The Media Today

Britain and its media party on

June 3, 2022
Queen Elizabeth II meeting PM. Queen Elizabeth II greets Prime Minister Boris Johnson at an audience at Buckingham Palace, London, the Queen's first in-person weekly audience with the Prime Minister since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Picture date: Wednesday June 23, 2021. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire URN:60527488 (Press Association via AP Images)

Yesterday, Britain kicked off celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, a four-day bacchanal—featuring tea dances, street parties, dog shows, “wellie wanging,” and ceremonial beacon lighting (and that’s just in the village I’m from)—in honor of her seventy years on the throne. British newspapers, of course, are having a field day, both on their front pages—the liberal Daily Mirror: “For our Queen… for our Britain”; the right-wing Sun: “Don’t you just love E(II)R?”—and in special print supplements, with The Times of London bearing an unsettling image showing the queen shaking hands with a younger version of herself. Reporters have interviewed royal superfans camping out in castle-shaped tents and compiled lists of jubilee merch (corgi cake, anyone?), while debating whether it’s okay to refer to the Platinum Jubilee as the “Platty Joobs.” Like one of the castle-tent dwellers, who was from Connecticut, US outlets seem fascinated by the celebrations, too, despite—or perhaps because of—their lack of obligation to be.

The Jubilee has temporarily overshadowed another story, one that doesn’t concern the longevity of the head of state but the possibly numbered days of her current head of government, Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The last time I wrote about him, back in January, he was in grave—and, increasingly, transatlantically newsworthy—political peril after British news outlets published a flurry of stories about parties in his residence and offices on various dates in 2020 and 2021, while the rest of the country observed strict lockdown rules that he set. (Two of the parties took place on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, at which the queen sat alone.) Narrative tension was ramping up across the British mediasphere as Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, prepared to release a report on the parties, with political journalists and pundits speculating breathlessly as to when she might publish and whether her findings might cost Johnson his job. Then, London’s police department announced an open-ended investigation into potential law-breaking and asked Gray to avoid substantively addressing the incidents it was probing, stifling the story’s narrative momentum and ensuring that the whole sorry saga would drag on.

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The police investigation frustrated the press; stories dripped out about officials receiving questionnaires to fill out, but it wasn’t clear how the police was approaching its work, and Johnson and his office said they wouldn’t be commenting on a pending probe. Meanwhile, the news cycle moved on, most decisively after Russia invaded Ukraine and Johnson sought to position himself as a top international cheerleader for the latter country, winning plaudits from hawkish pundits. Stories about the spiraling cost of living also started to cut through, as did a scandal that followed the leaking to the press of the finance minister’s wife’s tax affairs, and a series of sexual-misconduct claims against lawmakers that were often covered under the nauseating banner “PESTMINSTER.” (Britain’s Parliament is located at Westminster.) One lawmaker in Johnson’s Conservative Party admitted to twice watching pornography in Parliament—though on the first occasion, he insisted, he’d simply been trying to look at a website about tractors—and resigned. Another Conservative was arrested on suspicion of rape and told to stay away from Parliament. The media has not yet named him for legal reasons.

Amid this parade of war and shame, “Partygate,” as the Johnson scandal had come to be known, occasionally cut back into the news cycle. In late March, the police issued a first set of fines to officials, though who had received them was not made public. Then, a few weeks later, we learned that Johnson, his wife, and his finance minister had all also been fined for attending an office birthday party at which Johnson, as a political ally once memorably put it in his defense, had been “ambushed with a cake.” Johnson became the first sitting prime minister to be punished for breaking the law, and various commentators called for him to resign. In other ways, though, the media reaction was surprisingly muted. Savvy reporters explained that the political dynamics had changed since January; right-wing newspapers led with the story, but most of their headlines quoted directly from Johnson’s apology. The Mail went for the jugular—but not for Johnson’s, claiming that his cake “never left its Tupperware box” and taking aim at the resignation “howls” coming from the left, asking, in a front page headline, “DON’T THEY KNOW THERE’S A WAR ON?” (The next day, the government announced plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, and many newspapers led with the news.)

Partygate still had not reached its climax, with the police investigation into other events continuing. Journalists speculated as to whether Johnson might receive further fines, given that the birthday party had seemed to represent the thin end of the wedge (or slice) when it came to his reported covid partying. The next time the story cut through in a big way, however, it concerned not Johnson but Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, who had repeatedly called for Johnson to resign over Partygate, but who now stood accused of himself breaking covid rules when he ate a curry and drank some beer at a political meeting in a northern English city last spring. A video circulated showing Starmer with a bottle. The Guardian later reported that it had been filmed through a window by the son of James Delingpole, a writer for Breitbart and other right-wing outlets, who happened to be studying nearby at the time.

