Discover more from Byline Supplement
'I Will Make You Hurt': 2022 & the Media
Mic Wright on a 'safari of psychic' damage as he reviews a year of mental acrobatics and sycophantic antics from Britain's political-media class
Writing about the British media is like Bill Murray’s experience in Groundhog Day but the music you wake up to every morning isn’t I Got You Babe but Hurt by Nine Inch Nails. Going back over 12 months of output by broadcasters and newspapers is a safari through psychic damage – one that I am not being paid remotely enough to endure and yet, here we go…
Byline Supplement is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber
The year of the three Prime Ministers and the two monarchs began with Boris Johnson still firmly ensconced in Number 10, following credulous reporting in autumn 2021 of briefings that he intended to remain there for 10 years. It took just 10 days of 2022 for that idea to be made even more ludicrous than it already was.
On January 10, Partygate, which had kicked off with reporting by the Daily Mirror in November 2021, was shocked back into life after ITV News acquired an email from 2020 about a gathering held at the height of lockdown.
The least credible thing about Partygate was not Boris Johnson’s Withnail & I-style apologies – “I went to a party by mistake… Are you the farmer?” “No, Prime Minister, I’m your Principal Private Secretary.” – but the suggestion that political hacks had no idea what was happening in Downing Street during lockdown. The Sun’s coverage – which initially tried to ignore the revelations entirely – was particularly pitiful; its deputy editor James Slack was employed in Downing Street when the parties took place and attended some of them.
As former Sun editor David Yelland tweeted at the time:
I can easily name ten, maybe as many as 20 political journalists who must have known or should have known about this Johnson party. Their editors should fire them. Except some of those mates of Boris are editors…
Partygate was a product of tactical leaking; Pippa Crerar at the Mirror and Paul Brand at ITV News were given a series of smoking guns by people within the Tory machine who had decided that Boris Johnson’s usefulness was at an end.
Boris Johnson’s distraction techniques stepped up a gear this month with a combination of visits to Ukraine and his accusation that Sir Keir Starmer “failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile”. The change in the political weather saw outlets who’d been happy to push ridiculous claims during the Corbyn era – such as that he’d “danced a jig” at the Cenotaph, “stole sandwiches from veterans”, had been a Czech spy, and should apologise for his great-great-grandfather being a workhouse master – were suddenly shocked on Starmer’s behalf.
Meanwhile, a coalition of the completely vile, including Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill, the Mail’s Sarah Vine and Richard Littlejohn, and an entire battalion of Telegraph headbangers, published columns suggesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was encouraged by “wokeness”. Vine claimed, “the woke ideology is the greatest threat to freedom since communism,” while Littlejohn raged about pronouns: “… this kind of woke grandstanding is a peacetime, end-of-history indulgence which has no place in a grown-up world where war is once again the answer at least as far as the madman Vlad the Impaler is concerned.”
Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation, aka Evgeny Lebedev, used the front page of the Evening Standard to print an open letter to Vladimir Putin. It was the bare minimum of condemnation, delivered only when the heat was on him.
While Lebedev was once again using his newspapers for a personal PR offensive, further up the food chain, William and Kate were protected by the British press after an unwise tour of the Caribbean turned unsurprisingly sour. After colluding in the most cack-handed image of white supremacism – riding in the open-top Land Rover his grandparents had used to lord over Jamaicans in 1962, in his white dress uniform beside his wife in a white dress – the Prince was hailed as a moderniser on the front pages of The Sun (an exclusive!), the Daily Mail (even more exclusive!) and the Daily Mirror (not kidding itself it had an exclusive).
This was the month that then-Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries – remember her? – launched her now-scuppered plan to privatise Channel 4. It also showed how brittle Rishi Sunak’s ego really is when media coverage of his wife’s tax affairs had “sources close to him” (Sunak in a silly moustache) decrying the factual reporting as “a total smear… [and] a hit job”. Oddly enough, since he’s become Prime Minister, the same newspapers have been remarkably… uh… restrained about discussing the Sunaks’ finances.
Rupert Murdoch’s Talk TV also launched this month. It’s still going, apparently. At least that’s what Piers Morgan claims.
The question of whether Boris Johnson knew who Lorraine Kelly was – or perhaps whether he knew the “Lorraine” character she plays on TV for taxes purposes – was briefly a story at the beginning of this month. It provided a perfect illustration of how the British media can get fixated on a piece of trivia and allowed Johnson to largely get away with claiming credit for Freedom Pass, which was actually introduced in 1973.
