Parties, dead cats, and political turmoil as Britain’s media confronts an Omicron wave

Two weeks ago, the Daily Mirror, a left-leaning tabloid in the UK, dropped a bombshell. Pippa Crerar, the paper’s political editor, reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and staffers in his office held two parties in the run-up to Christmas last year, in apparent violation of the strict COVID rules in place in England at the time. Johnson denied that any rules had been broken, but a week later, ITV, a British broadcaster, obtained footage that showed Allegra Stratton, a former journalist (for ITV among others) who was Johnson’s top spokesperson at the time, joking about a party with “no social distancing” at a practice press briefing in the days after the party was said to have happened. Johnson had hired Stratton to front daily, White House-style briefings from an expensive new briefing room—a potentially revolutionary development in the way the British government communicates with the media—but the idea was scrapped before it got beyond the rehearsal stage, and Stratton moved into a new role as a spokesperson for the COP26 climate summit. The party-jokes clip would be the only time the British public would see Stratton at the briefing-room podium. The day after it aired, she resigned from her climate role in a tearful statement to news cameras assembled outside her home.

Crerar’s story and the Stratton video blew up into a major media scandal in the UK, in no small part because they nourished the much longer-term narrative that the country’s rulers see COVID restrictions as being for other people, not themselves. Last year, Crerar and Matthew Weaver, a reporter at the rival left-wing Guardian, broke the news that Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s then-top aide, had driven his symptomatic wife hundreds of miles from their London home at the height of Britain’s first lockdown; this year, Matt Hancock, then the health minister, quit after The Sun, a right-wing tabloid, obtained and published security footage from inside his ministerial office that showed him in the throes (literally) of an extramarital affair, in violation of COVID rules. Since the parties scandal blew up, it’s been sustained by a drip of similarly embarrassing new stories, many of them broken by Crerar. Over the weekend, she published a photo showing Johnson hosting a Christmas trivia night in his office last year (the event was reportedly virtual, but not really); yesterday, she published a photo showing a different event, also last year, at the headquarters of Johnson’s Conservative Party. An official involved resigned before the story came out. “‘Hello, this is Pippa Crerar calling, I just wanted to ask you about…’ must be the most terrifying sound in all of British politics right now,” a former Labour Party politician tweeted yesterday. Another Twitter user likened her regular scoops to a Christmas advent calendar.

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Cummings—now out of government and a sworn enemy of Johnson, with the Substack newsletter and hyperactive Twitter feed to prove it—has thrown further fuel on the fire, accusing Johnson of lying about the parties, and claiming that some political journalists themselves attended them and are thus inclined to “bury this story.” If this is true—and there’s no proof that it is—they haven’t done a very good job. Newspapers from across the political spectrum have splashed the scandal in furious terms on their front pages. Last week, the right-wing Daily Mail accused Stratton of a “SICK JOKE.” After she quit, The Sun depicted Johnson as the Grinch under the headline “DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I CHRISTMAS DO.” The Daily Star, another tabloid, which doesn’t always cover political news, mocked him up as a character in the game Clue, and christened him “Captain Cock-up.”

Mixed in with the anger over the parties hypocrisy from last year was anger—especially in conservative media—over Johnson’s announcement, on the day Stratton quit, that he would seek to introduce tighter COVID rules this year amid fears about the spread of the Omicron variant. (The new rules include vaccine passports for big events and increased masking.) Many right-wing pundits and politicians—porous categories in the UK; see Johnson, Boris—strongly oppose new measures. This dynamic, as much as the parties scandal, has led outlets that once supported Johnson to start to turn on him, and his future as prime minister is now in greater doubt than at any time since he entered office in 2019, a state of peril that has piqued the interest of outlets in other countries, including the US. Perhaps most woundingly for Johnson, the Daily Telegraph, a right-wing newspaper where he worked for years as a reporter (of sorts) and columnist, ran a front-page headline asking whether he’s reached “the beginning of the end” of the road. Allister Heath, the editor of the paper’s Sunday edition, wrote inside that there is “an overpowering fin-de-regime stench emanating from Downing Street that can no longer be ignored.”

