reports. A term used by President of the United States Donald Trump (commonly using term ‘you are fake news’ in response to the questions that he does not like.’ Cummings is a fierce advocator of this movement and will take the time to slate the press whenever they can for what he believes are fake news stories, misinforming the masses but also misleading public anger towards the voting individuals.
After some research, in the form of going through Dominic Cummings blog, this became all too evident. In the ‘About’ section of his blog, detailing who he is and what job occupations he has previously held, he emphasises that he ‘left‘ his previous position, as Michael Gove’s special advisor while Gove was Education Secretary. He explains this emphasis by saying he had a need to inform the BBC that he was not fired as they would ‘put me in the list of people that were fired as they tend to do’ with ‘they’ referring to the mainstream media. This clearly shows that he believes the media with the BBC in particular are eager to build a negative reputation surrounding his image, entirely based on lies and ‘scandals’ of potential sackings. Deeper research offers seen more critical descriptions of the institution of the media. Cummings in his blog post about how the civil service can learn from the Apollo Space Missions conducted by the space institution NASA in the 1950s and 1960s claims that the media is a ‘programme largely to spread confusion’ and is ‘dominated by a political culture of fairly tales and little understanding.’ *
- A sidenote: can I also add here that in the same blog post he heavily criticises civil servants at Whitehall for ‘going on holiday mid meltdown’ which in the light of his recent actions I find heavily ironic.
Comparing the media to living in a fairytale explicitly shows that Cummings view of the media is that they live in an alternative universe reporting false stories and false lies that are not true to real life, and they make their audience look through a blurred lense towards the actions of the government. Moreover, in November 2019 Cummings published a ‘bat signal’ post on his blog. The majority of his posts are written in as if he were a scholar writing an essay piece, but this blog post uses a simpler layout compared to the chunky paragraphs of his previous essays, and less jargon when talking politics due to it being designed to appeal to the general electorate who typically do not read such material for entertainment. When talking about the dangers of Labour winning the 2019 general election, he claims that ‘politics would never be off the TV.’ Due to the blog post having over one thousand and eight hundred shares on Facebook, the importance of this sentence cannot be undermined. Here, Cummings takes a different approach compared to his previous criticisms about the media. He is not explicitly critiquing the media, but he is implying how the media seem to have a magnifying glass on the subject and happenings of Politics, perhaps compared to years previously. He seems to be implying that Politics being on the TV is a bad thing, and people would rather watch other programmes than at least be informed about the political news stories of the day. His desire to seemingly keep the electorate masses as little informed as possible and centralising the power over decisions with less scrutiny within the government is becoming all too evident.
Finally, in more recent times, his address to the nation about his breaching of the nationwide lockdown rules was littered with subtle bashing towards the media and the press, saying that the media tend to report and overhype stories, referring to the allegations of himself breaking lockdown rules which dominated every headline. The references to the media were not accidental, and they had two effects. Not only was Cummings desperate to try and save his own reputation and keep his occupation as one of the most powerful people in the UK government, he was also trying to stir up public opinion against the media and the newspaper press in particular for ever portraying him as a rule breaking, criminal villain. The Daily Mirror had ran the headline ‘a cheat and a coward’ a day earlier, referring to Cummings and then Johnson who defended Cummings actions by saying that ‘he had fatherly instincts’ in his press conference. Even The Daily Mail, a right wing newspaper by tradition, had been openly negative towards Cummings and his actions. To Cummings, the press are evil witch hunters picking out a man they do not like to force him out of government and politics in general, his influence lost. He has long thought this opinion, but the ‘scandal’ that developed in May 2020 set it to boiling point. The two motivators in the first place were to minimise political damage and to swerve public anger down the road of those who are holding him accountable.
Clearly then, Cummings view of the mainstream media in the United Kingdom is astonishingly negative, criticising the press for their overbearing focus on the political world, living in a fairytale and witch-hunting those that they do not like. The million dollar question though is whether his stance is having influence on the general public, especially after the events of Cummings breaking the lockdown rules. Did the way that Cummings played out his response to the media (the way he answered questions, the way he told the press to socially distance) turn more of the general public against the media? Are they starting to view the media negatively, becoming critical of their reports about Politics? Or, are they pressing a button on the TV remote to watch Love Island on another channel? Negative talk about the media is not new on both sides of the political spectrum, but it seems to be stirring and becoming more powerful than ever before.