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The images weren’t new—right-wing media personalities and newspapers had spread them to accuse Starmer of hypocrisy before—but they only blew up in a big way in late April and early May, ahead of local elections that were widely interpreted as a key test of Johnson’s political standing with voters. The right-wing press was again in the vanguard—the Mail ran the Starmer story, now christened “Beergate,” on its front page seven days in a row—but this time, mainstream reporters and pundits also gave it credence, and Starmer and his colleagues were asked about the incident in interviews; they insisted that Starmer’s team had merely paused for food during a permitted work meeting and claimed they could prove it, but their answers weren’t always totally convincing. “Playbook will be honest: When the original Starmer Beergate story came to light a few months ago, most Westminster observers didn’t think much of it, your author included,” Alex Wickham, who heads the London edition of Politico’s Playbook newsletter, wrote on the eve of the elections (under the headline “Starmer’s korma karma”). “That has changed significantly.” Then, history repeated itself—both times as farce—as the police launched an investigation. In a dramatic intervention, Starmer pledged to resign if he was fined for breaking the rules. Right-wingers in politics and media accused him of improperly influencing the police.

No sooner had the Beergate police killed that story’s momentum than the Partygate police (keep up) concluded their investigation without fining Johnson for a second time, his office confirmed. The next day, the front pages of left-leaning papers channeled fury that Johnson had gotten away with it, whereas those on the right demanded that the country simply move on: the Mail declared the police probe “A FARCICAL WASTE OF TIME,” while the Express asked, “CAN WE NOW JUST FOCUS ON THE BIG ISSUES?” When I last wrote about Partygate, back in January, I warned that the story appeared to be following a similar, albeit much sillier, trajectory to that of the Mueller report in the US, where too much coverage privileged novelty and optics over well-established evidence of wrongdoing, and substituted journalistic judgment for opaque legal technicalities—getting lost in the weeds and somehow contriving an anticlimax from explosive material the press itself had hyped. Not every British outlet treated the long tail of Partygate this way; far from it. On the whole, though, it felt to me as if the sharp coverage of the turn of the year had indeed been sucked down a rabbit hole of procedure, shifting standards, and narrative irresolution.

Then, last Monday, ITV’s Paul Brand—who had broken one of the sharpest Partygate scoops back in January—dropped another bombshell, publishing a photo that showed Johnson raising a glass at a party during a strict covid lockdown in November 2020. Reporters immediately asked how the police had deemed that event unworthy of a fine, a question that echoed on the next day’s front pages. (The Express defended Johnson, though in a country notorious for sarcasm, the paper’s lead headline—“NOTHING TO SEE HERE! YARD SAYS BORIS BROKE NO RULES”—at least had a whiff of ambiguity.) On Wednesday, Gray’s full report finally dropped, and though it contained no new bombshells, it was already clear that it was no longer going to be the final word. Amid a further flurry of incriminating stories, The Times reported that Johnson asked Gray, at a private meeting, not to publish her report, sparking frenzied speculation about an attempted coverup. (Government officials denied that Johnson’s office requested a meeting with Gray, then admitted that it had.) And various outlets have since homed in on an alleged event—a so-called “abba Party,” after the music that was allegedly played at it—in Johnson’s residence that was scarcely mentioned in Gray’s report. The Times reported that an abba section in the report had been altered prior to publication. (The paper claimed, in the same story, that Johnson’s dog barked incessantly as Johnson tried to digest the final Gray report, leading Johnson to snap, “Will someone put that dog down!”)

At the end of all this, Johnson’s position once again seems rocky; it looks unlikely, for now, that his colleagues will vote to remove him—a majority of the lawmakers in his party would have to concur, which makes for a high bar—though he could yet face a vote of no confidence, the British version of impeachment (kinda) that can be triggered by just 15 percent of his party colleagues, a total of fifty-four lawmakers. Some of Johnson’s colleagues have come out against him publicly, but all they need to do to express support for a vote is submit a private letter to the chair of a committee of Conservative lawmakers that is the British version of the House Freedom Caucus (kinda). As was the case back in January, reporters are again scrambling to work out how many letters may already have been submitted. Tom Larkin, of Sky News, has been keeping a color-coded spreadsheet tracking which Johnson critics have said what about his future. Yesterday, Larkin reported that Andrew Bowie, a Scottish Conservative lawmaker, had become the forty-fifth of Johnson’s colleagues to publicly question his position. Bowie’s statement doing so, Larkin noted, had lain unread on his personal website for the past two days.

Only one man knows for sure how many letters have gone in: Graham Brady, the chair of the aforementioned committee and now the most-watched man with that last name this side of Tampa Bay. Some observers think that he may already have enough letters to call a vote, but is holding off from saying so for fear of stealing the queen’s Jubilee thunder. (As Wickham noted, this is the Conservative Party after all.) Not that this has stopped Brady from being a hub of political-media attention. On Tuesday, a BBC reporter cornered him and asked him about the letters; in response, Brady smiled placidly but declined to answer, adding that totting up letters “is not a regular pastime of mine.” Maybe he prefers wellie wanging during the Platty Joobs.

Below, more on parties and Britain:

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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.