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.
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.
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:
- Unreliable spectator: Cummings’s wife, Mary Wakefield, is an editor at The Spectator, a conservative magazine that Johnson used to run. In late April, Wakefield published a column about her and Cummings’s experiences with COVID-19; it did not mention the trip to Durham, but did say that the couple had “emerged from quarantine into the almost comical uncertainty of London lockdown.” When asked about the inconsistencies in the Spectator column on Monday, Cummings replied that he’d been worried about threats to his family’s Durham home; when asked why, then, the column had been written at all, Cummings said, “My wife’s a writer. I don’t tell her what to do.”
- On hecklers, and worse: Journalists and others who have camped outside Cummings’s London home in recent days have come in for criticism, especially after Cummings said, on Monday, that he’d received threats there in the past. Marina Hyde, a columnist for The Guardian, wrote yesterday that while seeing neighbors yell at Cummings made her feel uncomfortable, it was nonetheless a “vignette of a Britain Cummings himself did much to foment: grimly polarised, reflexively aggressive and running with an undercurrent of menace.”
- On being kinder: For CJR, Sarah Gilman reminds editors to treat the freelance writers they commission with respect, especially at the moment. The coronavirus “has made the media industry even more precarious,” Gilman writes. “Some outlets have paused or reduced their freelance budgets or folded outright. Times are tough for staff editors, but they’re even tougher for freelance writers. How can editors help? Now, as ever, by striving for fairness—and kindness.”
- In brief: Someone already made a video game in which players can replicate Cummings’s trip from his family’s Durham property to the nearby beauty spot. A live interview on BBC News got cut short because one of the participants exceeded their free, 40-minute Zoom allowance. And in the US, Doug Mills, a photojournalist at the New York Times, is making and selling mugs to raise money for freelance colleagues.
Other notable stories:
- Last week, after Trump repeatedly tweeted the debunked conspiracy theory that Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host, murdered Lori Klausutis, who worked for Scarborough when he was a Congressman, Klausutis’s widower wrote to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey demanding that Trump’s tweets be deleted. Kara Swisher, of the Times, obtained the letter and echoed its demand; yesterday, Twitter said it was “deeply sorry about the pain” the tweets were causing, but it did not take them down. Last night, Twitter did, for the first time, append fact-check labels to tweets by Trump—but they had to do with mail-in ballots, not Scarborough and Klausutis. The labels met with skepticism. Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier noted that their wording is ambiguous, while Jason Willick, of the Wall Street Journal, argued that “Twitter is now implicitly endorsing content they *don’t* flag.”
- On Monday, George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, died after a police officer pinned him to the ground and kneeled on his neck; yesterday, as video of the incident spread online, the city’s police chief fired the officer and three others who were present. Last night, police fired tear gas at demonstrators who turned out in protest of Floyd’s death. Andy Mannix, who was covering the protests for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, wrote on Twitter that he’d been hit in the thigh with what appeared to be a rubber bullet.
- For CJR, Andrew McCormick took a deep dive into One America News Network, a Trumpier-than-Trump outlet that McCormick describes as “a dizzying alternaverse in which the least credible of Republican talking points are taken as fact.” McCormick spoke with over a dozen current and former OAN staffers. “Collectively they described a circus, where ethics are absent, turnover is high, and dissent is met with rage.”
- In 2018, top executives at Facebook were warned, following an internal review, that the platform’s algorithms were stoking polarization, but failed to act on recommendations for fixing the problem, the Journal’s Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman write. Among other considerations, executives viewed proposed fixes as “paternalistic,” and worried that they might add grist to claims that Facebook is biased against conservatives.
- A federal judge has ruled that Devin Nunes, the litigious Republican Congressman, can’t sue the Post or CNN in Virginia. Nunes’s cases will now be heard elsewhere. The judge said the suit against the Post is “only slightly connected” to his district, and that he has “significant concerns about forum shopping.” In February, Virginia lawmakers passed legislation aimed at countering the state’s reputation as a magnet for frivolous libel suits.
- Timothy Burke, who made that video of Sinclair anchors reading an identical script about “false news”, is out with a new video for Courier Newsroom, this time showing local TV stations across the US running the same PR package from Amazon as a news segment. Amazon used the segment to counter criticism of its treatment of distribution workers.
- For Study Hall, Allegra Hobbs details a succession of cuts at Longreads, the longform site owned by Automattic, which also owns WordPress. Former staffers told Hobbs of an “opaque process at Automattic that resulted in Longreads’ funding abruptly being cut, leaving contract workers with no benefits or job security in the cold.”
- For the Daily Beast, Kali Holloway explores how the controversial activist Shaun King failed to relaunch the North Star, the abolitionist newspaper founded by Frederick Douglass. King blamed excessive ambition, but former staffers told Holloway that his “absenteeism, insistence on absolute control, and radical incompetence” were at issue.
- And digital journalists at the Seattle Times are unionizing in a bid for parity with the paper’s print staff, who have been unionized for decades. “We work side by side… with reporters, copy editors, photographers, desk editors, graphic artists and others who have a voice in our workplace,” the new digital union wrote on Twitter, “while we do not.”