A lead advocate for the British right wing of the political spectrum and ex-manager of the Institute for Economic Affairs, Darren Grimes, took to the social media platform Twitter to emphasise his disgust towards how the press had handled the ‘scandal’ calling the ‘mainstream media’ ‘monsters, utter monsters’ and ‘a ‘disgrace.’ Notorious for being a bubble of social unrest, he is not alone on this social media platform concerning his disdain for the press. The Cummings press conference resulted in individuals tweeting about how Dominic Cummings had ‘taken the press down one by one’ and ‘destroyed them’ (‘them’ being the journalists present at the conference) as if he was a world champion heavyweight boxer. Away from the Cummings scandal, another Twitter user named ‘goody uk’ when tweeting about a Coronavirus daily press briefing later on in the day on 11th June asked their followers: ‘will Keun the Loon be on an irrelevant attack again?’ In reference to BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg.’ They also ask ‘will Angry Sam Coates be able to almost burst another blood vessel?’ Referencing the Sky News’ Deputy Political Editor, Sam Coates. This tweet is then hasthtagged ‘media scum.’ This is not the only incident of something like this. Although this tweet may be seen in jest, it is a worrying trend within social media and within our society in general that without doubt is in a serious manner. Do our journalists no longer have credibility in the media eye? Is the image repair? If people are taking the current Tory government line of being hostile to the press (look no further than the nicknamed silence button to cut journalists off that was used in the Coronavirus briefings to find your hostility), then who does that leave to hold the government to account and give us coverage of politics? The mainstream media has it’s many faults and has received criticism from individuals of all the ideological tendencies, but at the end of the day we rely on it to give us reliable information. Away from social media discourse, this perspective has been growing among journalists themselves, writing in information outlets such as ‘Spiked.’ This is the case of Daily Telegraph columnist and Editor of Spiked Online and former Marxist Brendan O’Neil, , who in his 29th May column (when the Cummings scandal was at boiling point) calls the Financial Times ‘morbid death watchers’ who ‘seem to relish their daily revelations of the death stats.’ The use of ‘relish’ in this description is absolutely appalling. It implies that a newspaper outlet in the UK anticipates hearing about the latest death toll. What is being forgotten here is that behind every newspaper media institution there are journalists who are just as impacted by COVID-19 as the rest of the world. Take the name ‘Financial Times’ out and substitute a name into O’Neil’s statement, such as ‘Jack relishes the death statistics.’ It’s borderline implying that the ‘media’ look forward to hear about the passing away of people. Is this really what we have come to? If the mortality statistics are used in any way, they are used to hold the government to accountable over their mishandled, U-turned and overall disgusting handling of the pandemic. Rightly so, as many lives could have been saved if the actions of the government were at a quicker pace.
The growing outlook towards our British press are ‘individuals that engage in their own self importance’ and if you happen to become a journalist in this current climate, side effects may be ‘oversized ego, lack of integrity and talent at being offended by everything’ as a ‘Spoofed’ video exclaims. In the replies to this video, individuals join in with the hashtag ‘scum media’ as if the trend is some sort of members club and they need to use this hashtag to show their support for the degrading image of the media. This trend also stretches beyond political reports. Newspaper outlets of every kind are now accused of pushing their ‘agendas’ (presumably liberal agendas) on to the general public, to seemingly hypnotise people into being lefty loony snowflakes. To find evidence of these accusations of agenda, look no further then in the comments under a BBC article that reports about successful UK rapper Stormzy and his efforts to help the Children In Need charity. The comments discuss how the BBC is pushing a ‘Marxist agenda’ for what reporting on this, with one particular angry individual saying that the BBC is pushing ‘an anti white narrative’ and exclaims he will now be boycotting the charity due to them supposedly being anti white due to working with Stormzy. This level of extremity is again very common, with individuals being seemingly desperate to accuse news outlets of acting with no imparality, and instead with agendas of all sorts.
But… how much of this discontent among the media is realistic?
