openDemocracyUK: Opinion

British journalists have become part of Johnson’s fake news machine

It’s chilling. From the Mail, The Times to the BBC and ITN, everyone is peddling Downing Street’s lies and smears. They’re turning their readers into dupes.

Peter Oborne
22 October 2019
Boris Johnson seen through railings
The great pretender?
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Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved

“Number 10 probes Remain MPs’ ‘foreign collusion’.” This huge banner headline dominated the front page of The Mail on Sunday on 29 September.

Turn to page 2 and “a senior No 10 source” was quoted in bold type: “The government is working on extensive investigations into Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin and Hilary Benn [who tabled the Bill] and their involvement with foreign powers and the funding of their activities. Governments have proper rules for drafting legislation, but nobody knows what organisations are pulling these strings.”

This story was granted huge prominence and followed up the next day by the Daily Express, Sun, Times and the alt-right news site Breitbart.

Nick Robinson didn’t ask the obvious question. Was there an investigation at all?

On the BBC’s ‘Today’ programme the following Tuesday, presenter Nick Robinson asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the investigation. Johnson gave credibility to the story when he declared there were “legitimate questions” to be asked of the MPs.

But Robinson didn’t ask the obvious question. Was there an investigation at all?

I rang Dominic Grieve. He told me he had not sought the help of any foreign government “in drafting and tabling a British statute”.

He added that he was “not in receipt of any sources of foreign funding”. Nor, he said, had he been contacted by Downing Street or anyone else about any investigation.

I then rang the Downing Street press office, and asked an official whether there was an investigation as stated in The Mail on Sunday.

He told me categorically: “No investigation.”

Yesterday a Cabinet Office spokesperson told openDemocracy: "There was never such an investigation."

In other words, the Mail on Sunday splash that Downing Street was investigating Grieve, Letwin and Benn was fabrication. Fake News.

There has, however, been no retraction from The Mail on Sunday. As far as the newspaper’s readers are concerned, the story remains true and the senior British politicians behind the Benn Act continue to be investigated for suspicious involvement with foreign powers.

Mail on Sunday front page 29 September 2019
Or maybe not | Mail on Sunday. All rights reserved.

A Mail on Sunday spokesperson yesterday told openDemocracy: “We stand firmly by our story. Two separate sources in Downing Street told us that officials in Number 10 were gathering evidence about allegations of foreign collusion by MPs opposed to a No Deal Brexit. When the prime minister was asked about our story on the BBC ‘Today’ programme on 1 October he responded that there were ‘legitimate questions to be asked about the generation of this legislation’.”

Of course this bogus story fitted like a glove with the dominant Downing Street narrative that the Benn Act – which ruled out a No Deal Brexit – was actually a ‘surrender act’ designed to thwart Brexit altogether.

There’s been a lot of this sort of thing over the past two months. Dodgy stories and commentary linked to Downing Street or government sources started to appear in the press and media after Johnson installed his own media team, which was largely drawn from the Vote Leave campaign that won the 2016 Brexit referendum.

With the prime minister’s evident encouragement these Downing Street or government sources have been spreading lies, misrepresentations, smears and falsehoods around Fleet Street and across the major TV channels. Political editors lap it all up.

Glen Owen, the political editor behind the Mail on Sunday banner headline, is a senior and respected journalist. Though he correctly wouldn’t comment on his sources when I approached him, I am sure he didn’t invent his “senior No 10 source”. He will certainly have been briefed by powerful people who worked inside Downing Street.

Nevertheless, his story was a fabrication. Not Glen Owen’s fabrication. One made up by his Downing Street source.

But Owen is not the only prominent political journalist to publish whoppers told to him by a Downing Street or ‘government source’.

Amber Rudd, Tim Shipman and the mysterious legal advice

Another case in point involves Amber Rudd, the former work and pensions secretary who stated after her resignation on 7 September that her repeated requests to see the attorney general’s legal advice on the prorogation of Parliament had been refused.

Two weeks later, Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman – who had broken the story of Rudd’s resignation – tweeted a “govt [government] source” saying: “Amber Rudd was given every opportunity to see the legal advice but chose to resign without doing so.”

Shipman’s ‘government source’ then accused Rudd of lying, saying: “It is utterly dishonest to suggest it was in anyway withheld.”

Tim Shipman allowed his Twitter account to be used as a vehicle for someone unknown to smear a prominent public figure

I asked Shipman on Twitter the status (not the name) of his source. He didn’t reply (he has a busy Twitter feed; perhaps he didn’t see my question), so I rang Rudd herself.

She told me that she had repeatedly asked to be given the legal advice, including on two occasions approaching attorney general Geoffrey Cox.

