The Media Today

Britain get its own, much sillier Mueller report

January 28, 2022
Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for Parliament to take part in Prime Minister's Questions in London. Sue Gray's Report into lockdown breaking parties and events in Downing Street is reportedly completed and set for imminent release amidst a separate police investigation into the activities. (Photo by Tejas Sandhu / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Before Christmas, I wrote in this newsletter about a burgeoning political scandal in the UK, where reporters had dripped out a series of stories alleging that parties had taken place in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s offices while the rest of the country was on lockdown. Since then, the drip has become a deluge; the question now is less whether the parties amounted to much and more how the government got any work done at all. The Guardian published a photo showing Johnson and his wife with wine and cheese on the patio of their Downing Street residence while staffers clustered in the garden. The Mirror reported that staffers organized “wine-time Fridays” throughout the pandemic. The Telegraph reported that staffers filled a suitcase with wine and held two parties on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, at which the queen sat alone in compliance with covid rules. ITV reported that Johnson was presented with cake at a (brief) surprise birthday party. (Conor Burns, a lawmaker in Johnson’s Conservative Party, defended Johnson by saying he was “ambushed with a cake.”) Most damagingly, ITV also obtained an email showing that a senior civil servant invited forty people to a garden party that Johnson himself attended. Johnson said he thought it was a work event.

When I last wrote about “partygate,” Johnson had appointed Simon Case, Britain’s top civil servant, to carry out an inquiry. Journalists expected that Case would wrap up before Christmas, but news outlets then reported that a party had taken place in his office as well, and so oversight of the inquiry passed to Sue Gray, also a civil servant. With Britain’s omicron surge dominating headlines over the holiday period, the party scandal lulled, but then came the fresh wave of allegations, and Gray’s workload intensified. Political reporters channeled contradictory speculation as to when she might publish her final report—maybe this week but probably next week; probably that week but maybe the one after that—along with who, if anyone, she might blame, and in what terms. Major outlets rushed to profile Gray. (Almost unbelievably, she once worked as a pub landlord, in an IRA stronghold in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.)

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As the narrative tension ratcheted up, the government said that it would not comment further prior to the publication of Gray’s report, and many restive lawmakers in Johnson’s party seemed to take a similar wait-and-see approach. Journalists tried to figure out how many lawmakers might already have declared no confidence in Johnson’s leadership (via a famously inscrutable process that involves sending secret letters to a committee that’s a bit like the House Freedom Caucus, but also not really). At one point, reporters learned that a cabal of junior lawmakers was ready to oust Johnson; the exercise was quickly dubbed the “Pork Pie Plot,” after a popular delicacy from a district represented by one of the coup’s ringleaders, but it sputtered amid a fusillade of media briefing and counter-briefing. Johnson’s allies, meanwhile, tried to win over wavering colleagues by launching the equally gristly “Operation Red Meat,” a rushed package of base-pleasing policies that included real-terms cuts to the BBC’s budget.

This week, the saga reached the high-farce stage, if it hadn’t already. Political journalists assured their readers that Gray’s report was imminent, even as it kept failing to come, and again channeled contradictory speculation, this time as to how much advance notice Johnson would get of the report’s findings, and whether the public would see the full document or just a summary. Then, on Tuesday, London’s police department threw a wrench in the works as it announced that it would investigate allegations of criminal lockdown-breaking in the report—raising the prospect that the process would be further delayed while the police did its work, and unchaining a briefing war in which sources allied with Gray, Johnson, and the police seemed to pin the blame for that prospect on each other. Yesterday, Johnson said that the report would appear in full. This morning, police officials confirmed that they had asked Gray to make only “minimal reference” to evidence they’re now investigating, to the bewilderment of lawyers and journalists.

The politics have become farcical, too. The police getting involved might logically seem bad for Johnson, but as many commentators have pointed out, the threats to his position largely seem to be about narrative momentum, and so any investigation that delays or waters down the Gray report could actually relieve political pressure, at least for now. Reporters seem utterly exasperated by the mess. “We are in a briefing minefield that is extremely difficult for anyone to navigate,” Alex Wickham, who writes the London edition of Politico’s Playbook newsletter, acknowledged on Wednesday. “For days, members of the government and the multiple anti-Johnson campaigns have anonymously speculated about the contents of the report, despite having a toxic mix of huge personal biases coupled with no real intelligence on the matter.” Much media straw-grasping has ensued. Yesterday morning, Wickham’s newsletter included a hand-drawn flowchart of possible outcomes. Yesterday evening, Christopher Hope, a senior Telegraph journalist known as “Chopper,” teased a “surprising twist in #partygate coming tonight.” It turned out to be Burns telling him that, actually, Johnson couldn’t have been ambushed with a cake at his birthday party because Johnson is now saying there was no cake there. (As headline writers pointed out, Johnson has long liked to have his cake and eat it, too.)