You might be asking yourself after reading the first three parts of this blog how it all links together. Sure, there may be growing discontent around the media for supposedly being liberal and pushing their agendas, with the majority of these accusations coming from a noisy corner of the far-right. But how does Dominic Cummings fit in with all of this? The way the media handled his breach of lockdown rules did provoke many of the hashtag ‘Scum Media’ members club to rage, but how is Cummings as an individual orchestrating this wave of media hatred? He may hold these views himself, but how is he, as the government’s special advisor and Boris Johnson’s closest ally in the political world, imposing his views on the rest of society? There’s two answers to this, one which has always been discussed. The government themselves, which was demonstrated most explicitly in the COVID-19 daily briefing, treated journalists with hostility, by silencing them from asking follow up questions or with subtle digs to try and make the holding to accountability a game. For instance, current Education Secretary Gavin Williamson replied to Sam Coates about the reopening of UK schools with the line ‘I’m sorry you seem so confused.’ The apology following by the use of the adjective ‘confused’ labels the journalist, in this case Sam Coates, as small and portrays his question as being ridiculous when it was simply a follow up about the schools. It portrays the questions they ask, the reports they write and their general image of being ridiculous, far from being individuals that hold the government to account for answers. This trends continues across the government in terms of media hostility, with a constant refusal from ministers to feature on programs such as News-night and Good Morning Britain, and up until recently BBC Radio Four’s signature Today Programme. Instead, government ministers appear on programmes such as This Morning, as Gavin Williamson did on the morning of the A-Level results being released. Although this particular programme does attract a big audience, it is unlikely to hold any of the government ministers truly accountable compared to the more mainstream media programmes listed above. Although the avoidance of these programs could be seen as a political ploy to avoid the supposedly ‘liberal’ institutions, it also sends the message that the government are not happy with these mainstream programmes, and will thus not appear. And if the government are not happy with them, the public shouldn’t be either. Again, the negativity towards the mainstream media seems to be brimming.
We have discussed certain social media groups that are amplifying towards the country’s media institutions such as the Media Scum hashtag, but are the general public throughout the country following the trend? Many academics seem to think so. A recent study conducted by IPSOS Global Advisor in 2019 found that in Great Britain, only 5% of the public had ‘Great Trust’ in newspapers and magazines, with 32% having ‘not must trust’ and 13% having ‘no trust at all.’ A look at the past few years also shows that people in the UK now have less of a trust in newspaper and magazines compared to what they did before, with 23% saying this is how they felt. 13% said that they now trusted the media ‘a lot less’ compared to five years ago. A similar trend has also occurred surrounding television and radio media, with 19% saying they trust these forms of media less compared to five years ago. The impact that Cummings has had on these attitudes can be debated due to the widespread amount of possible factors that have contributed to the increase in negative views, but his impact cannot be discarded. He has made his views clear, the government that he is special advisor to is making their views clear, and it seems that the public are now also making their views increasingly clear as we enter this new decade.
What can be done?
The current way that some of the mainstream media operates in this country is without doubt in need of repair. Our press in this country has many, many faults and codes of practice that need to be addressed. Every week seems to bring a new event in which the majority of us are appalled by the way that our media behaves. In August of this year, many of the main media outlets sent out reporters on boats to film immigrants coming in to the UK in dinghies, clearly struggling on the choppy waters as the reporters just stood and talked as the immigrants were celebrity contestants entering the ‘I’m A Celebrity…!’ jungle. To show the true extent of media malpractice, if you asked me to picture the front of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s house, I could picture it quickly. If you asked me to picture special advisor to the government Dominic Cummings’ house, I could picture his quickly too. It is quite likely that you also may be able to do this. However, if you asked me to picture the front of Priti Patel’s, Gavin Williamson’s or Matt Hancock’s houses, all current government ministers, I would struggle- and so I should. This shows the extent to which the media indeed does occasionally ‘witch hunt’ extensively any target that it decides to acquire and invade their personal privacy of their home. Whatever political beliefs you hold, whatever point of the spectrum you are on, this is likely to anger you.
However, I don’t hold an entirely negative view towards the press, and I don’t agree with the motives that Cummings, or the government for that matter, is displaying. His comments on his blog post portray that he wants the masses to switch off from politics, and the line of thinking that he clearly wants the majority of the public to adopt is right-wing conservative thinking, like his. He sees the media as being poisonous, too liberal, being repair, and a disease to our country feeding false lies to the public with their reports being sent down dirty sewer pipes.
