Hunt the Cummings: In Love and War, bid a Farewell to Arms

It was 10 p.m. The tumbler of whisky glimmered in the stark light of the desk lamp as smoke rose curlingly from the cigarette dangling precariously on the edge of the makeshift tin can ashtray.

The typewriter lay exhausted. Exhausted by the frenetic and painful hammering of nicotine-stained fingers as they poured out the story that was supposed to be dropping through the doors of the great, the good and maybe the interested, ready for the breakfast tables of the nation. This was a good story.

Those fingers had strained hard to ensure that each word written was crafted by the facts, not by opinion. ‘Stained Fingers’ had learnt the first rule of journalism – ensure the accuracy of the facts.

As his editor strove to remind him daily whilst yelling through the open door of his office into the newsroom; “there’s no point coming in first if you’re wrong.”

This was why he was here as the deadline loomed and the darkness enveloped the smoky room. This was why journalism was hard because facts are not easy to find and he knew that if he wanted easy then he should have become a novelist.

The Dominic Cummings affair appears to have subsided – until the next time, and there will be a next time. There has been a great deal of heat and very little light on this story. Cummings has never been elected, although he undoubtedly has a great deal of power. But why when the media could have gone after those who had clearly broken lockdown and done so from their positions as elected Members of Parliament (Kinnock, Duffield etc.) was the hounding of Cummings and his family so incessant and divisive. There must be more to this than a simple influential adviser who may or may not have broken some rules.

I have said before that the media is reaching a crisis point. It is struggling to understand its role in a world of constant information flows, citizen journalism, twitter and all the other factors that have battered this once honourable practice. I worked with a former showbiz editor who could remember Fleet Street and the excitement of working late in the office and hearing the presses start to roll as they shook the building, all the while knowing it was their words and their journalism that was starting its journey to the nation. Today, for political broadcast media, the excitement seems to be around who can shout loudest outside Number 10 for the 10 O’clock news, knowing that few people will actually be watching. 

Celebrity journalism needs to decide what is more important: them or the news. There are good exceptions in the UK where journalism can still hold its head high and I have met some excellent journalists who I know resent what has happened. When you look at journalism around the world many countries have adapted well to this change. Informed and fact-based journalism can be seen, surprisingly, in the US where the The Washington Post and The New York Times continue as bastions of good long-form reporting. The UK has not fared so well.

As high quality journalism has receded behind firewalls (why does my Time subscription cost £26 a month and my NYT one just £2 a month?) and the life cycle of stories has shrunk, more and more journalists either cling to stories that don’t really stand up or peddle stories that are meaningless to many people.

One could argue that this is a sign of the times in a world where so much of what we consume is disposable that news is no different. The consequences for journalism are dire and the invocation of rolling news has meant that facts rarely count for much, whereas unsubstantiated rumours from whistleblowers become exciting. Therein lies the problem; we have moved from reportage of the news to commentary on rumours – and thus the press resembles nothing more than one of those strange twitter bubbles you sometimes stumble across, spend too much time reading and then wish you hadn’t.

The Dominic Cummings story has hit the peak of this problem for the media. He dislikes the media. In fact, many politicians dislike the media and are constantly finding reasons to decry its behaviour. The problem is that Government and politicians need to be challenged and the media could be a force for good in this regard if only it wasn’t committed to pursuing entertainment. A Cummings media would give people the facts and let them use their common sense to make a judgement. What the press does is give people its view of the facts based on what journalists think they have heard or what they have been told ‘privately’.

The Cummings affair is only superficially about travels to Durham or even weird loyalty to an adviser. This is about the media – and Cummings’ desire to see the media broken. He has little respect for journalists, sees them as the reason that the UK is held back and just wishes they would do their job in reporting the news, not pretending that speculation and interpretation is news. Since his time at Vote Leave, his mission has been to crush and change the media, because he saw how out of touch they were with those outside of the London-centric media circus. By the way, moving the BBC to Salford does not make it less London centric, that’s just about geography and accents.

Since Boris became PM we have seen the press regularly excluded from No. 10, changes to the daily lobby that see some journalists kept out, and abject horror from the media when it was announced that the lobby briefings could be broadcast. Ministers have been banned from both TV and radio stations which practice the renowned ‘gotcha’ approach, rather than reasoned debate.

Finally came the indignity to the mainstream media of members of the public getting to ask questions at the daily briefing. This is all part of a pattern of breaking them.

The left-leaning papers resorted to reporting unsubstantiated ‘facts’ as news, which proved to be untrue, adding to the media’s pain. This has become a power struggle and the media believes that taking Cummings down will mean the Government changes its attitude toward the journalistic fraternity and allows them to retreat to their cosy cabal where they have more power than even the most well-respected Government adviser. 

Boris and Cummings both knew that a point would come when the media would go for Cummings – and to be fair they have been looking for an opportunity for months. The media misjudged this because the issue they picked a fight over is, in reality, not a catastrophic failure nor is it anywhere near enough to lead to a resignation. This is why No. 10 will not budge, this is why Cummings is going nowhere. It also explains why No. 10 led the press even deeper into their hole and this is why the media will find things getting even tougher for them. 

Public opinion is fickle, an election is four years away, people will move on and Boris will return to popularity. Even as I write this, the Conservatives are still ten points ahead of the opposition in the midst of a pandemic and on the edge of a crushing recession. The press went hunting Boris’ tiger, but missed…

“Cowards die a thousand deaths, but the brave only die once.”

― Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

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