Frenemies against the people: Rees-Mogg slanders journalists as No.10 hack Slack runs to The Sun

The government's treatment of journalists varies wildly. Now why might that be?

The author of the Daily Mail front-page story that called three high court judges Enemies of the People has left his job as a government spokesperson to return to the tabloids where he will continue to be a spokesperson for the government, albeit with his salary now covered by Rupert Murdoch.

James Slack, who became the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson during the Theresa May administration and stayed in post when Boris Johnson took office, has been Number 10’s Director of Communications since January following the resignation of Lee Cain, the Muttley to Dominic Cummings’ Dick Dastardly.

Slack was the Daily Mail’s Political Editor before he danced into Downing Street and is now headed back to journalism to become The Sun’s Deputy Editor-in-Chief under Victoria Newton. The revolving door between the newspapers and politics is as well-greased as ever. In an email to Sun staff which was inevitably passed to The Spectator, Newton wrote:

… James is a brilliant newspaperman and journalist, with a strong understanding of both print and digital publishing. Prior to his time at Number 10, James had a long career at the Daily Mail. He was Assistant Editor (Politics), Political Editor, Home Affairs editor, and for many years, Leader Writer. He will bring with him his great news sense and a clear understanding of our audience…

Oh and also, Newton was too ‘polite’ to mention, that Slack’s relationship with the Prime Minister is so close that they could share a bed like a grotesque parody of Bert and Ernie.

The line put forward by The Spectator is that “this was [his] decision and the Prime Minister is sad to see him depart,” so you can expect to see lots of whispers, hints, and outright leaks being shoved Slack’s way over the next few months. The usual suspects at The Mail and Telegraph whose ‘scoops’ revolve around pointing their ear trumpets towards amenable Number 10 sources will be feeling a little sore today.

The revolving door that turns hacks into government PR flacks and back again is as sure a sign of a sick political culture as the pipelines which send ministers and civil servants straight from departments like Health or Defence into jobs at private companies where they lobby their old colleagues.

Just look at Allegra Stratton — previously a senior journalist at the BBC and ITV, now the Prime Minister’s press secretary and set to front onscreen briefings at some undefined point in the future. Since moving from a job with Rishi Sunak — best friend and best man of her husband James Forsyth (political editor of The Spectator) — into the Prime Minister’s inner circle, Stratton has repeatedly defended ministers and government departments slandering journalists.

Stratton excused the shady goings-on at the Cabinet Office’s ‘clearing house’ — a strategy to prevent FOI requests from ‘troublesome’ journalists from being properly considered — and defended Kemi Badenoch’s entirely specious and abusive social media attack on Nadine White, a journalist who was then with HuffPost but has subsequently moved to The Independent. It’s no surprise that she played defence for Jacob Rees-Mogg this week after he used parliamentary privilege to defame another HuffPost journalist. It’s looking like a habit.

During the regular ‘questions to the Leader of the Commons’ session on Thursday, Rees-Mogg launched an attack on Arj Singh, HuffPost’s deputy political editor. It came after the Shadow Leader of the Commons, Valerie Vaz, asked Rees-Mogg about a story published by Singh on Tuesday.

Singh quoted a leaked extract of a video call between the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, and Foreign Office staff. In the exchange, Raab said it was possible that the UK could strike trade deals with countries whose human rights records breach the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR):

If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.

The Foreign Office later claimed that the call had been “selectively clipped” and that the entirety of the Foreign Secretary’s comments had been more ‘nuanced’.

Rees-Mogg claimed in the Commons that Raab’s words had been “shockingly distorted by low-quality journalism.” He continued saying:

It’s a very cheap level of journalism, it’s not a proper way to behave… I think we should look at that type of poor-quality, online journalism. It’s not the sort of thing that would happen in The Times.

Of course, Rees-Mogg’s choice of The Times as a paper he considers beyond reproach has nothing to do with the fact that he dines with Rupert Murdoch (his last officially listed encounter with the billionaire was in September 2020, “an informal lunch between friends”) or that his father Baron Rees-Mogg edited The Times and was a columnist there until his death.

Responding to a point of order from Vaz, who said that HuffPost had contacted her to strongly reject the accusations of dishonest, Rees-Mogg doubled down, saying:

If the journalist didn’t clip it himself, he ought to have known it was clipped. He is either a knave or a fool.

The National Union of Journalists rightly identified Rees-Mogg as one of several ministers “acting like playground bullies”, while Jess Brammar, HuffPost’s UK editor-in-chief, tweeted:

To use parliamentary privilege to smear a journalist — knowing you can’t be sued for defamation because you are saying it in Parliament — is extremely troubling. We stand by Arj and his journalism. Produce your evidence, Jacob Rees-Mogg, or retract and set the record straight.

There will be no retraction, just as there was no apology for Kemi Badenoch’s appalling behaviour. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson — presumably having had surgery to allow them to keep a straight face while saying increasingly ridiculous statements — said:

The PM is a staunch believer in the value of the free press and the important role journalists play in our democracy. These are not comments that the PM would’ve made. These comments were made by Jacob Rees-Mogg and I’m confident that he can explain their intended meaning.

Yes, just like Rees-Mogg has ‘explained the intended meaning’ of his comments that those who died in the Grenfell Tower fire lacked ‘common sense’ or the time he again used parliamentary privilege to blow the anti-semitic dog whistle in comments claiming George Soros was “the Remoaner funder-in-chief”. Or that time when he spoke at dinner held by the far-right Traditional Britain Group by “mistake”: “We’ve gone for dinner with racists by mistake… Are you the fascist?”

A piece published by Jamie Lyons, a former Deputy Political Editor at The News of the World turned Head of Public Affairs at the communications consultancy Engine MHP, when Slack was made No.10’s Director of Communications says:

He has an insider’s understanding of the lobby having worked his way up from local papers to The Daily Mail. There he was one of a select group of “wise men” who had the ear of its imperious editor Paul Dacre. They decided what the Mail thought and what battles it picked. He went on to become the Political Editor, one of the most powerful jobs in Fleet Street. Colleagues at the paper viewed him as a potential editor and were surprised to see him leave journalism.

… Not that [Slack] has always had an easy ride. He wrote The Mail’s infamous “Enemies of the People” splash about the High Court judges who ruled in favour of anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller.

A Mail colleague said: “When he was Home Affairs Editor he wrote some of our most strident, reactionary stories. It’s pretty hard to reconcile that with the modest, humble guy I know he is.”

That last quote is the key to understanding why tabloid hacks can shift into government so easily and why politicians are so comfortable working with red-top journalists. Though journalists of all kinds crow that no one ever tells them what to write, tabloid hacks, in particular, know what they should write and will contort their words, thoughts, and personalities to make that work.

Jacob Rees-Mogg would never dream of defaming a journalist at The Times because they are his ‘sort’ and their ultimate boss is effectively an old family friend. Similarly, the Prime Minister — once a highly remunerated Telegraph columnist and a former Spectator editor — expects to slip neatly back into the media once he’s done with Downing Street. He’s never going to have a row with the lads from the tabloids or the chaps at The Telegraph when they back him to the hilt and will eventually buy his memoirs for lavish serialisation.

Slack can slip from The Daily Mail into Downing Street and now to The Sun because all of those organisations are players in the same game. They decide who the ‘right’ people are and who can be battered, bullied, and belittled. Ministers slander hard-working, straight-down-the-line reporters like Arj Singh and Nadine White because they know they can get away with it.

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