Monday 3 February 2020

The Politics of the Tory Press Exclusions

What are we to make of Number 10's attempt to exclude certain journalists from certain publications from government briefings? An exclusion that saw the majority of the lobby hacks, including Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston turn tail and walk out in disgust and solidarity with those barred by decree. For their part, and in the name of scrupulous fairness, a Number 10 spox said "[A] Smaller selected briefing for specialist senior journalists (incl guardian) arranged. Uninvited Journalists barged in and demanded to be part of it. It was made clear - only those invited could stay. They chose to leave.” To which Pippa Crerar of The Mirror rejoined "that nobody "barges in" to Downing Street. If you tried, you'd get shot." True, true.

It is so tempting to let the schadenfreude rise to the surface in an explosion of cackling glee. After failing dismally to hold Boris Johnson and the Tories to account over the last few years, preferring instead to concentrate their fire on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, seeing Downing Street award their efforts by slapping exclusions on the liberal and centrist outlets is (almost!) richly deserved. Yet no matter how many times we can say told-you-so to the hacks and editorial offices who've done themselves in, this is nevertheless a potentially serious matter and not one we should be cheering along. We're not teetering on the edge of dictatorship, and so journos can relax - an enforced stay at a converted Butlins isn't on the cards. But what is is, you guessed it, more media manipulation and the further illiberalism of our poor quality democracy.

After the Tories rode the Brexit wave into office and winning a thumping majority, what we're seeing is continuity Cummings. Having bulldozed through everyone with maximum friction in the Autumn, why not keep plugging away at a winning formula - especially when divisions are starting to open in the cabinet (already!) about, among other things, HS2 and Huawei. And disquiet is sure to surface regarding Johnson's tough talk ahead of trade negotiations with the EU, but more of that very soon. The Cummings media strategy here is crude, simple, distracting and, in the short run, likely to be effective.

With the declining press, by allowing most of the established titles - save the Mirror and Indy - privileged treatment, the right wing rags closest to the government now have more of an edge in a shrinking market. In a word, the Telegraph, Sun, Mail and friends are getting pay back for their loyalty throughout the lead up to the election. As they perform an important role sustaining the politics of the Tory base which, we must remember, are disproportionately older (not disproportionately working class) and therefore attached to legacy media, there is clear self-interest in keeping them cultivated. Second, it's a cheap culture war win as well. Rather than being an attack on press freedom, it can easily be spun as giving the remain/liberal elite another kicking. Though keeping The Graun in the tent provides a little bit of cover against its getting perceived as a straightforwardly self-interested move. No doubt Cummings believes any short term pain, such as today's walk out, won't last and the hack pack will come to heel in short order. For instance, despite the welcome solidarity of Laura Kuenssberg her BBC bosses saw it fit to not report the story on the news website.

Nevertheless, this play from the Cummings strategy manual throws up all kinds of chaotic effects. By literally showing a section of the press the door we might see this reciprocated in more critical coverage of the Johnson government. Or, by the same token, for places like PoliticsHome and Huffpo a slide into more sycophantic coverage as a price for winning back access. Whatever the case, this is all about sending a clear message that the Tories are in charge and, for the moment, they're not particularly arsed about what critically-minded journos are writing and saying about them.

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