And inevitably the discourse was wrenched back to talking about Corbyn when Daily Mirror Westminster Correspondent, Mikey Smith, tweeted:
Jeremy Corbyn not being able to identify Ant and Dec was genuinely a three-day story. In fairness, I wrote a couple of the stories. And I stand by them. Not being able to identify Ant and Dec, and not knowing who Lorraine is are both deeply weird and telling flaws for men who want to run this country.
A complete lack of embarrassment is a professional advantage for British journalists. That’s why May ended with much of the British press shrugging at the publication of Sue Gray’s report into Partygate. “Is that it?” huffed the headline from the Daily Mail while The Sun demanded “we” all “move on” with a front page that declared “The Party (Gate) Is Over”.
In the Daily Telegraph, William Sitwell – a man I’d been assured had been cancelled in 2018 – explained that drinking at work is good because Winston Churchill was often rat-arsed.
Mangling a Churchill line, June saw not the end of the beginning but the beginning of the end for Boris Johnson’s sabbatical as Prime Minister as the right-wing press started preparing the betrayal narrative and jockeying to be the paper that hosts his return to column-writing. The Times also gave Johnson a helping hand by disappearing a story that alleged he’d tried to install his then-mistress Carrie Symonds as his chief-of-staff at the Foreign Office. Having appeared in print, all trace of it was swiftly wiped from the Times website. No explanation has been offered by News UK and the man in charge of the paper at the time, deputy editor Tony Gallagher, has now been promoted to the top job.
June was also the month that RMT general secretary Mick Lynch came to greater public prominence with his casual dissections of interviewers live on air. Kay Burley and Piers Morgan were among the super-mediocre weights to be felled by this plucky young challenger (aged 60) with his unstoppable one-two punch of straight answers and a willingness to call out lies.
Private Eye followed up the disappearing Times story of the previous month by suggesting that it had been killed because Number 10 feared it would be more specific about what “sex act” – as tabloids insist on calling it – had been occurring between Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds in his parliamentary office. The problem with the BJ and the BJ story was that all the giggling around it drowned out the real issue: A politician abusing his power and trying to reward his mistress with a well-paid job.
After Johnson announced his resignation, the month was dominated by newspapers and media organisations that had backed him to the hilt pretending to be confused about how ‘we’ had gotten into this mess. His rehabilitation started before the removal vans arrived. On Downing Street, in the moments after Johnson finished his not-quite-a-resignation speech, Beth Rigby told Sky News viewers he had shown “great dignity” and was “a good writer [who] gives good oratory”. In the Daily Telegraph, Allison Pearson who had derided Johnson as “[delivering only] empty promises” in a column on 28 June, now wrote of his “heroic legacy”, simpering:
…The mistake, I think, was to ever regard Boris Johnson as a normal, contemporary politician. He was a classicist with a heroic sense of destiny.
The Daily Mail added to its ongoing ‘Enemies of the People’ part-work series with the headline “Tories must quit Boris Johnson witch hunt’” and the British political press wallowed in the leadership contest between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. The “culture war” – a fixture of coverage from all the major newspapers – bubbled on too with The Times claiming that universities were blacklisting books (they weren’t) and the cancellation of a Jerry Sadowitz show at the Edinburgh Fringe being spun into countless columns about “cancel culture”. The tour that followed sold well.
Rumours of Michael Gove’s demise as a frontline politician – pushed mainly by Michael Gove – led to a rash of unctuous tributes to him. The most egregious coming from his former employers at The Times who had intended to set him up as a presenter on Times Radio until he returned to the cabinet in Rishi Sunak’s unexpected administration.
Samira Ahmed seemed a perfect fit to replace Jeremy Paxman as host of University Challenge having set questions for the series and worked as a standby presenter on the show. The BBC appointed the notoriously under-employed Amol Rajan instead.
And Emily Maitlis suddenly realised all the problems with the BBC’s news coverage just in time to deliver the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival. It was a very serious performance and not remotely an hour-long advert for The News Agents, the Global podcast she now hosts with fellow ex-BBC stars Lewis Goodall and Jon Sopel.
Liz Truss won the Tory leadership contest and became Prime Minister with the right-wing papers pretzelling themselves into all kinds of awkward shapes to assure their readers of her brilliance. In a paragraph that would wilt faster than the lettuce that the Daily Star later correctly bet would outlast Truss’ time as PM, Jan Moir wrote:
After the florid dramas of recent political times, what people want right now is a Liz Truss, a rock-solid Plain Jane who can get us in to see a doctor before next Christmas and maybe do something about the economy at the same time.
