“And then Boris said...” Westminster reporters are just gossip merchants with pretensions.

Tittle tattle is the currency of UK political journalism and some reporters are as rich as Croesus


When the paparazzi doorstep a pop singer or a TV star, broadsheet journalists are wont to sneer at the low tactics. But there’s generally no opprobrium when a scrum of snappers forms outside the home of an MP or, in the case of Dominic Cummings, a political advisor. What do these siege situations produce? All heat and no light. Perhaps a moment where the subject of the pressure cracks or says something odd that can lead a bulletin, but no questions are answered and no issues are resolved. It isn’t journalism, but a mob tactic — a show of power by the media as a collective force.

I don’t like Dominic Cummings, in fact, I’d go so far as saying I think he’s had the most destructive effect on Number 10 since the IRA fired a mortar at it. But in the specific case of doorstepping him at his home, I can muster up a microscopic particle of sympathy. Cummings is a public figure and fair game. His wife is a journalist so she has skin in the game too. But his son is a little boy and hasn’t done a thing to deserve the terrifying scrum of lights and clicking outside his home. Nor have Cummings’ neighbours signed up for the paparazzi escape room experience. There are plenty of ways to hunt down answers from Cummings and those answers, given the clear evidence of corruption in the current administration and his role in it, are necessary.

Today’s article over which the British journalism establishment will fawn and genuflect is the latest tick-tock palace intrigue piece from Tim Shipman of The Sunday Times. I’ve read Shipman’s books and they are rip-roaring reads that turned momentous events like Brexit into soap operas with vividly drawn characters and clearly established loyalties and loathings. Here’s a sample from the early part of his latest dispatch:

Johnson’s partner had staged an intervention that changed the face of government and led one minister to waspishly compare Symonds to Elizabeth I in Blackadder II. “This week we’ve seen who’s queen,” he said.

After another 48 hours of tumultuous personal drama and vicious infighting, both Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser, and Cain were gone from No 10 and his premiership was set on a different path.

There’s no doubt that Shipman’s work is entertaining. But what is he doing? Is it getting to the essential truth of what’s happening? I don’t think so.

Instead, I think he uses his access to create an exciting collage of various competing narratives, all the while accepting that the system as it stands is just the way things are. Because Shipman digs up dirty secrets and mucky gossip, the impression is given that he is revealing something important, but in the end he is performing a skilful act of puppetry. He puts on a show for the court which delights and dazzles even those who are meant to be discomforted by the revelations about just how childish those who stomp through the corridors of power actually are.

There are plenty of people in the media who would have you believe that gossip is vital to Westminster reporting and that, in fact, it delivers essential truths wrapped up in what seems like frippery. The journalist Marie Le Conte wrote an entire book on Westminster gossip, Haven’t You Heard?, which is built on the premise that it is rumours, gossip, and intrigue that make the whole system work. It’s a good book — well sourced and researched — and I don’t disagree that Westminster works on a system of backslapping, backstabbing, and backbiting. It’s simply that I find it less tolerable than Le Conte or many of the other members of the Westminster press pack.

Access journalism in Westminster protects monsters, raising them up to heights because they are more able to schmooze and bamboozle than others, and continues a culture in which the lecherous, lascivious and lazy are able to simply brand themselves as “eccentrics” or, in that terrible tabloid term, “shaggers”.

While there has been a rash of stories about #MeToo coming to the world of British politics in the past few years, too few scalps have been claimed by the press. Westminster is awash with horrible little men with sweaty hands and an inclination to grab and manhandle.

When journalists like Shipman report on Westminster, it is in their interests to present it as more like a Carry On film than the American Psycho-style disaster it really is. Why? Because Shipman wants to ensure that his sources spill the tidbits of trivia he needs next time. And when he’s writing a piece, he’s making a calculus — “Who is up and who is down right now? Who can I afford to piss off? Which ministers are burned right now and won’t be any use for a while?”

Politics is a dirty game and most of these reporters will never get the filth out from beneath their fingernails.

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