Press Gazette understands James Slack’s role as The Sun’s deputy editor-in-chief is not at risk despite his lockdown-breaking leaving party featuring prominently in the Sue Gray report.
A leaving party for director of communications Slack was held on 16 April last year ahead of his departure to join The Sun as deputy editor-in-chief. Other journalists named in Sue Gray’s report include ex-Mirror reporter Lee Cain (who also worked as No 10 director of communications) and ex-Daily Mail associate editor Jack Doyle (a senior special advisor who took over from Slack as director of comms in April 2021 and resigned in February).
It has not been confirmed whether or not Slack (pictured, left), Cain (right) or Doyle were among the 83 people who have been fined by the Metropolitan Police over the gatherings, although fines were issued in relation to both of the former’s leaving events.
Regardless Slack’s role is understood to be not in question. He said he has nothing further to add beyond a statement he put out in January that said: “I wish to apologise unreservedly for the anger and hurt caused. This event should not have happened at the time that it did. I am deeply sorry, and take full responsibility.”
James Slack’s leaving party
The 60-page report sets out how the first invitation to staff for Slack’s leaving presentation was sent out on 9 April 2021, nine days ahead of the event happening (although it was originally scheduled for 29 April).
Another smaller leaving event took place on the same evening for a No 10 official based in the digital team of the press office, and Gray said there was “considerable overlap” between the two events.
Slack’s began at 6.30pm with a speech in the press office in which he thanked his team members and spoke about their future direction. Around 45 people attended, mostly in person but with some online.
At the time gatherings of two or more people indoors and more than six people outdoors remained prohibited, subject to exceptions which included where a gathering was reasonably necessary for work purposes.
The group had brought wine and beer, which they started drinking during the speeches which lasted around an hour. Afterwards, some returned to work “but others continued chatting and drinking” until the building was being locked down for the night, at which point they moved into the garden. Some of the group damaged a children’s swing and slide set in the garden by playing with it.
Gray found that some staffers left No 10 at around 9.30pm but others kept drinking into the early hours. The last two members of staff to leave did so at 3.11am and 4.20am respectively – the morning of Prince Philip’s funeral at which The Queen sat alone.
The Sun’s initial reporting of the Sue Gray report on Wednesday did not mention Slack’s involvement, despite his leaving party counting for two pages of the report.
In January the newspaper did acknowledge in one article featuring his apology that Slack is now the paper’s deputy editor-in-chief.
Lee Cain’s leaving party
A leaving speech and drinks event for Lee Cain from his role as Downing Street Director of Communications was held on 13 November 2020, the day that it was announced he and fellow special adviser Dominic Cummings would be leaving No 10. Johnson attended the event on his way between his office and his flat, alongside press office staff and media special advisers, and although wine was provided Gray was told it was “not pre-planned”.
However, she added: “It did occur at around the time that ‘Wine Time Friday’ would normally be taking place.” Gray’s investigation was told that Wine Time Friday involves press office staff bringing in wine to mark the end of the week, a tradition that began before the pandemic.
The report also noted that No 10 press office staff “maintained almost full staff attendance in the office during the pandemic, in order to carry out their roles effectively…”
‘Comms risk’ warning
Previously, amid the planning of a garden party to boost staff morale on 20 May 2020, Cain emailed the PM’s private secretary Martin Reynolds who was organising the event: “I’m sure it will be fine -and I applaud the gesture – but a 200 odd person invitation for drinks in the garden of No 10 is somewhat of a comms risk in the current environment.”
Cain told Gray he had subsequently spoken to Reynolds and warned him not to hold the event, but Reynolds said he did not recall the conversation.
The event was ultimately held, beginning just before 6pm that day and overlapping with one of the daily Covid-19 press conferences that were being held in Downing Street at the time.
A No 10 special adviser had messaged Reynolds to say: “Just to flag that the press conference will probably be finishing around that time, so helpful if people can be mindful of that as speakers and cameras are leaving, not walking around waving bottles of wine etc.” Reynolds replied: “Will do my best!”
Most staff who attended left the party between 10pm and 11pm that night. On an unspecified date after the party, Reynolds sent a message referring to something else as a “complete non-story but better than them
focusing on our drinks (which we seem to have got away with)”.
At the time the UK was in lockdown with one person allowed to meet one other from a different household outdoors.
Cain raised similar concerns of a “comms risk” to Reynolds over plans for another leaving event for an unnamed No 10 official on 18 June 2020, when indoor gatherings of two or more people indoors with exceptions where it was “reasonably necessary… for work purposes”.
In a series of Whatsapp messages after Reynolds asked him for advice on “handling” the event, Cain said: “I’m not sure it works at all to be honest, which would be a shame. I don’t see how we can have some kind of party though.”
He added: “I think it’s your decision my friend, not mind [sic]! But it obviously comes with rather substantial comms risks.”
The No 10 official who was leaving later proposed a Zoom event, including press, asking on email: “Hi It would be nice to do the speech bit either tomorrow or Friday with a zoom option so I can invite a wider No 10 audience (i.e. Questions, R&I, speechwriters DCs, PU, press, media spads, covid lot, political team etc)…”
Another official replied by referring to his “drinks which aren’t drinks”. In the actual event, a formal leaving speech event was followed by a smaller event in the room outside the Cabinet Secretary’s private office which featured pizza, prosecco and karaoke and led to one individual being sick and two others having a “minor altercation”.
‘Jokey highlights’ from Slack and Doyle
Slack also appeared, alongside Doyle, in Gray’s report in relation to a pre-Christmas gathering with a press office Secret Santa and alcohol on 18 December 2020.
A Whatsapp setting out the plan for the evening, kicking off at 5pm, stated: “Then James [Slack] and Jack [Doyle] do a bit of a jokey highlights and low-lights of the year speech.”
There was some mention of teams for a game having to be “socially distanced”, while the email invitation was reissued that afternoon to read “End of Year Meeting with Wine & Cheese” instead of “Wine & Cheese Evening”.
In the event Doyle, then a senior special adviser, handed out awards certificates to the staff – an extended version of those that were often handed out during Wine Time Fridays, Gray’s investigation was told.
At the time indoor gatherings of two or more people from different households were prohibited in London.
Sue Gray acknowledges media reporting
Gray noted that further events to the 16 she investigated may have taken place but not come to light, acknowledging the role of the media’s reporting.
She wrote: “It was also unfortunately the case that details of some events only became known to me and my team through reporting in the media. This is disappointing. Given the piecemeal manner in which events were brought to my attention, it is possible that events took place which were not the subject of investigation.”
Mirror political editor Pippa Crerar first revealed in November that Downing Street staff held three gatherings in November and December 2020, and later published a photo of Boris Johnson hosting a Christmas quiz in 2020.
ITV News‘ scoops included principal private secretary Martin Reynolds inviting more than 100 staffers to “socially distanced drinks” in May 2020, and video of then-Downing Street Press Secretary Allegra Stratton joking about a “wine and cheese” gathering in December 2020.
The Telegraph revealed the two leaving events, including Slack’s, the night before Prince Philip’s funeral. And The Guardian published photos of Johnson at an event at the Downing Street garden with wine and cheese.
Pictures: Slack by PA Wire/Stefan Rousseau and Cain by PA Wire/Yui Mok