Boris and Dom: playing a hostile media like a violin

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Chief of Staff Dominic Cummings are exploiting the ability of new-media to reverse the power-relationship between the Government and the traditional mainstream press 

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman earlier on Thursday 6 February 2020

Cast your mind back to the immediate aftermath of Trump’s formal Inauguration ceremony as the 45th POTUS in Washington DC on Friday 20th January 2017, and the furore over the size of the crowd. That started when Trump took to Twitter to castigate the overwhelmingly hostile Liberal – i.e., left-wing in US political parlance – media for deliberately under-reporting both the number of spectators, which he put at 1½ million, and the size of the TV audience, which he claimed was the biggest in history.

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States

Outrage duly ensued. For virtually the entire next two weeks, the media devoted nearly all of its resources and reporting to proving him wrong. TV stations were bombarded with requests for their respective audience viewing figures, so that they could be aggregated. Fact-checkers enjoyed a rush of business. Crowd-size scientists were swiftly engaged. The talking heads in the news studios debated endlessly how many people the eastern half of the Mall, extending from the steps of the Capitol to the Washington Monument, could theoretically hold. Camera footage from helicopters was obtained, to estimate crowd densities and apply these to the measured area of known spaces.

Helicopter area & crowd images, Washington Mall

While the Liberal media’s attention was focused almost exclusively on desperately trying for its anti-Trump Gotcha! moment, however, Trump’s attention was elsewhere. During those two weeks he initiated the process of reviewing, de-fanging and ultimately de-funding the Environmental Protection Agency, whose ideological capture by the Green movement and the ‘Climate-Change’ Industrial-Complex had helped to advance the eco-socialist agendas of both during the Obama years. Only The Guardian appeared to pick it up. By the time the mass of the US media cottoned on to it in the second half of March, and predictably clutched its pearls in a collective attack of the vapours, the process was well under way and virtually irreversible.

In short, as neat a way as you’re likely to find, outside the pages of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, of neutralising the enemy’s strength by turning it against itself.

I was reminded of this on Monday afternoon, as the row broke about No 10 Downing Street’s Director of Communications allegedly denying some accredited journalists access to Lobby briefings, the long-established system of privileged access enjoyed by the political correspondents of the major traditional newspapers and broadcasters.

For anyone who hadn’t followed the initial stages of this saga on Media Guido, the Lobby briefings were recently moved from the House of Commons to No 9 Downing Street, ostensibly on security grounds, but accompanied by some “inner Lobby” hacks being selectively invited to special briefings, with others excluded. On Monday afternoon, though, the entire Lobby walked out in protest, although the circumstances are, to put it mildly, disputed.

As Dan Johnson of The Article points out, the Lobby doth perhaps protest too much. The system is itself antiquated, is incompatible with the growth and increasing influence of New Media, functions as a restrictive-practice closed-shop run for the benefit of its members, and thus secures them competitive advantage over their rivals.

All true, but what struck me was the immediate Press reaction, and then the consequential implications for the way government communicates with the voting public, and vice versa. 

Just as with their American media counterparts three years ago, outrage and hyperbole duly ensued. Huffing and puffing (appropriately, you might think, from The Huffington Post) was the order of the day. 

Not very long elapsed before references to “Goebbels” and “fascism” were being bandied about, the principle of Reductio ad Hitlerum never being particularly far away when the Fourth Estate feels its dignity slighted. The incident represented a ‘frightening attempt by Johnson to exclude unsympathetic press’ apparently. . .

. . . although how a government that wanted to ‘exclude unsympathetic press‘ would have included BBC News, ITV News, Sky News & the Guardian in the specially-selected inner group invited to stay for the specialist briefing was not immediately obvious.

I suspect Dominic Cummings is the mastermind behind this, is taking a leaf out of the Trump media-playbook, and is doing it brilliantly.

For all their complaining, some sections of the traditional, established (and Establishment) media really have only themselves to blame if their past few years’ conduct is, as appears to be the case, leading ordinary people to accord their account of Monday afternoon’s events in Downing Street no greater credibility than the Government’s own version.

One gets an increasing impression of a general public sick and tired of significant parts of the journalistic profession eschewing proper factual and impartial reporting and analysis in favour of slanting, opining and trying to tell it what and how to think. Not to mention sneering at, demonising and insulting it whenever its opinion dares to differ from the homogeneous groupthink of those same parts of the media’s incestuous left-‘liberal’ metropolitanism.