Inevitably, the death of the Queen derailed the British media for most of the month. There was endless coverage of The Queue and an odd transmogrification of Paddington from a cuddly bear into a marmalade-fuelled psychopomp ferrying Elizabeth II across the river Styx.
The utter absence of balance and the narrowness of acceptable opinions was illustrated by the opening of one of the Daily Telegraph’s many obituaries for the Queen:
Even the most virulent republicans conceded that it was impossible to imagine any other figure who could have carried the burdens of the head of state so effectively and graciously, or provided such a unifying presence, as Elizabeth II.
Despite the press’ authoritarian calls for “respect”, much of its coverage was crass; The Times fashion editor reviewed the funeral frocks (“Oh my, those uniforms…”) and MailOnline analysed the emotions of the dead monarch’s favourite pony (“…viewers claim the faithful pet even 'curtsied' as the cortège drove past…”)
When politics resumed, Kwasi Kwarteng’s kwasi-budget was initially hailed as a stroke of genius by much of the press. Alastair Heath in the Daily Telegraph called it “a moment in history that will radically transform Britain” while The Sun’s leader column thundered “Liz Truss has gambled on growth — but what alternative does she have?” Less than a week later, the same papers were raging at “lefty” bond markets and pretending they’d been dubious about whether Truss and Kwarteng’s plan would ever work.
As October began, Camilla Tominey of the Telegraph, who had needed just 24 hours of the Truss era to declare “[she has] already shown she is captain of her own ship” was now reporting from the Tory Party conference that it was holed beneath the water line with “[her] entire policy platform in jeopardy”. But after the Prime Minister’s conference speech with its attack on “the anti-growth coalition”, The Sun, Telegraph and Daily Mail applauded again.
It didn’t last though. Just 22 days separated these two Daily Mail headlines…
At Last! A True Tory Budget
24 September 2022
How Much More Can She (And The Rest Of Us) Take?
15 October 2022
… which were bylined to the same man, Mail political editor, Jason Groves.
After trumpeting Truss, the columnists and commentators of the British press simply pretended they hadn’t. Their views are still quoted as if they carry merit and they have shown not even a micron of contrition.
In fact, the media was so shameless that it floated the idea of Boris Johnson’s return to Number 10 quite seriously until he chickened out, leaving the clean-up to Rishi Sunak.
Of course, Sunak’s elevation to PM gave his best friend, best man, and best pal from their school days at Winchester, Spectator political editor James Forsyth, the opportunity to once again write columns that don’t mention their connections at all. After all, a conflict of interests in the British press means trying to decide if you want to go to the theatre or out for dinner with some of the worst people in the world.
The firebombing of an immigration processing centre in Dover provoked not sympathy, concern, or reflections on its history of dehumanising rhetoric from Britain’s press, but a deluge of anti-immigrant headlines. The morning after the attack, the Daily Telegraph’s front-page headline was “Migrants are set to share hotels with public as Channel crisis worsens”. Yes, imagine the horror of a group of humans having to share the same space as Telegraph readers.
November also saw the return of Lord Lucan stories with the Daily Mirror claiming an old man in Australia was the justice-evading, murderous aristocrat. He wasn’t. But the Mirror still doorstepped a vulnerable old man. It implied that because he was “stressed and agitated” when confronted, the claims of a facial recognition ‘expert’ must be true. The following day, the Daily Mail published an unblurred image of the man who definitely isn’t Lord Lucan.
Running away from responsibility was a running theme in November as former Health Secretary Matt Hancock also flew to Australia to appear on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here. The show and the blanket media coverage inevitably led to a degree of rehabilitation for Hancock, who came third. The only honest reactions in the whole debacle came from pigeons that flapped to escape him, the scorpion that stung him, and a snake that tried to strike him; it knew it was in the presence of a kindred spirit.
While 2022’s conclusion is still being written as I type this, December has seen the media obsess over Harry & Meghan on Netflix, delighting in the traffic it brings while pretending to think it shouldn’t exist, making excuses for the racist questioning of a royal aide, and giving Jeremy Clarkson more than the benefit of the doubt over a column where he fantasised about Meghan being marched through the streets and pelted with shit. His ‘apology’ is as empty as any we got from Boris Johnson at the start of the year and as likely to lead to consequences.
Ah, the alarm clock is going off again and the British media’s singing that familiar tune again: “I will let you down. I will make you hurt…”
Byline Supplement is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.