Ten years since the Leveson Inquiry uncovered some rather cosy texts between David Cameron and the chief executive of arguably the country’s most powerful news publisher, the question of whether the press and politicians are “too close” remains a thorny one.
The former prime minister’s leaked messages to Rebekah Brooks, who continues to head up Rupert Murdoch’s UK news business, revealed an apparently close friendship, but when it comes to the relationship between senior politicians and journalists, has much changed?
When Leveson published his report in 2012, he said that for 30 years or more politicians “have had or developed too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest”, although he added that “close relationships, including personal friendships” were “not in themselves any cause for surprise or concern”.
Since then the election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, first by his own party and then by the British people in 2019, has put a former journalist in Number 10 for the first time since Winston Churchill.
Transparency data published by the Cabinet Office and Treasury shows that when it comes to getting a meeting with a minister, it helps to be a billionaire media owner with a right-leaning portfolio.
News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch has had eight officially-noted lunches, dinners and meetings with Cabinet and Treasury ministers, including the Prime Minister, since September 2019. Brooks, CEO of News UK (a subsidiary of News Corp and publisher of the Sun and Times) has met ministers four times in that period.
Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere met Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove for dinner and had one meeting with the Prime Minister in the period.
Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the left-leaning Independent and Conservative-backing Evening Standard, had two meetings with the Prime Minister, as did the Telegraph-owning Barclay family.
Director general of the BBC Tim Davie met Johnson twice in the same time period.
(Scroll down for the full list of ministerial meetings with members of the media since Boris Johnson was named Prime Minister)
The Prime Minister himself met with 30 members of the British media, including editors, former editors and newspaper proprietors in the period.
Six of those meetings, the largest number, were with Telegraph editor Chris Evans, a paper at which Johnson has previously held a number of roles. He also earned £275,000 as a Telegraph columnist for the year from July 2018 to July 2019, covering the period between his resignation as foreign secretary and election as Tory leader and PM.
In addition to all these meetings, there is a revolving door of journalists taking up special advisor roles in government, either as Number 10’s powerful director of communications, the PM’s official spokesperson or press secretary.
Until November last year, Johnson’s director of communications was former Mirror journalist Lee Cain, who once dressed up as the tabloid’s famous chicken to heckle politicians. Daily Mail political editor James Slack was quickly hired to replace him.
Lee Cain is resigning from Downing Street – James Slack to become the new Director of Communications – official statements expected soon
— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) November 11, 2020
Slack has already stopped spinning for Downing Street and returned to journalism, taking up a job as deputy editor-in-chief at The Sun, under editor-in-chief Victoria Newton. His return from PR surprised veteran political journalists that Press Gazette spoke to for this article, who previously considered it a one-way ticket out of the news industry.
But Cain and Slack are far from the first journalists to join the government. Blair’s chief spinner and dread of Lobby journalists Alastair Campbell was a journalist before advising the last Labour prime minister.
Before him, Mirror political editor Joe Haines served as Harold Wilson’s press secretary from 1969 to 1976 and later returned to journalism (he’s still writing). And more recently ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson was hired as press advisor to Cameron at Number 10.
‘You dance with the press at your peril…’
“It’s been going on forever,” says Eben Black, political editor of the News of the World from 1996 to 1999 (well before the phone-hacking scandal that closed the paper) now managing director at Erudite PR, of the close relationship between the media and political power.
“I’m certainly not going to take a moral judgement on it. I think that is just how it works and we have to say that it just happens, it’s going to happen, there’s no way of stopping it – and there’s no reason to stop it either, because I don’t think… any editor, when it really comes down to it, is going to be more favourable to a Prime Minister if the view of the public is against that Prime Minister.”
“There’s no downside for the media really, because… when push comes to shove they’ll turn anyway,” adds Black, who says his experience covering ex-Tory prime minister John Major for The Sun was proof of that.
“The way [the paper] turned on John Major was quite stunning and vicious,” he says. “I was on the Sun when Major came in… and everybody’s going ‘yes, it’s the galloping Major’, that was the phrase, ‘he’s marvellous’. Regular meetings etc. with [Sun editor] Kelvin MacKenzie.
“I can remember sitting in Kelvin MacKenzie’s office, I think it was when we crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism… and John Major was on speaker and he said: ‘Kelvin, how are you going to treat me tomorrow?’ And Kelvin said: ‘I’ve got a bucket of shit on my desk and I’m going to tip it all over your head mate.’
“You dance with the press at your peril, but they’re right to do so.”
Black says that really it’s the PM who is the “supplicant” in the relationship, because it’s the media that has the “actual power, because what they do is what the public sees. They are the filter. So therefore, any prime minister… is very wise to have regular meetings with them.”
Johnson’s meetings during his first calendar year as PM, a year plagued by the coronavirus crisis, shows on one day in September he met with eight top editors and executives, and on another day in November five.
Of these meetings, 27 out of 30 were with right-leaning newspapers.
Johnson had one meeting with Lloyd Embley, group editor-in-chief of Reach, which publishes the Mirror titles and huge network of local news brands, but no meetings with that paper’s editor Alison Phillips, or with Guardian editor Kath Viner – representing the two biggest left-leaning news titles in Britain.