She was told again and again that she would be given it. When she was not, her private office told her that Downing Street senior adviser Dominic Cummings had intervened to ensure she was not shown it.

Rudd did tell me that on the eve of her resignation, she was told “that they would set up a reading room the following week to see part of that advice. I had no confidence that would take place given that I had been promised it so many times and had not received it.”

It remains the case that the claim made by Shipman’s government source that Rudd had been “given every opportunity to see the legal advice” was wholly untrue.

“I have no comeback. I can’t challenge them,” says Rudd. “There is no individual for me to take on. It feels dishonest.”

This brings us to the major problem with Shipman’s decision to share with his 130,000 Twitter followers a venomous remark made by an unnamed person accusing Rudd of dishonesty.

Had the comment been made on the record by an official government spokesperson Shipman would have been well within his rights.

The spokesperson would have been accountable for her or his allegation against Rudd. He or she could have been identified and questioned about it.

Instead Shipman allowed an unknown Whitehall figure to label Rudd a liar, while granting him or her complete impunity.

Put another way, he allowed his Twitter account to be used as a vehicle for someone unknown to smear a prominent public figure as dishonest.

When I put this point to Tim Shipman yesterday, he replied that he had “cooperated” with Amber Rudd to publish the details of her resignation, and had “prominently included her accusation that she had asked to see the government’s legal advice and been denied this access”.

However, he added, “the nature of the story was such that [her request to see the legal advice had] to be kept secret until the Saturday evening” which meant that it was “impossible” for him to approach Downing Street to ask about her accusation.

He added: “I was in no way smearing her, but I was providing a right of reply, which I would do before publication except in the circumstances described.”

“People can draw their own conclusions about the origin of the anonymous quotes which now pepper the 24-hour news cycle. Government spin doctors have always hidden behind anonymity to make negative points about their opponents and enemies. Reporters have a duty to tell the public what the government’s position is. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”

However, it is notable that Shipman operated a double standard. Amber Rudd gave her account of the circumstances leading up to her resignation on the record and in her own name. By contrast Shipman allowed a mysterious government source to make defamatory allegations that Rudd had been dishonest behind a cloak of anonymity.

This modus operandi, which allow pro-government narratives to enter the public domain unmediated by proper interrogation, has become routine among political reporters since Johnson and his Vote Leave media team entered Downing Street.

Hammond and Yellowhammer

An unpleasant and vicious example concerns the Downing Street smear campaign mounted against former chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond.

This started on 18 August after Sunday Times news reporter Ros Urwin published the leaked Yellowhammer dossier setting out the painful short-term disruption that would confront Britain in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

This story was embarrassing for Downing Street because it undermined its core strategy – threatening a No Deal Brexit.

The government hit back, saying Yellowhammer was an “old document”. This false claim was made first by Michael Gove, minister in charge of Brexit preparations, and later by Tory chairman James Cleverly.

At this point ‘a senior Number 10 source’ went into action alongside Gove, briefing journalists that the Yellowhammer dossier was out of date.

But this ‘source’ added the vicious twist that it had been “deliberately leaked by a former minister to influence discussions with EU leaders”.

The Downing Street source was saying, in so many words, that a minister in the Theresa May government had kept a copy of the Yellowhammer document and then leaked it.

The result was that most of the following day’s newspapers did not focus on the Yellowhammer disclosures about the dangers of a No Deal Brexit.

Instead most turned Yellowhammer into a whodunnit – which of May’s ministers had been the leaker?

For instance The Times headline read “Boris Johnson accuses ex-ministers over Brexit chaos leaks”.

The Daily Telegraph’s read “No-deal leak blamed on Hammond’s Remainers”.

Boris Johnson’s Downing Street media machine had thus achieved a double success. It had distracted attention away from the real story, namely that No Deal Brexit carried real dangers of economic disruption and civil disorder.

And at the same time, it had smeared political opponents.

Most newspapers dutifully pointed the finger at Hammond. The Daily Mail (for which I write a political column) reported: “A No 10 source blamed former frontbenchers led by Philip Hammond.”

The source was quoted as saying: “[The Yellowhammer dossier] has been deliberately leaked by a former minister in an attempt to influence discussions with EU leaders.”

This was a brilliantly successful if cynical media operation. But it soon became apparent that the leaked document was dated 2 August, nine days after the Boris Johnson government had entered office.

It was therefore mysterious how a member of the May government could have leaked Yellowhammer to the Sunday Times. The leak had occurred on Johnson’s watch, not May’s.

Hammond accordingly wrote to Johnson asking that Downing Street “withdraw these allegations which question our integrity, acknowledge that no former Minister could have leaked this document, and apologise for the misleading briefing from No. 10”.

Well over a month has passed since Hammond sent that letter. When I checked on Sunday with his office, I was told that the prime minister hadn’t replied.

