OPINION: When it comes to Cummings – the media fails

Dominic Cummings - REUTERS:Hannah McKay
Dominic Cummings, special advisor for Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts to the media as he arrives at his home in London. Image: REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Journalism, has, on the whole, had a good crisis.

My former trade has held the government’s feet to the fire and highlighted key failures. But on Dominic Cummings it’s fallen down – badly.

Take what happened on Tuesday this week, the day after Cummings’ spoke out about his infamous odyssey. The cream of the media was played – and did nothing about it.

The Whitehall strategy is simple enough:

  • Whatever you are asked, warble on about Cummings’ explanation. (Divert attention)
  • There’s lots to go at. Pretty soon the journalist’s slot is exhausted. If they do come back talk about the latest announcement. (Moving on)

The hacks failed to cut through this.

That was on full display in the daily briefing, but also, lamentably, in the BBC’s output.

The worst offender was Sarah Montague – Lady Brooke to give her her correct title – presenter of the World At One on Radio 4.

She was faced with the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick.

She had a privilege of much more time than most ordinary reporters get. And her producers had written her the right questions.

All she had to do was open her mouth and be a bit persistent.

But no, Jenrick followed the Whitehall line to a tee and the public learned nothing.

So what should the hapless hacks do?

  • Parrot back to the minister a summary of what Cummings said. Then be blunt: “don’t repeat it all again, if you do I will interrupt. Public confidence in Johnson/the government is plummeting over this. You need that to start lifting the lockdown. Please ditch Cummings and move on.”
  • If you get a second question: “The public have heard you not answer the question”. (Then Repeat question 1).

The public was of course on the money during the daily briefing. And revealingly unlike the reporters – cut off immediately after asking a question.

Government media advisers know the public would interrupt the answer and it would look very bad for ministers to then cut across them.

Any other way to get shot of Cummings?

Yes. There’s doubt over when and what he claimed to have said about predicting a pandemic in advance.

If it can be proved he lied about that, then the whole edifice of his account is undermined.

But for now he survives.

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