The Media Today

Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, and the limits of the Trumpian culture war

May 27, 2020

In early April, Matthew Weaver, a reporter at The Guardian in the UK, received a phone call from a source in Durham, in the north of England, who said they’d recently seen Dominic Cummings, the top adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, at a residence nearby. The source said that “Dancing Queen,” by ABBA, had been blaring from the property, which is owned by Cummings’s family. Weaver was dubious—at the time, the British people were under strict government orders to stay at home, and Cummings, whose home is hundreds of miles away in London, was reportedly in isolation with a suspected case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. (The same day Cummings was sighted, his boss, Johnson, was taken to the ICU with his own COVID case.) Weaver asked government officials to comment on Cummings’s whereabouts. They declined to do so. Aware that he needed more proof, Weaver spent weeks chasing down the story, eventually teaming up with Pippa Crerar, a reporter with rival left-wing newspaper the Daily Mirror. Last Friday, after police in Durham confirmed that they, too, had received reports of Cummings’s presence, The Guardian and the Mirror jointly pressed publish, and unchained one of the biggest scandals in recent British political history.

At first, Johnson’s government tried to swat the story away, as it’s done repeatedly since taking office last year. Officials didn’t deny that Cummings had been in Durham, but insisted that he’d done nothing wrong—we were told that Cummings and his wife, who was symptomatic at the time they made the journey, had traveled closer to extended family to ensure childcare for their four-year-old son, should Cummings also become incapacitated. This was a very thin excuse, given the persistent clarity of the government’s “stay at home” messaging and the lengths to which people in far worse situations than Cummings’s went to abide by it. On Saturday, The Guardian and the Mirror made matters much worse, reporting, in a follow-up story, that Cummings had separately been spotted at a Durham beauty spot miles from his family property, and that he may have made repeat London-to-Durham trips. The government flatly denied the second claim, but not the first; at a Sunday press conference designed to defend Cummings, Johnson skirted questions about the beauty-spot sighting altogether. Suddenly, a narrative had taken hold that it was one rule for politicians, another for everyone else. A (swiftly-deleted) tweet from the official account of Britain’s civil service, calling Johnson’s response “arrogant and offensive,” fueled the fire, as did video of neighbors heckling Cummings outside his home.

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On Monday, Cummings himself held a press conference at the prime minister’s official residence. As many reporters stressed, this was an unprecedented sight, given that Cummings is an unelected aide. In a detailed account that was nonetheless riddled with obvious holes, Cummings said that he’d traveled for childcare reasons, but had not exposed himself or his child to extended family members; that he hadn’t stopped off en route, despite the length of the drive; and that he had indeed gone to the Durham beauty spot, but only to test his eyesight, which he said had gone “a bit weird” following his suspected bout of COVID. Cummings boasted that he’d taken the general threat of coronaviruses so seriously that he’d written about it on his blog last year—but it quickly emerged that the post in question had been doctored shortly after Cummings returned from Durham to London, in mid-April. At the presser, journalists asked Cummings admirably sharp questions. Cummings did not apologize; he said he understood why members of the public were angry, but blamed misleading media coverage, not his own actions.

It’s not unusual for a scandal-plagued politician to complain about media coverage, but for Cummings, Johnson, and others of their colleagues, bashing the press has become routine—as I wrote last year, British officials often channel the essence of Trump’s “FAKE NEWS” Twitter screeds under a veneer of British gentility. Over the weekend, the government dismissed The Guardian and the Mirror as “campaigning newspapers”; Cummings, for his part, accused reporters gathered outside his home of breaking social-distancing guidelines, said he didn’t care what they thought, and goaded them for misreading public sentiment about Brexit, of which he was a key architect. (American viewers may remember Benedict Cumberbatch playing Cummings in the HBO film Brexit: The Uncivil War.) Cummings’s MO—echoed by right-wing newspapers—has long been to treat the mainstream media as part of an out-of-touch liberal elite, framing it, in distinctly culture-warrior terms, as opposed to the will of the people. That should all sound familiar to Trump-watchers. (Disclosure: I campaigned against Brexit in 2016, prior to becoming a journalist.)

This time, though, Cummings has been caught out. Polls show that a clear majority of Brits—including supporters of Brexit and Johnson’s Conservative Party—think that the Durham trip broke the rules, and that Cummings should resign. Related terms have trended on Twitter for days. (Apart from “Cummings,” which, according to The Guardian, is blocked by Twitter’s anti-porn filters.) Newspapers that are normally supportive have exploded with fury and derision; this morning, the Daily Star, a tabloid that isn’t typically very political, printed a large, front-page cutout of Cummings’s face. (“Can’t be arsed to stick to the rules like the rest of us? Simply wear this handy Dom face covering & you’ll get away with murder.”) In the US, Trump’s attacks on the mainstream press—and the slavish loyalty of his right-wing boosters—have helped grant him a sort of impunity, making with-us-or-against-us partisan dogfights out of black-and-white facts. On Brexit, Cummings and co. muddied the truth in a similar, polarizing way. This time, they’ve not been able to replicate that success.

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Why not? The reasons are many and complex, and have been obscured, to some extent, by knee-jerk comparisons between Britain and the US, and between Johnson and Trump. The two countries’ very different media climates are one important part of the picture. Trump’s attacks on the media are novel in their brazenness, but build on much deeper cultural bedrocks than his movement; they rely, too, on appalling right-wing media shamelessness, and more mainstream outlets’ dread of being seen to take sides. Britain has shameless right-wing newspapers, but they’re generally more fickle, and the country’s mainstream print media, at least, is structured around ideological affiliation, making the idea of “sides,” well, pretty normal.

As the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor noted this morning, it’s not surprising that the Cummings story hasn’t really cut through in the US, where Trump has mastered the art of eroding accountability, and where politicians do with pride what Cummings did in secret. That reflects poorly on the US news cycle and its outrage saturation. Flip the picture, though, and there’s cautious cause for hope. Much ink has been spilled on the internationalization of Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric, but it has its limits, as Cummings is discovering. He insists he won’t resign, and he may not have to—but if he stays put, it won’t be because the bulk of the press failed to hold him to account. Whatever Cummings does next, this scandal seems permanently to have damaged Johnson’s government, and, crucially, the credibility of its public-health messaging.

Below, more on Cummings and COVID:

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.