No newspaper has yet written a story about the failure of Johnson to reply to Hammond’s letter. I expect that political journalists don’t want to upset valuable Downing Street sources.

The sorry story of the smearing of Philip Hammond is another example of how Boris Johnson’s media operation operates through deceit. How it relies on a compliant media to cooperate with that deceit – even when it knows the allegations are false.

There is an implicit deal. In return for access and information (much of it false) the political media spins a pro-government narrative.

This means that Johnson’s Downing Street can malign political opponents, lie about them and get away with it. But it can do this only because political journalists and editors allow it to.

BBC manipulated by Downing Street

It’s not just the print media which allow themselves to be manipulated by Boris Johnson’s Downing Street.

Take BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg’s reporting of the government’s formal submission to a Scottish court that Boris Johnson would comply with the so-called Benn Act, and so if need be request an extension of membership of the EU on 19 October, supposing no deal had been struck.

Clear enough, you would have thought. But, in the words of Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe, a think tank based at King’s College London, the prime minister’s submission “was accompanied at the same time by a breathless tweet thread by the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, reporting [a “senior No. 10 source”] clarifying that message.

“Yes, the government would comply with the ‘narrow’ provisions of the Benn Act – but the source went on to suggest that shadowy MPs were behind the act and that the government had ways of undermining it.

“And thus Number 10 perpetuated the prime ministerial paradox: that Boris Johnson will comply with the Benn Act and yet still leave the EU ‘do or die’, deal or no deal, on 31 October.”

Kuenssberg is therefore open to the criticism that she was being manipulated by Downing Street. Her tweets to her 1.1 million followers meant there were two government positions. One for the courts: that the government would obey the law. One passed on uncritically by the BBC political editor: that it would find a way to get round it. Kuenssberg’s tweets carried with them the implication that Johnson was deliberately deceiving a British court.

This compliance is part of a pattern. Political editors are so pleased to be given ‘insider’ or ‘exclusive’ information that they report it without challenge or question.

In response to these points, a BBC spokesperson yesterday said: “While our journalists always prefer on-the-record quotes, there is a well-established practice in politics of reporting information from unnamed sources to give audiences a greater sense of what is going on in Westminster.

“It should go without saying that reporting comments from anyone, be they source or named individual, is not the same as endorsing those comments. Similarly, taking a single Twitter thread out of context to try to prove a point is disingenuous and does a disservice to your readers.

“Laura Kuenssberg is a fantastic journalist who helps audiences make sense of the Brexit story with her in-depth analysis and expertise.”

Cummings’ communications

Another culprit is ITV News political editor Robert Peston, who regularly preens himself on his special insight into the mind of Boris Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings.

In a Twitter thread on 25 September, he cited a “senior government source” to the effect that there was a way for Johnson to avoid complying with the Benn Act.

According to Peston’s informant, Johnson “still believes he can lawfully render the Benn Act null and void” by sending a second letter to Brussels that would counteract the first.

Unmitigated nonsense, said legal experts. But the message Downing Street wanted was out there.

This has become a signature technique of the Johnson media machine. Officially no comment. Meanwhile it makes its views known to friendly political editors, who push them without much inspection or analysis out into the public domain.

When I put this point to Robert Peston, he gave a long response which is published separately on openDemocracy.

Jill Rutter, a former director of communications at the Treasury, notes: “That may be how Number 10 wants to operate: to allow the prime minister to look statesmanlike while the dodgier tactics emerge from an unnamed source.

“But this way of operating does the public a big disservice – it allows Downing Street to get its message out without having to take responsibility for it.

“These are not official words. The prime minister does not have to account for them. And there is no way to interrogate the source.”

It’s a classic case of what Johnson once called “having our cake and eating it”. This means that the British media are not just failing to hold him to account. They are not even trying. They are behaving as cheerleaders to the government. They are allowing the prime minister to get away with lies and dishonesty which they would never have permitted to his predecessor, Theresa May, let alone Jeremy Corbyn.

Part of this is paying a price for access. Much is sheer laziness. Broadcasters don’t bother to confront Johnson when he utters lies and falsehoods. One recent example among many: on 29 September Johnson told Andrew Marr that the Conservatives don’t “do deals with other parties”.

The Conservative Party struck a deal worth £1 billion with the Democratic Unionist Party in 2017. Before that, they spent five years in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Marr’s failure to challenge Johnson allowed the prime minister to get away with an obvious falsehood.

I have dealt only with the mainstream media in the examples I have given above. I have not looked at The Spectator political editor James Forsyth, who has inherited a position occupied by masters of the craft such as Alan Watkins and Henry Fairlie, Bernard Levin and Ferdie Mount.