I told Leveson the ‘relationship was one of mutual mistrust…’
Philip Webster, who served as Times political editor for nearly two decades from 1992 to 2010, and was the first editor of Times Red Box from 2014 until his retirement in 2016, says Johnson might be “wasting a bit of his time” by meeting the editors of supportive news titles.
“He’s possibly preaching rather too much to the converted and perhaps he should move down the road a bit and talk to others,” says Webster. “I can’t see why he should feel the need to speak to the Telegraph any more than he speaks to the others. As I say, they may well be the converted.”
But as regards the Prime Minster’s meetings with senior media executives, Webster says he is neither surprised nor alarmed.
“I think it is good, and it’s in the public interest that senior politicians and the media talk, both at the reporter level – which was me in the Lobby day after day, decade after decade – and at the editor level as well, because it all adds to public understanding of what the government is up to.
“When I gave evidence to Leveson I said the relationship was one of mutual mistrust, but also mutual dependence.
“I think politicians need the press; the press need politicians. But that did not mean that there was no suspicion about the motives of the other. A politician would be just as suspicious about the motives of the media, and vice versa. I told Leveson I didn’t think that was a bad relationship.
“In my years, I’ve noticed it become more confrontational. The brilliant Telegraph expenses exposes, 2008 to 2010, added to a sense among politicians that the media was out to get them, but it didn’t change anything. It didn’t change the fact that politicians knew they had to deal with the press and the other way around.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Boris Johnson, former journalist, should be cosying up, in his mind, to as many journalists as possible. He knows the game from both sides of it. He knows the way it works.”
I took impartiality ‘to a ridiculous extreme’
Webster says that in all his years of working in political journalism, he “never saw evidence of anything that you could call compromising or corrupt”. He adds: “I don’t think anybody ever thought that going out to lunch with a journalist would inure them to future bad headlines if that became necessary. It was just part of the system.”
But Webster says he is “slightly uneasy” about journalists moving to government advisor jobs, because it exposes their personal politics.
“As a political journalist for The Times you had to be impartial, but you also had to be seen to be impartial,” he says. He says he never voted while serving as political editor at the paper – “I took it to a ridiculous extreme. If I was asked by any politician ‘how did you vote’ I’d be able to say I don’t.”
Webster says he also turned down attempts to poach him. “I had a couple of approaches made to me, not as political editor but in my earlier days as a political journalist, as to whether I was interested in working for a politician. Actually I’ve been asked by both sides, Labour and Conservative.
“I said to them straight: ‘Look I’m not in your party, I’m a journalist.’ For me it always journalist first, second, third, fourth and forever.”
While he says that if journalists were crossing over to government jobs on a large scale it would be cause for concern, Webster says he sees no sign of that happening. “It’s a free country and I think it’s perfectly okay for journalists to go into politics,” he says.
“And if they have successfully kept their political leanings to themselves while working at their newspaper, there’s no problem with that. Look at Michael Gove, he was at The Times and he hasn’t come back to The Times.”
‘I don’t think journalism’s a saintly priesthood…’
Guido Fawkes editor Paul Staines, who also gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry, says the relationships between the media and Downing Street “should be as transparent as possible”.
He led the call for Lobby press briefings to be televised, which Number 10 seemed to back at first, appointing Allegra Stratton (wife of Spectator political editor James Forsyth and ex-comms director for Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who was reportedly best man at their wedding) as press secretary to lead the briefings and spending £2.6m refurbishing the briefing room only to scrap the plan.
Staines describes it as a “setback”. “I thought televising the briefings would have opened the proceedings to the public a lot more and they’d see what’s going on. The Lobby didn’t want that and now Downing Street wants peace with the Lobby, rather than revolution and war.”
Staines is referring to changes to Lobby briefings brought in at the start of Johnson’s premiership post-general election, which were unpopular with political journalists who were not consulted on the changes. “Everything feels calmer,” says Staines of the relationship now.
Two former Guido reporters have recently ended up in Government. Hugh Bennett, a former Brexit campaigner, went to work as a special advisor to Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Ross Kempsell, who left Guido for Talkradio in 2018, joined Johnson’s team as a policy adviser in July 2019, although he returned to journalism as special correspondent for Times Radio last year. He is reportedly a close friend of Boris Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds.
“I was very surprised when he went to government so soon – and I was very surprised he managed to come back,” says Staines of Kempsell’s job moves. “I’m not sure that it’s that common… mostly once you leave journalism for PR you very rarely go back.”
Staines says there’s an “overlap” between he skillsets for journalists, press spokespeople and lobbyists (not the press kind). “There’s an accepted route now,” he says, pointing to the likes of Alastair Campbell, a journalist turned PR turned lobbyist, Craig Oliver and Robbie Gibb (both ex-BBC).
“It’s a well-worn route and a lucrative one,” says Staines.
When it comes to journalists crossing over, Staines says the move from private to public sector is more common in other countries, and that while “it obviously can be a little bit icky, I’m not sure it’s intrinsically corrupt”.
He adds: “I don’t think journalism’s like a saintly priesthood, it’s just a trade. I think people who get too precious about it need to look in the mirror.”
While we can only imagine the content of text messages between Johnson and the editor of The Telegraph, the relationship between the press and politicians remains close, but perhaps necessarily so.
As Staines puts it: “The media for politicians is like the sea for sailors, you have to have a relationship with it otherwise you drown.”