Take the BBC’s discharge of its Charter obligations over the past few days. How did it choose to mark Brexit Day?

By using its CBBC Children’s wing to pump out a bitter, aloof, anti-Brexit and demos-phobic sneer at the entire country, hosted by alleged ‘comedian’ Nish Kumar, most noted for telling his white audience to ‘go home and kill your racist Brexit-voting parents’, and so egregious that it was condemned even by the BBC’s own premier political interviewer.

Kumar kill your racist parents

By refusing to broadcast the elected Prime Minister’s speech to the nation on the cusp of its most significant constitutional change in half a century, while covering the event in a way that left little room for doubt as to where its sympathies lie. 

BBC Studio Brexit Night

By sending a reporter to the celebrations in Parliament Square to ask participants whether the crowd wasn’t ’too white’. LBC’s Julia Hartley Brewer’s comment speaks for itself.

By reporting the crowd in Parliament Square as ‘a few hundred’. After which I decided, having been there, to try a little ‘crowd-science’ for myself. Measuring on Google Earth, the celebration area being used was roughly 6,500m2. Where my fellow-revellers and I were, the density was probably 3 people per m2, but let’s say 2.5 people per m2 on average. That equates to possibly 15,000 people,  maybe 18,000, but certainly not less than 12,000. Rather more than ‘a few hundred’, anyway.

Finally, on Monday, and with quite impeccable timing in view of the opprobrium rightly heaped on it over Brexit Weekend, the BBC announced an increase in its so-called ‘licence fee’ – or, to label it more accurately, its coercive, regressive, household TV-signal receivability tax.

The impression of an organisation knowing it has lost the trust of its audience and therefore doubling-down with impunity on its contempt for it, is hard to dispel. As is equally, though, the impression of anti-BBC opinion specifically and anti-media opinion generally, perhaps the previously restrained expression of dissatisfaction with both,  having ramped up exponentially after last weekend.

I suspect Dominic Cummings knows this, and is choosing his moment carefully, judging that the public may now be more reluctant to support the media in a spat with government than for a very long time: and also that, if the mainstream established Press thinks that this is the time to go to war with Downing Street, then it’s making a big mistake.

He has a point. 60 per cent of poll respondents support the decriminalisation of non-payment of the BBC ‘licence-fee’, and no fewer than 75 per cent want to see it scrapped altogether. The BBC’s risible denials of its institutional pro-Left, pro-Remain bias in its selection of Question Time panellists have been comprehensively demolished. As Daniel Hannan argues, the self-important broadcasters of the traditional mainstream media are yet to realise how irrelevant they now are

No 10 Downing Street cut the BBC out of its production of Boris Johnson’s Brexit Day address completely, preferring to use its own in-house videographer and then distribute it via social-media simultaneously with making it available to the mainstream TV news channels. It’s this – apart from the content of course, which must have been anathema to the BBC – which is apparently thought to be a significant factor in the BBC refusing to broadcast it.

This has been coming for years. It’s over a decade ago now that Peter Wilby, former editor of both the Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman, led the chorus of old-media criticism directed at then Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan’s demolition of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the European Parliament, which became such a hit on YouTube.

Wilby went on record afterwards as saying –

The online success of Daniel Hannan’s speech…………proves what we knew: the internet lacks quality control.

Prompting Hannan’s memorable reply –  

“Yup. That’s the thing about the internet: it turns the quality filters off. Until very recently, few of us could get political news direct from source. It had to be interpreted for us by a BBC man with a microphone or a newspaper’s political correspondent. Now, though, people can make their own minds up. The message has been disintermediated.

What Mr Wilby seems to mean when he complains that the internet “lacks quality control” is not that my speech was ungrammatical, or shoddily constructed, but that its content was disagreeable. The quality filters he evidently has in mind would screen out points of view that he considers unacceptable.”

Finally, the mainstream media is becoming less and less crucial to the communication process between government and governed, with social media engagement figures climbing rapidly. 

2020.02.03 Leave.EU social media engagement

Cummings, I’d surmise, is only too aware of this, hence the apparent willingness to treat the mainstream media with considerably less deference than it feels entitled to as of right, based on its assumption of its historic dominance continuing. New channels of inter-communication between electors and elected, however, risk its decline in significance accelerating.

In the same way that Trump often does, Number Ten is playing a hostile media like a violin, And it’s working.

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