The mainstream media in the country is needed. In times of government incompetence, the press must be there to give the public valuable information on how the government are acting, ultimately putting the pressure on those in power to make a change or U-turn on a policy. Without the media, we would not have an opportunity at accountability and the government could make decisions and be relatively unscathed. Take the example of the A-level exams algorithm. On A-level Results Day, many journalists shared stories on social media and in their news reports of students that had been disadvantaged by their background and thus missed out on their university offers, although it was a statistical impossibility for them to achieve these grades in the first place due to past performances in their sixth form. Many cases were taken up that day and continued to be into the weekend and beyond, including my own. I particularly point to the work of BBC News-night Editor Lewis Goodall here, who used his social media account and his News-night report to share stories of individual cases of students that were disadvantaged by this system. This is good journalism. This is what we as a nation need more of. It needs to be less about reporting on the latest ‘scandal’ but instead on the government’s decisions that negatively affect the entirety of population or particular groups. Could the Conservative government U-turn on the way the A-level and GCSE grades have occurred due to the negative public opinion without the media acting in this way? Possibly. The role that the media played in this particular saga however was to voice people’s opinions, to show how the government had disadvantaged so many young pupils. Even the notoriously right wing and government supporting Daily Mail amplified these stories and the incompetence of the Department of Education in the government.
This is what we need more of. Less scandal and sensationalism stories about ‘gossip’ surrounding the Prime Minister’s family. Less harassment of MPs, special advisors and anyone in a position of power outside their houses- they can be held accountable in much more different ways, more effective ways. Detailed scrutiny of the most important issues that are affected people’s lives due to policies that the government have set out, amplifying people’s names and stories to try and persuade the government to act is what is needed. Not only may this lead to government more U-turns, which have occured proven many times in Boris Johnson’s administration, but it also increases the likelihood of political education. The more accurate, unbiased and detailed reports focusing on the big important issues are of today there are, the more the public will be exposed to them and the more likely they will take an interest in these issues. This thus makes a very effective circle: more effective reports, more people taking notice, more increase in political education and more public pressure. The more this happens also, the more likely the respect for the media will go up around the country.
Perhaps we are putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps there needs to be a change in the institutions of the media and how they operate before the reports or practices themselves can change. Although who has ‘control’ of the reports that the big media mainstream newspapers publish and the media broadcasters show is debated, many academics have argued that media ‘moguls’ such as Rupert Murdoch play their part. They may set the ‘agenda’ that all journalists have to follow, including the practices that they undertake, which may be conservative and liberal. This is certainly what the Media Reform Coalition, or the MRC, believe. They advocate for a ‘movement for media reform’ saying that ‘too many are owned by billionaire moguls’ and they do not represent a ‘diverse range of people and views.’ For a ‘health functioning democracy’ there must be a ‘diverse and accountable media.’ In their various reports, they identify just how concentrated ownership of the media is within the mainstream, and it is an issue that needs ‘effective remedies’ and urgently to achieve a pluralistic and more diverse media that the public can rely on. In short, there is growing pressure for the media to reform, and it is likely that reform would eventually resort in gains of trust from a more diverse, reliable press that is a voice for change and accountability instead of either toeing the popular line or focusing on ‘silly stories.’
How this would be achieved is a difficult question, especially in during an administration of this kind. Could it be that a reform is needed in the form of Act of Parliament, to make it statute law? Is the issue worthy of a protest? Many people are commonly angry about the way the media may behave and report, but these are spaced out phases of anger- a flash in the pan. Would the issue start to be raised to a higher ground if there were protests deriving from accumulated anger? Will the views towards our mainstream media change in the next few years if there is a party in government, or will this change?
If the answers to all the questions above are ‘no’ then I can see there being a decline in the media further. A ‘press’ is most certainly needed in this country and as demonstrated it can be a source for change, education, debate and overall goodness added to our democratic society- it just needs considerable reform. And with the recent advertisements put out by the Conservative administration advertising a position for a new ‘Press Secretary’ in the government, basically meaning that the government are looking for a journalist mouthpiece who will toe the government and party line, a good press is needed now more than ever.
If you are reading this, I hope you enjoyed this quite lengthy blog post. There will be more to follow quite soon.