Yesterday, the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps led the daily Downing Street press conference with news of new transport infrastructure to help us in the current crisis and beyond. But the mainstream media used up all of their questions to ask about the decision by the Prime Minister’s adviser, Dominic Cummings, to isolate himself and his family in Durham, rather than in London, when his wife fell ill with Covid-19.
Today, Mr Shapps was booked to appear on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show and Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday. Yet again, the questions were all about Mr Cummings. “We’ll talk about transport another time,” Marr told Shapps.
Andrew Marr also interviewed Pippa Crerar of the Daily Mirror, the paper which originally broke the Cummings story. The Mirror had spent three weeks, she told us, pursuing it. Three weeks! Why? Because, she explained, this wasn’t a story about Cummings breaking the rules: it was about restoring faith in the lockdown when so many millions of people had endured so much pain and discomfort to support it.
That, of course, is the same nonsense excuse that the Sun used back in 2012 to justify showing a naked photo of Prince Harry. The Sun said they were showing us the picture in order to aid discussion about whether the press should publish the picture.
If public faith in the lockdown has been undermined by Cummings’ behaviour, it is only because newspapers have publicised what he did. If they really wanted to maintain public faith whilst the lockdown is ongoing, they would notify No 10 of their findings (so that the PM could take action, or not, as the case may be) and the press would then sit on the story for a few weeks in the interest of public health.
Don’t misunderstand me: as a believer in press freedom, I accept that the press has every right to publish the story now. But sometimes there is a greater public interest in the press exercising the right not to publish something. The job of a newspaper editor entails regular decision-making over what to publish and what not to. There are many stories they choose to delay publishing – or not to publish at all.
I have never met Dominic Cummings. If I am to believe everything I have read about him over the years he has been in the public eye, there is a lot to dislike about him, not least his arrogance. But it is probably impossible to take all the flack that he takes and still carry on in his job without developing a very thick skin, which could easily be mistaken for arrogance. (Or he could just be arrogant.)
I’d like us to get through the health crisis as much intact as a country (and a world) as possible – in terms of both our health and our wealth. The Prime Minister has been physically wounded by the virus and I suspect he is far from fully recovered as yet. If the PM needs Dominic Cummings as an adviser in order to help the government function, I would prefer Cummings to stay in post, at least for the time being.
I don’t know whether Cummings’ decision to relocate to Durham was motivated by selfishness, coupled with a belief that he is untouchable, or a genuine conviction – possibly a misguided one – that being close to his family was the best way to protect a four year old son in the event that both parents ended up in hospital. But I do firmly believe that the way the mainstream media is handling themselves this weekend isn’t making the best use of the press freedom, which they (and I) cherish so deeply.
[Update 1: An expanded version of this article was published on Inforrm on 25 May 2020.]
[Update 2: I amended the title of this post on 31 May 2020, inserting “faith in the lockdown” in place of “confidence”. The original title gave the impression to some readers that I was debating whether the press had undermined confidence in the government rather than the effect on lockdown.]