Strife between Johnson and the press is a good thing
“I’m a journalist, I love journalism,” Boris Johnson told the Commons on Wednesday, after Jeremy Corbyn had accused him of “shutting newspapers out of Number Ten”.
Corbyn was referring to a cack-handed attempt on Monday by Downing Street to bar some media organisations from a Brexit briefing.
The reporters who were going to be admitted quite rightly refused to attend the briefing, and instead showed solidarity with their excluded colleagues.
This and other skirmishes indicate that some in Number Ten, far from loving journalism, hold it in contempt, and wish to see what they can get away with.
They reckon they do not need the parliamentary lobby, or the traditional broadcasters, and can communicate direct with the public via social media.
In some ways, their hostility is to be welcomed. The iconoclasts in Number Ten who take their cue from Dominic Cummings, and admire their own boldness in defying the established media, are actually expressing the traditional hostility of those in power towards those who seek to hold them to account.
It is normal for Prime Ministers and their staff to consider themselves misrepresented and persecuted by the press: a story told by Lance Price in his account of the battles between Downing Street and the media since Lloyd George came to power in 1916.
Stanley Baldwin loathed the press barons, Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, of whom he said in an interview in 1924, in words he did not intend to see quoted: “They are both men I would not have in my house.”
Baldwin gave no more interviews after that indiscretion, and refused to speak to the parliamentary lobby journalists as a group either on or off the record, though he did have certain favoured individuals through whom he got his story out.
And he became a master of a new medium, radio, by which he could talk in a reasonable and affable tone directly to millions of people.
So too Johnson, with his mastery of social media, by which he speaks directly to millions of people without the press getting in the way.
Just now, Johnson is in the ascendant. He has confounded his critics and won a solid majority. At Prime Minister’s Questions, one sees him relaxing into his role and proclaiming his love of every good cause, even journalism.
This could all become too cosy. The public interest requires a press prepared to speak out in ways which infuriate those in authority.
No Prime Minister should take what the press says too much to heart, but all should treat it is a valuable early warning system, directing attention to grievances which if ignored and allowed to fester will do mortal damage.
As Churchill remarked: “Criticism in the body politic is like pain in the human body. It is not pleasant, but where would the body be without it?”
Parliamentary journalists are right to protest when jacks in office try to block or restrict useful channels of communication.
But some of the best journalists make scant use of those channels anyhow. One thinks of the late Tony Bevins, first political editor of The Independent, who turned his back on the lobby system.
Johnson benefited, during his rise to power, from the exaggerated criticism he received from parts of the press. This struck many voters as unfair, concealed from his opponents the threat he posed, and encouraged low expectations which he was able to exceed.
But now that he is ensconced in Number Ten, he deserves as fierce (though also, in its way, admiring) a scrutiny as he himself directed 30 years ago at Jacques Delors while working as a correspondent in Brussels.
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