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The coverage of the situation has reminded me, more than anything, of the run-up to the publication of the Mueller report in 2019—if Mueller had been investigating suitcases of wine, not the subversion of American elections by a hostile foreign power. There’s the constant drip of damaging stories; the misleading media speculation that the report is coming any day now; the inscrutable public official at the heart of the story being cast, in media reports, as an institutionalist stickler in a world gone to hell. Other media dynamics around the scandal strike me as similar, too, and merit a word of warning to the British press corps as it waits for the report to land. Before publishing the Mueller report, Trump’s attorney general William Barr spun a misleading media narrative about its findings, based mostly on legal technicalities; it’s not hard to imagine Johnson doing the same with the Gray report, and journalists should treat anything he says prior to its publication with extreme skepticism. Ditto any redactions.

Reporters should be skeptical, too, of the comforting idea that official inquiries are sufficient to mete out accountability; many of the media’s comparisons between Johnson and Donald Trump are overblown, but the two figures share a base instinct for dodging blame. The legal and political context is different here—it’s easier to remove a prime minister than a president—but it’s not hard to imagine that the Gray story might follow similar contours to the Mueller one: the report falls flat (due to police foot-dragging or some other reason), lawmakers balk at removing Johnson, and the press, with the scent of blood fading from their nostrils, move on.

Mueller’s report was actually damning; the narrative that it fell flat was as much a contrivance of media optics as anything else, or at least of many journalists’ failure to adequately mine legalese for the bigger picture. Sometimes the nub of a scandal story was in full public view all along, not buried in a secret report. This was true time and again with Trump; Johnson has already admitted going to a party during lockdown, even if he says he thought it was a work event. Yet reporters tend to privilege information that is secret or new, even if it’s not as important as what we already know. With the Gray report, the British political press is certainly keeping up aggressive pressure, but it also seems to have been sucked into a process story, rather than keeping the focus on the basic, obvious wrongdoing in question. In recent days, there’s been much media discussion as to whether Johnson was warned by his advisers that the garden party would be wrong, and whether Gray might have found an email proving it. The more pertinent question is why on earth the prime minister who wrote the rules would need to be told that he was breaking them.

This is, ultimately, more a moral story than a legal one. The most effective coverage has avoided the weeds of the Gray report and demonstrated what countless Brits were doing—or, more pertinently, weren’t—while their leaders partied. Recently, Trevor Phillips, an anchor on Sky News, grilled a minister in Johnson’s government about a party that was said to have taken place last April. “I just wanted to say something about what I did during that week,” Phillips said, before going on to explain how he had rigidly followed social-distancing laws while seeing his severely ill daughter for what proved to be the final time. “She had stuck to the spirit and letter of the rules,” Phillips said, tearing up. “There are going to be thousands of people who have that story in their background. And you are in here telling me about a civil servant’s inquiry.”

Below, more media news from the UK:

  • Shades of Gray: Ryan Heath, a former British government press officer who is now a senior editor at Politico, recalls Gray firing him during his days as a civil servant; the Mail on Sunday, a right-wing tabloid, found out about a book that Heath was writing about intergenerational conflict, and Gray ruled that he had misused his government email account when he invited colleagues to his book launch. Gray’s rationale “should bring a chill to anyone in Boris Johnson’s team wondering what their fate will be in the coming days,” Heath writes. (He also notes that Gray oversaw a “clearing house” that asserted centralized government control over Freedom of Information Act requests from journalists and members of the public.)
  • Another fine mess: As partygate has rumbled on, so has a separate controversy related to the UK withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, albeit not as loudly. Johnson has long denied suggestions that he personally ordered officials to prioritize evacuating dozens of dogs and cats from a military veteran’s animal shelter in the country, an operation that led to allegations that Britain was prioritizing pets over people. Official emails published this week, however, suggest that Johnson did indeed authorize the evacuation; one email implied that the significant “publicity” around the animals’ plight had factored into the decision, while a source told Sky’s Kate McCann that a Johnson aide “was keen to get press on the plane to watch animals being evacuated to turn it into a good news story.” The government continues to deny Johnson’s role.
  • Briefing encounters: This week, a parliamentary committee scolded Johnson’s government for failing to stop a planned national wage increase from being briefed to the media before it could be presented to lawmakers. “The Committee acknowledges that certain Budget measures might be released prior to the Budget,” lawmakers concluded, but “under no circumstances should market sensitive policies be able to enter the public domain in a disorderly fashion.… Given the potential opportunity for disruption that this unauthorised leak could have caused, the Government should investigate how this policy came to be leaked prior to the Budget, and should publicise its findings.”
  • Telegraphed lines? On Wednesday, Johnson came out swinging at Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, referring to him in Parliament as “a lawyer, not a leader.” (Starmer, who has called on Johnson to resign, is a former prosecutor.) Afterward, Patrick O’Flynn, a right-wing politician, suggested that he’d used the line first, in an op-ed for the Telegraph, where Johnson used to work. (For more on Johnson’s checkered journalism career, read my CJR profile from 2019.)

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.