Even though the new restrictions amplified criticism of Johnson among erstwhile media allies, outlets across the political spectrum—from the Telegraph to the Financial Times—suggested that Johnson had announced them as a “dead cat”: a favored Johnsonian media strategy that involves contriving a shocking, even bad, story to move the news cycle on from a scandal. (“There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table,” Johnson once explained: “Everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’”) At a press conference last week, Johnson denied such charges, insisting that the timing of the restrictions was a response to clear public-health concern about Omicron. “Imagine that this step were to have been delayed because of political events,” Johnson said. “What would people say then?” It’s clear, though, that he wanted to put the parties scandal behind him. On Saturday, the Mail reported that Johnson has privately described the BBC’s parties coverage as “shamefully frivolous, vengeful, and partisan,” telling friends that the broadcaster should instead be focusing on persuading viewers to get a COVID booster shot. On Sunday, hours after Crerar broke the trivia-night photo, Johnson announced a hugely ambitious expansion of Britain’s booster program in a pre-taped prime-time address—a rare format that is used, as in the US, to project gravitas and urgency, with the convenient side effect that journalists can’t ask questions.

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Commentators including Stephen Bush, of the New Statesman, speculated that the address was itself a dead cat intended to keep the trivia night off Monday’s front pages. If it was, it worked: almost every major newspaper, including the Mirror, led with the booster expansion. (The Star instead splashed the important news of “VICIOUS JACKALS HEADING OUR WAY.”) As the day went on, stories about Johnson receded further down the news cycle as the Omicron situation grew more concerning, with Sajid Javid, the health minister, telling Parliament that while the number of confirmed Omicron cases in the UK remains low, health officials believe that they are actually increasing at a rate of hundreds of thousands of new cases per day. There’s still huge uncertainty around those figures and what might happen next, but Omicron is injecting an increasingly somber mood into media coverage, and positioning Britain near the center of a story of growing international concern. This morning, the UK edition of Politico’s Playbook newsletter declared that, “for all the intrigue about Johnson’s standing, the reality is politics will likely be overtaken by Omicron news in the coming days.”

Or maybe not. The parties scandal and the Omicron story are substantively linked—the former risks sapping Johnson’s moral authority to impose further restrictions should those become necessary, especially at Christmas time, and could have longer-term ramifications for public-health policy should right-wing lawmakers use it as grist to force Johnson from office (though you’d be wise not to hold your breath on that one). More immediately, major British outlets, as with their US counterparts, are accustomed to letting political intrigue drive the news cycle more than public health, and there’s plenty more of it on the way. Coverage of a Parliamentary vote yesterday to authorize the new restrictions has been dominated by a huge rebellion among Johnson’s allies; an official investigation of last year’s parties is set to conclude imminently, and a special election tomorrow in a Parliamentary seat that should be safely Conservative is on a knife’s edge. Politico said this morning that the latter story is looking “more and more like a season finale with every passing day.” The COVID story, of course, will go on.

Below, more on British politics and media:

  • The scribes have it, the scribes have it: Parliament was packed for the vote on restrictions yesterday, even though at least eight lawmakers have tested positive for COVID in the past couple of days; Politico reports “genuine concerns that last night’s vote will have been a super-spreader event,” with trade unions criticizing Conservative officials for not allowing remote participation. Two political journalists—Aubrey Allegretti, of The Guardian, and Jim Pickard, of the Financial Times—also have COVID, and Guido Fawkes, a right-wing blog, reports that other reporters have tested positive, too.
  • “Drinks, nibbles, games”: The Guardian’s Alexandra Topping profiled Ros Atkins, a BBC anchor whose coverage of the parties scandal has won praise from journalists across the political spectrum (including Piers Morgan). “In a series of short explainers,” Atkins “has repeatedly skewered the Boris Johnson administration, while never coming within striking distance of seeming to have an opinion,” Topping writes. “In nine days the 3-4 minute clips—long for viral videos—have been watched over eleven million times, far more than any other digital news series, with insiders in the BBC admitting that their popularity has confounded expectations about the desires of online news consumers.”
  • The Guardian: Sara Fischer reports, for Axios, that The Guardian now has more than a million supporters who pay for digital content on a recurrent basis. The paper doesn’t have a paywall, instead drawing revenue from “a supporter model, in which readers can either subscribe to its apps or make a recurring financial contribution,” Fischer writes. “About half of the 1 million people who pay for The Guardian’s digital content are from outside of the UK and over 220,000 come from North America.” A further hundred thousand or so people pay for print subscriptions to the paper, while a further five hundred thousand or so people have made a one-time donation.
  • The BBC: Yesterday, the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity at Birmingham City University in the UK published a report on diversity among senior leaders at the BBC’s radio stations; the report found that, from a sample of 118 senior leaders across the UK, just six percent come from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds, while some regional radio newsrooms had no journalists of color at all at the time the report was written. The BBC contested some of the report’s figures. The Voice has more details.


