Abandon all (Christopher) Hope: Why The Daily Telegraph gave up on news and got high on the culture war

Street names! Statues! Stasi but woke!

On the front page of yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, there were four main stories and each of Christopher Hope, The Telegraph’s Chief Political Correspondent, was bylined — either solo or shared — on each of them.

The main story — ‘Don’t break rules once you’ve had the vaccine’ — drew from and promoted an exclusive article later in the paper by Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer. As a side-issue: I don’t believe medical advisors should give exclusive pieces to papers, especially papers that exist behind a paywall online and especially not during a pandemic.

The second, under a shared byline with Nick Allen in Washington and Jorg Luyken in Berlin, was a propagandistic piece based on Number 10’s claim that Boris Johnson was the first European leader to get a call from President Biden.

The body copy coyly admits in par 6 that “British officials told The Sunday Telegraph it was ‘likely’ Mr Johnson was the first leader outside the Americas to receive a call.” That little wrinkle makes the headline (‘Johnson first European leader to get a call from Biden’) a little less shaky than it seems if you don’t read close to the fold.

The last two stories — ‘Cabinet to back guarded hotel quarantine’ and ‘£1,000 benefit payments to boost economy’ — both come from a gum-flapping source in Cabinet, revealing what will be discussed by the cupboard full of ghouls today and heavily pushing the favoured lines of various factions within in it.

None of the stories on that Sunday Telegraph front-page pass the test printed on a framed placard seen on the desk of L.E. Edwardson, city editor of the Chicago Herald & Examiner in 1918, and subsequently attributed variously to Orwell, Randolph Hearst, Alfred Harmsworth, and Katherine Graham:

“Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising; whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news.”

The Van-Tam article is a vehicle for official advice and a means of settling scores, while the other pieces are merely a recitation of lines that the government wants to float in front of the predominantly Tory-supporting readers.

That Hope is bylined on all four stories — a state of affairs that often occurs — is not a sign of his brilliance, but of a paucity in the Telegraph ranks. As The Telegraph’s longest-serving report — he joined its business team in 2003 — the government knows it can rely on Hope to traffic its talking points.

In a 2019 interview with the Media Masters podcast, Hope said he enjoyed pushing Brexit culture war stories out onto left-wing Twitter. It’s not surprising then that he didn’t tweet his front-page stories first. Instead, he promoted a culture war take from later in the book:

That piece, again the product of whispers from government sources, began:

New roads could be named after military and civilian heroes under plans backed by two Cabinet ministers in the latest salvo of the Conservatives' 'war on woke'.

Oliver Dowden, the Culture secretary and Robert Jenrick, the Communities secretary, are backing a plan put forward by a group of Tory backbenchers for new streets to be named in honour of holders of the Victoria Cross and the George Cross.

The group called the Common Sense group of Conservative MPs also wants new statues erected in parks in places where the holders were born.

It seems to me that common sense is in the eye of the beholder and if you need to name your gang ‘The Common Sense Group’ most people will conclude you’re a bunch of bedwetting man-babies who spend most of your time livid that Tesco has moved the ready meals again.

Still, the article announced the beginning of week two of this particular new front in the culture war. It began the previous Sunday with Jenrick reactivating last summer’s statues skirmish through an exclusive Sunday Telegraph article promising, “We will save Britain's statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past.”

That’s the nub of what The Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph do now — they produce an ersatz version of reality forced through the prism of the culture war. While columnist after columnist in The Telegraph’s opinion section claims the Left is spearheading the culture war, it’s actually the Right that benefits most from endless battles over art, language, and entertainment.

The Telegraph loves the culture war because it allows it to define an enemy, even while the government is led by one of its former columnists — Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson, a man who Hope admitted to Media Masters is “Telegraph to his bones”. The Right and The Telegraph is a fanzine for the far-right more than a newspaper in the traditional sense, cannot admit it is in control and getting what it wants. The culture war allows it to claim that traditions are under attack and that Britain is crumbling. It cannot blame the government outright for fuck-ups so there must be another explanation — the fiendish Left are ruining everything.

It’s that mentality which led Tim Stanley, one of The Telegraph’s leader writers as well as a Thought For The Day regular and ‘wearing a bowtie in public as an adult man’ proponent, to write a column in the same edition of The Sunday Telegraph which laughably claims ‘Joe Biden, woke and big-spending, is far more Left-Wing than you ever imagined’.

Pieces like Stanley’s, which tries to frame Biden, a political horse trader who first entered the Senate in 1973, opposed measures to racially integrate schools, pushed legislation to help the credit card companies, and voted for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as some kind of AK-47-toting Sandinista, seem bizarre but actually serve a particular purpose: To reduce the Overton Window to the size of a modest cat-flap.

Biden is, at most, a centrist. But in the worldview propagated by Stanley and his paymasters at The Telegraph, that’s not good enough. To be a dealmaking centrist is weak sauce to red in tooth and claw conservatives; with a number of executive orders that pleased the Left signed in his first day in office, Biden might as well be Vladimir Lenin with a spendy watch and a Peloton subscription.

The Telegraph can’t face the thought that the UK might introduce some policies to help people in need, perhaps in an attempt to curry favour with Biden, so a president deploying sticking plasters for gaping wounds in the first days of his administration is framed as deplorably socialist by Stanley for the delectation of The Telegraph’s terrified Tory masses. He writes:

We have already seen, via executive action, increases to food stamps, student loan relief and steps towards doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Big spending in an allegedly small-government country is justified by the coronavirus and the so-called climate crisis: the green new deal is a Trojan horse for regulation and spending on infrastructure.

Those executive orders are about making sure poor people are fed, helping graduates — many of whom can’t get decently paid jobs right now — and lifting more low-paid workers out of poverty. That The Telegraph still runs columns which include phrases like “the so-called climate crisis” reminds you of who their audience is: Retired colonels in the shires screaming at their televisions and other ageing individuals on the cusp of an aneurysm at the thought of someone somewhere not having a shitty time.

The Telegraph looks like a newspaper and is treated like a newspaper — Hope was on Radio 4 presenting The Week in Westminster at the weekend — but it isn’t a newspaper — it’s the periodical wing of the Tory Party, the Continuity Conservative Party Press Office. Once you understand that The Telegraph’s aim is not to inform but to agitate and anger its shrinking but increasingly extreme readership it all makes sense.

Any journalism that The Telegraph — which broke the MPs’ expenses scandal as recently as 2009 — publishes now is essentially an accident, a distraction from its central mission of ‘pwning the libs’ and sustaining the Tories.

Hope lies for the trolls.

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