PPerhaps the most surprising aspect of the crisis surrounding Boris Johnson is how long it has taken for it to unfold. Almost by definition, any party that 100 people are invited to is not a secret event. And this “almost” can be removed if the guests work in politics. Yet for more than 18 months, the public ignored the Prime Minister’s presence at the infamous No 10 social gathering on May 20, 2020 – and even the rally itself.
The journalist who first wrote about Downing Street parties during lockdown, the DailyMirrorPolitical editor Pippa Crerar had first heard about it almost a year earlier. She said it took 11 months to defend the story, although the Mirror maybe also waited for a convenient time. With Johnson under pressure after the Owen Paterson fiasco, that moment has duly arrived.
The key point, however, in the age of social media, is that the story didn’t leak. It is said in Westminster that two pro-Tory journalists also attended social gatherings in Downing Street. Rumors circulated. Nevertheless, there were no revealing Instagram photos or blogs, no viral internet rumors. New media played a minimal role in uncovering the blatant disregard for government rules and national laws by Johnson and his staff. Rather, what ultimately brought public attention to that boozy May Day and the various other lockdown festivities was the work of the oft-ridiculed mainstream media.
As media scholar and commentator Jane Martinson puts it: “The relationship between Fleet Street and Downing Street is interesting, but we wouldn’t have discovered any of these stories without the journalists.
It was ITV News that told the story of the email sent by the Prime Minister’s private secretary, Martin Reynolds, to dozens of staff at No 10, urging them to ‘make the most of the good weather and bring their own booze to the garden party. the Guardian posted the photo of another wine and cheese meeting which took place five days earlier in the garden of No 10; the Independent discovered that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had attended a rally, which meant he had to recuse himself from the investigation currently being carried out by Sue Grey; and the The telegraph of the day told us about two parties hosted by Downing Street staff that took place on April 21, the night before the Queen attended Prince Philip’s funeral, seated alone.
As well as challenging Johnson’s position, “partygate,” as it is inevitably called, also showed the old-fashioned strengths of the broadcast media and the press when it comes to establishing facts. We may have to wait for Gray’s report to find out if Johnson knew a gathering of about 40 people drinking alcohol was (a) a party and (b) against the rules he ordered the rest of nation to follow, but it’s thanks to television and print reporters that we know there was a rally, that Johnson was there, and that there were 40 others.
It is, ironically, Johnson’s potential lifeline. The PM, after all, is a former journalist, someone who knows all about news cycles and the different ways to distract and divert press attention. If he and his allies can present partygate as a media confection, as gossip disguised as news, while focusing on the success of the recall campaign, the drop in Covid numbers and the relative health of the UK economy among members of the G7, he may be able to weather the storm.
Veteran broadcaster and journalist Andrew Marr believes that although the story has entered a lull, it is far from over and will not be until Gray’s report is delivered. “It could be a wet squib and the rebellion against Boris Johnson is collapsing like an old meringue,” he says. “Or it could move everything forward. I don’t think anyone knows yet.
But if Johnson’s attempt to change the agenda is to work, he will need the media to get his message across. This is where the plot develops and the values of the news are weighed against political expediency.
A study of two Daily mail the first few pages a week apart illustrate this point. On January 12, he ran with the ominous question: “Is the party over for the Prime Minister?” The article was dark and spoke of “draining support”, a “fierce reaction” from aggrieved families and Johnson “engulfed” by the crisis.
Eight days later, he placed a front-page leader’s comment denouncing a “narcissistic scum of Tory MPs” trying to unseat a Prime Minister “who is taking us out of Covid” and ended with the demand: “In the name of God, grow up!” There was a visible progression from acknowledging that Johnson was a deeply flawed leader to realizing that he could in fact be kicked out.
With its capricious comings and goings of top officials, Associated Newspapers has recently resembled the court of the Medici. But it seems that Ted Verity, the editor of the To post, perhaps with the support of its editor, Paul Dacre, did the moral math and decided that an untrustworthy and hypocritical PM is preferable to the alternatives – in particular, a resurgent Keir Starmer, about whom the To post ran a reprimanding first two pages.
Whatever the reason, it’s an important decision. the To post prides himself on taking a strong moral line in tune with ‘Middle England’, and here he went against his instincts. Presumably, the thought is that the public will soon tire of party revelations. This may be an optimistic assumption.
Marr thinks the holiday details are more than a gossip fanfare. “This is a very rare story, certainly about events deep within the Village of Westminster, but going to the heart of the ordinary experiences of millions of people during the pandemic. That’s why it was so dangerous for Boris Johnson,” he says.
The reason he continued is not because of a great appetite for knowledge of the social arrangements within No 10, but because he exhibits the double standard of “do as you are told, not what I do”. It’s never an attractive look. During the sacrifices of containment, it could turn out to be deadly ugly.
One of the complexities of media reporting on this story is the BBC’s position. With Johnson’s most dedicated loyalist, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, preparing to scrap licensing fees, the company has never been more at risk of being broken up. Martinson says it’s “desperately difficult” for society and wonders if the hovering ax had a subconscious effect on his response.
Another media observer is adamant that the company has been coy in pursuing the story. “They showed little appetite for it,” he says.
Marr, who left the BBC last year after 21 years, disagrees. “You have several hundred top journalists competing to publish these stories and you can’t go to one organization and say they didn’t understand the stories, so they’re not trying. I think the BBC did well.
The same can be said for most newspapers. Although staunchly conservative and a supporter of Johnson’s, the Telegraph actively pursues this story. He revealed the parties that arguably did the most damage with traditional Tory supporters: the two boozy events held in Downing Street the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral.
After veteran MP David Davis intervened last week calling on Johnson to resign, he led to a sober assessment of Johnson’s plight and conducted a sympathetic interview with Davis inside. Likewise, the Sunday time and the Time, less to the right than the Telegraph but still staunchly conservative, have been quick to put Johnson and his restless No. 10 diet in the spotlight.
A notable exception to this robust approach is the Time newspaper stable mate, the Sun. As Johnson avoided saying whether he attended Garden Party No. 10, the newspaper ran a rather lame front page with the headline, “It’s my party and I’ll hide if I want.” Inside he suggested he should go if he doesn’t fix the problem, but last week he was back to solid support, with first pages of well-being about dropping restrictions on Covid.
Instead, her primary target has been another character who also had to apologize to the Queen recently: Prince Andrew. That may be because members of the royal family sell more tabloids than politicians, even one as populist and high-profile as Johnson. But there could also be another deterrent to the newspaper’s fuss.
One of two events that took place on April 21 last year, the day before Philip’s funeral, was the departure of communications director James Slack. By all accounts it was a bustling affair, with staff sent in to fill a suitcase with booze as lockdown measures remained in place. Soon after, Slack started his new job – as deputy editor of the Sun.