Other notable stories:

  • Last night, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, of Fox News, addressed on air the text messages that they sent imploring Mark Meadows, then-President Trump’s chief of staff, to get Trump to defuse the insurrection on January 6; Meadows handed the texts over to the Congressional committee investigating the insurrection and Liz Cheney, a member of the committee, read them aloud on Monday. Hannity and Ingraham both insisted that their messages were consistent with what they told viewers on January 6, which is “technically correct,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy writes. “The problem is that both Hannity and Ingraham also sought to acquit Trump of any responsibility for the attack and suggested that it wasn’t actually his supporters who were responsible for the violence.”
  • “To hear G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller tell it, everything at his digital media company is going great,” Insider’s Steven Perlberg reports in a profile of the company: Spanfeller says that G/O will post an eight-figure operating profit this year and is on the lookout for acquisitions. But tensions with staff at G/O’s sites—which have been a persistent feature of Spanfeller’s leadership—remain; a former staffer told Perlberg that Spanfeller is a micromanager who presides over a “culture of fear.” Management is preparing to enter talks with one of two unions representing staffers as its contract is about to expire.
  • Two years after entering negotiations and three weeks after going on strike, unionized staffers at Wirecutter, a product-review site owned by the Times, reached a deal with management on a contract. The agreement, which has yet to be ratified by Wirecutter’s bargaining unit, would guarantee annual pay increases, cap healthcare costs, and ban NDAs around harassment and discrimination. The Journal’s Allison Prang has more.
  • The Ankler, a Substack newsletter written by Richard Rushfield, a show-biz columnist, is expanding to become Ankler Media, a company that will be led by Janice Min, the former Hollywood Reporter executive; Ankler will continue to be hosted by Substack as it adds new staff and editorial products. Min told Katie Robertson, of the Times, that Rushfield’s subscriber base is already “a Who’s Who of power in the entertainment community.”
  • In recent weeks, Lee Enterprises, a newspaper chain, has taken steps to hold off a takeover attempt by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund notorious for acquiring media properties and making sharp cuts. Now, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds reports, Lee’s shares have shot up and are trading at a much higher value than Alden’s takeover offer; if that persists, Alden’s bid will be “dead in the water,” leaving Lee to “pursue its growth plans.”
  • CJR’s Paroma Soni created a series of datasets in a bid to better understand the scale at which the Indian government is demanding that Twitter censor content. “Data from Twitter’s own transparency reports reveal that, in 2020, the Indian government asked Twitter to remove nearly 10,000 tweets, up from about 1,200 the prior year,” Soni reports. “In 2017, the government only demanded that Twitter delete 248 tweets.”
  • A team at the Times investigated a crop of “new social media personalities who paint cheery portraits of life as foreigners in China,” and found that they are part of “the Chinese government’s widening attempts to spread pro-Beijing messages around the planet.” Chinese state media outlets have facilitated and amplified the influencers’ work, helping them to film in parts of China where foreign journalists face sharp restrictions.
  • On Friday, authorities in Myanmar arrested Soe Naing, a freelance photojournalist who was covering protests against the country’s military junta. Yesterday, officials informed Soe Naing’s family that he died in custody—the first journalist known to have met that fate since the junta seized power in a coup in February. Reporters Without Borders said that Soe Naing had been subjected to a “violent interrogation” prior to his death.
  • And Politico’s Hailey Fuchs and Max Tani report that interest groups seeking to influence President Biden are running ads in the News Journal, a local paper in Biden’s home state of Delaware that the president reportedly still reads. The interest groups’ lobbying efforts “often run alongside the paper’s more traditional ad content: print ads that urge local readers to buy a motorized scooter or hire a new local roofer.”

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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.

TOP IMAGE: Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson switches on the Downing Street Christmas tree lights in London, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)