ITV News UK editor Paul Brand has shared the story behind his “jaw-dropping” Partygate scoops.
Talking about his first revelation, a video showing then Number 10 press secretary Allegra Stratton joking about a lockdown-breaking cheese and win party at Downing Street, he said: “The video came to us via a source we’d been speaking to for several weeks. We immediately knew it was Partygate’s smoking gun, and began a complex process of verifying the footage, engaging our lawyers and double-sourcing the video.
“People sometimes think these stories can go to air within minutes – but the reality is that you need to rigorously interrogate every possible detail when the claims are that explosive and it takes time.
“Hours before air we were still huddled together in our editor Rachel Corp’s office making sure the story was absolutely rock solid. You don’t want to go to air with a story like that unless you are certain that it is right.
“But that meticulous work meant that we were fully prepared when Downing Street’s denial dropped a few minutes before air and led our programme with the story regardless, absolutely confident that it was correct.”
Brand added: “We only actually got the go-ahead to use that video from our lawyers a few hours before air. But we rushed that to air that night at 6.30pm because we knew the importance of it. And I think why that video went so viral and why it was so shocking was because it was the first on-the-record discussion of the party. It was the first concrete evidence of it.”
An official investigation into Partygate by civil servant Sue Gray has since identified 16 gatherings in Downing Street, 12 of which are now being investigated by the Met Police for alleged illegal breaking of lockdown rules. The Prime Minister himself is a subject of the Met investigation and has been sent a questionnaire on his activities by the force.
Brand said: “I think it was jaw-dropping for all of us who were watching it [the Stratton video] when we first got our hands on it. We knew it was going to be explosive, not necessarily because of what was being said in the video, but the way it was being said, the laughing and joking.
“All of us have memories of reporting during the pandemic, where we were covering horrific experiences that people were having; life-changing experiences, life-ending experiences for plenty of people. And we knew that the tone of that video would jar very badly with the sense of huge sacrifice and mass grief.”
He said that it was rare to find a story like this which affected everyone in the country.
“There aren’t many stories that affect every single one of our viewers. And they were under the impression that we were all making the same sacrifices for the nation, which is why I think it’s been so explosive to learn that those who are making the rules were actually breaking them.
“Because that’s a potential betrayal, not just of one segment of our audience, but potentially all of our audience. And so the anger and the outrage is unlike anything I’ve seen as a journalist.”
The impact of the scandal helped push approval of Boris Johnson to record lows in January, with one Evening Standard poll finding that 70% of adults were dissatisfied with the Prime Minister. (Johnson’s approval rating has since risen to pre-Partygate levels .)
Brand concluded: “I think this is definitely the biggest story I’ve worked on in my career. When you sit back and look at the situation that we’re facing here, where there’s a police investigation into the Prime Minister, that is an incredibly serious situation for any Prime Minister to face. A virtually unprecedented situation as well.”
Timeline of Partygate press revelations:
- 30 November 2021: The Mirror’s Pippa Crerar reported that Downing Street staff held three gatherings in November and December 2020, when London was under tier three Covid restrictions
- 7 December 2021: ITV released a video of then-Downing Street Press Secretary Allegra Stratton joking about a “wine and cheese” gathering held at Downing Street on 18 December 2020
- 12 December 2021: The Sunday Mirror published a picture of the Prime Minister hosting a Downing Street Christmas quiz on 15 December 2020
- 19 December 2021: The Guardian published photos of Johnson from 15 May 2020 at an event in the Downing Street garden where people were drinking wine and eating cheese, with “no laptops, files or notepads to take minutes on show”
- 10 January 2022: ITV published a 20 May 2020 email sent on behalf of Johnson’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds to more than 100 Downing Street staff, inviting them to “socially distanced drinks”
- 13 January 2022: The Telegraph reported that there were two separate Downing Street parties on 16 April 2021, the day before the socially-distanced funeral of Prince Philip
- 24 January 2022: ITV reported that the Prime Minister attended a surprise birthday get-together in Downing Street on 19 June 2020, allegedly attended by up to 30 people.
Brand won political journalist of the year at the 2020 British Journalism Awards for his reporting on the Covid-19 crisis in care homes and told Press Gazette that reporting on such a heartbreaking issue made the Partygate story have more of a personal impact.
“It comes back to the experience that people were having out in the real world, versus the experience that people were having within the close confines of Downing Street,” he said.
“Covering care homes was one of the most harrowing stories I’ve ever worked on. I will never forget the faces of families pressed against glass windows, catching final glimpses of people they dearly loved as they passed away with Covid. There’s archived footage from that time that I find very difficult to watch back because I found that story deeply, deeply affecting.
“And when you compare those desperate circumstances, even with a gathering in Downing Street… that contrast feels desperately, painfully unfair. It is that contrast that I had at the forefront of my mind when I was covering the Partygate story.”
On his fears about the future of the care sector, he added: “What I have come to fear in the past year or so, since the peak of the pandemic, is that the care sector starts to become forgotten again… And that will go back to that kind of pre-pandemic time where the care sector was so badly overlooked and neglected.”
Brand first started as a producer for ITV Wales in 2008. He subsequently worked as a reporter, regional political correspondent, interim political editor for Good Morning Britain and eventually a political correspondent for ITV national news. After a four and a half year stint in that role, Brand was made the outlet’s UK editor in January 2021.
Last week, it was announced that Brand would be taking over as the host of ITV’s current affairs show the Tonight programme.
Brand, who is a patron of LGBT+ charity Just Like Us, also discussed the progress the news industry has made on LGBT+ representation in the years since he first joined nearly 15 years ago.
He said: “There still is a lack of LGBT people in senior positions across the media either on the screen or behind the camera, and that can sometimes show in editorial decisions. Maybe LGBT stories aren’t as high up the agenda as they could be.”
He went on: “I remember when I first joined the industry, I was told not to allow my sexuality to become a distraction on air. That if I was visibly gay, it would be some kind of distraction to the audience.
“And I think those attitudes have very much changed radically in the industry. But there’s still a way to go to get more LGBT people into senior positions… But the fact that we ran a series of stories talking about gay conversion therapy at primetime on a huge network, I think that shows how far the industry has come.”