Forsyth, like so many others, has recently come to interpret his role – at least in part – as stenographer-in-chief to anonymous Downing Street advisers. Two weeks ago Forsyth made public a 700-word text he had received from a “contact in Number 10” setting out government strategy.

The following day cabinet minister Grant Schapps was asked about Forsyth’s document. He refused. “If you can name the source I’ll certainly engage in it,” he replied. “I am not really into leaked texts… who knows where they are from.”

A classic case of how Downing Street can release helpful talking points into the public domain without being held accountable.

Guido Fawkes is the provisional wing of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party press office

I haven’t cited the Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph or The Sun – all of them Johnson cheerleaders.

Nor have I examined Guido Fawkes, which has transformed itself within a remarkably short space of time from an anarchic website challenging lobby freemasonry to the provisional wing of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party press office.

The price of privileged access and favourable treatment is turning readers and viewers into dupes

Downing Street’s three letters

Finally, we come to the ultimate example of what appears to be deliberate misdirection by anonymous Downing Street sources. This occurred on Saturday afternoon after the Letwin amendment had been passed by the House of Commons.

This should have been the main story going out over the newspapers and airwaves, because it meant that in practice the Benn Act had to be implemented and Boris Johnson had to ask for an extension of Article 50.

However, several media outlets put a different slant on the story.

They reported that not one but three letters had been sent by the British government to the EU, as if this had a massive significance after months of Downing Street-inspired speculation that Number 10 had found a way of preventing an extension while complying with the Benn Act. According to the Sunday Times, some aides were even fearing that Johnson’s letters “could conclude with some of them in jail”. Significantly, many of these reports emerged at almost exactly the same time late on Sunday evening.

Robert Peston claimed on Twitter that Johnson’s actions would “stick two fingers up at the Benn Act”. In a separate Spectator blog post detailing the government strategy he predicted “all-out conflict with MPs”. Peston comments on this in his accompanying article on openDemocracy.

It was certainly true that three letters had been sent to the EU, but the breathless reports suggesting that a way around the Benn Act had been found were false. One letter was the extension request as set out in the Benn Act. One of the other two letters was merely an unexceptional cover letter for this rquest, and the third was a side letter carefully drafted by government lawyers so as not to frustrate the extension request. The lack of a signature in the request was a red herring as it was not a requirement. The three letters were sent entirely in compliance with the Benn Act and they did nothing to undermine the Act’s purpose.

Gradually, the truth emerged. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, acknowledged immediate receipt of the extension request, which was all he needed to do to trigger the process of delay. On the Monday, the Scottish Court of Session also accepted that a valid extension request had been made and that the side letter did nothing to frustrate the request. Many legal commentators said at once that the government had done all it needed to fulfil the requirements of the Benn Act with its first letter. The other two letters were nothing more than a distraction.

The real substantive story of last Saturday was the defeat for the government. That is the story which should have been put out by broadcasters and led front pages. However, it appears as if Downing Street was able to use an anonymous briefing to give the impression of a different outcome and disguise the fact that, despite all his insistences to the contrary, Boris Johnson went to the EU and asked for an extension.

The Financial Times’ political editor George Parker summed events up perfectly on Twitter: “Brilliant work by the @BorisJohnson press team last night, turning a Commons defeat and the PM having to ask for a Brexit delay into front page headlines about his defiant ‘three letter trick’.”

The price for access: turning readers into dupes

I’ve found it hard to get this article in print. One editor explained reluctance to publish on the grounds that the newspaper’s political team had cultivated excellent insider sources and publishing my piece would invite charges of hypocrisy.

There was a searing honesty of sorts to this remark. Papers and media organisations yearn for privileged access and favourable treatment. And they are prepared to pay a price to get it.

This price involves becoming a subsidiary part of the government machine. It means turning their readers and viewers into dupes.

This client journalism allows Downing Street to frame the story as it wants. Some allow themselves to be used as tools to smear the government’s opponents. They say goodbye to the truth. Social media has provided new ways of breaking the boundaries of decent, honest journalism.

Of course political journalists have always entered into behind-the-scenes deals with politicians, but this kind of arrangement has gained a new dimension since Boris Johnson entered Downing Street with the support of a client press and media. As a former lobby correspondent (on the Evening Standard, the Sunday Express and The Spectator) I understand the need for access. The job of lobby journalists is to produce information.

But there is now clear evidence that the prime minister has debauched Downing Street by using the power of his office to spread propaganda and fake news. British political journalists have got chillingly close to providing the same service to Boris Johnson that Fox News delivers for Donald Trump.

Peter Oborne has produced a dossier of the lies, falsehoods, misrepresentations and fabrications of Boris Johnson and his Downing Street machine.

Thanks to David Allen Green for his help and advice on this article.

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