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How the right-wing press used partygate to get rid of lockdown

Hundreds have died of COVID because the papers bullied Boris Johnson into lifting lockdown early

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
31 March 2022, 11.23am
Partygate exposed the grotesque power the UK media holds over Boris Johnson
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s been a shift in tone, hasn’t there?

A couple of months ago, the tabloids howled about partygate like a hurricane. On 11 January, the Daily Express came at Johnson. “ENOUGH BORIS,” it screamed on its front page: “YOU MUST END PARTYGATE FARCE NOW.”

On Tuesday, after much delay, the police issued actual fines to partygoers, confirming what we’ve all known all along: rules were broken.

After all that brouhaha, you might have thought this would merit a story on the paper’s front page.

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You’d be wrong – and not because it led with events in Ukraine. The Express yesterday led with an argument within the Royal Family about Andrew’s role at Philip’s memorial. As did the Daily Mail, while The Sun focused on the Queen’s grief.

The royals have always acted as a shield for the establishment.

The Daily Telegraph did mention the issue below the fold on its front page yesterday, but it’s disappeared from the paper’s home page today – a nod to an issue that’s firmly in the past, rather than an ongoing scandal.

And the same is true across the government’s other preferred newspaper websites today. You might expect to find brigades of columnists, furious – as they should be, as they were only so recently – about there being one set of rules for ‘us’, and another for ‘them’.

No such luck. The Mail leads with Chris Rock’s thoughts on being slapped by Will Smith, and splashes on a moral panic about a trans cyclist, with its news story about partygate buried below some psychobabble about ‘Doomsday anxiety’. The Sun has the same story on Chris Rock and an exclusive on an alleged break-in at the Beckhams’ mansion.

It’s all very odd, isn’t it? Until you remember what this was all about in the first place.

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Boris Johnson number 10 March 2022
The SNP has slammed the decision, saying the public deserve “answers and accountability”.

As The Sun itself explained in a leader column on partygate in December, the scandal kicked off at the same time as the Omicron COVID wave got going. The editorial, published on 8 December, started by denouncing partygate as “a failure of leadership which cannot and must not continue,” but soon segued to the new lockdown, and ended by saying:

Predictably, scientists at SAGE — who by now might as well be wearing sandwich boards with ‘The End Is Nigh’ scrawled on them — howl for another full lockdown, regardless of the non-COVID damage to our physical and mental health. The PM must resist them tooth and claw. The cost to our children, cancer patients, and businesses is just too great.

The Mail was equally opposed to restrictions this year, running an editorial on 1 Jan saying “we cannot let our wings be clipped again”, while the Telegraph has led the campaign against lockdowns from the early on.

Furious with Boris Johnson for his Omicron restrictions, they picked up the partygate scandal initially revealed by the left-leaning Daily Mirror, and bludgeoned him with it until they got their way.

On 9 February, they did – Johnson announced he was lifting all COVID restrictions in England a month earlier than intended, despite criticism from scientists, and health unions saying he was going “too far, way too soon”.

The flurry of leaks and revelations about parties that had rocked the government over the previous two months mysteriously came to an end on the same day.

The two-month flurry of leaks about government parties mysteriously came to an end on the day restrictions ended

Yesterday, 156 people in England died of COVID, compared to 39 on 30 March 2021. We’re currently in the midst of one of the biggest waves of infection since the pandemic began. But we need to understand the root cause of this new wave of infection lies not in rule-breakers or even vaccine refuseniks. It lies in the grotesque power and warped priorities of the oligarch-owned media in this country.

Of course, we should be angry about partygate. Boris Johnson did show that he believes he is above the rules, that laws he imposes on the rest of us shouldn’t apply to ‘his people’. Of course, if he is fined, he should resign.

But we should also reflect on how quickly a cabal of right-wing journalists were able to waterboard the prime minister from a tap of public rage, and then turn it off as soon as they got what they wanted.

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