Leaks on from the Mekon? Number 10 accuses Dominic Cummings of leaks and client hacks swallow ‘the scoop’

I come not to praise Cummings but to, I don’t know, make jokes about him.

The word ‘scoop’ is one of the most debased terms in British media and no category of hackery has eroded the meaning more than lobby journalism. Where once a ‘scoop’ required some actual digging on the journalist’s part, a front page splash can now be built on one bit of government briefing — a ‘reckon’ from a partisan voice or just a bit of transparently concocted revenge.

It seems we’re looking at the second scenario with big ‘scoop’ that appears on the front pages of The Sun, Daily Telegraph and The Times today — Dominic Cummings is accused of leaking Boris Johnson’s texts with Sir James Dyson. Since he left Downing Street in November, Cummings has gone from éminence grease (sic) to eminently convenient scapegoat.

The Times’ story is bylined to Steven Swinford, its Political Editor, who regularly runs ‘scoops’ that boil down to getting a steer directly from Downing Street. In this case it’s a single-sourced story — Number 10 claims Cummings is the leaker and an unnamed source assures Swinford and Times readers that Boris Johnson is “saddened about what Dom is doing”.

The Sun and Daily Telegraph have the same single source for their stories — Downing Street — and the same ‘saddened’ quotes attributed second-hand to the Prime Minister. Thank god he had enough sadness to go around.

The fingering of Dominic Cummings — title of his cursed sex tape — was done not in the usual whispered briefing way, but almost as an unofficial official announcement. The three client papers were handed the same thin ‘facts’ with an embargo of 22.15 last night. And, in its desire to spread the innuendo to the largest possible audience, the Downing Street press operation prevented any of the three papers from credibly claiming a real scoop.

But that didn’t stop The Sun’s Political Editor, Britain’s most consistent cuckold Harry Cole from slapping an ‘exclusive’ tag on his front page story.

Under the print headline Boris: Dom’s A Text Maniac, Cole writes:

RAGING Boris Johnson has accused his former right-hand man Dominic Cummings of trying to destabilise him with vengeful leaks.

Insiders say the PM is “deeply disappointed and saddened” that texts he sent were made public…

… The man who once pulled the strings in Government as an all-powerful advisor is now suspected of “treachery” against the Prime Minister.

While Swinford in The Times refers to “a Number 10 source”, Cole writes of “insiders” in the misguided hope that it makes him sound more in the loop than his rivals. Over at The Daily Telegraph, Lucy Fisher, the Deputy Political Editor, opts for a similarly sweeping reference to “Downing Street sources”.

But given that all three stories carry the same sparse details and the exact same quotes from the Prime Minister, it’s abundantly clear that all three hacks got exactly the same briefing from exactly the same source. It’s a single source story no matter how they try to dress it up.

Having once used Cummings as the convenient figure to pin all Downing Street decisions upon while he was in post, Boris Johnson and his team are now deploying a Dead Dom strategy — ‘Don’t look at all these stories that are happened since he left! Look at the man who used to be behind the curtain.”

And Swinford, Cole, and Fisher — which sounds like a dubious small town firm of solicitors — have accepted the briefing wholesale because it sounds about right.

Having been a prodigious leaker during his time in government, Cummings is now such a plausible scapegoat that you could probably persuade Harry Cole that the former advisor is now eating nothing but hay. But the bar for a splash on a national newspaper front page should be higher than “someone in the Downing Street press operation says this is true”. That’s not reporting, it’s stenography.

Here are the three headlines…

Boris: Dom’s A Text Maniac (The Sun)
Cummings is accused of leaking PM’s texts (The Times)
Cummings accused of leaking Number 10 texts (The Daily Telegraph)

… each of them giving an unevidenced claim the amplification of a front page placement. Inevitably talk radio will hum with discussions of Cummings has his alleged rank disloyalty for the rest of the day.

Inside The Sun, Cummings is mocked up as a mobster and dubbed Dom Corleone. It’s not the first time that these claims have been made. Cummings was put in the frame for leaks about the dubious refurbishment of the Number 11 flat, Carrie Symonds’ role in influencing policy, and paw-nicious slurs about the Prime Minister’s pooch Dilyn.

Could it be true that Cummings is behind the latest batch of leaks from within the colander-like ‘confidential’ comms in Downing Street? Yes, definitely. But it’s also obvious that Number 10 is making these claims as loudly as it is because it is politically expedient to do so at this point.

With no evidence to back up the claims other than the word of anonymous sources speaking for Boris Johnson, an inveterate and unrepentant liar whose pants are always moments from bursting into flames, The Sun, Times, and Telegraph are — as is so often the case — simply acting as megaphones. It’s not reporting, it’s stenography

When the target of a briefing operation is so definitively disgusting as Dominic Cummings it’s easy to find yourself believing it. And leaking like the protagonist of an advert in a Countdown commercial break is in line with what we know about Cummings. But none of this is journalism. Reporting on Downing Street’s claims is obviously justifiable but splashing them on the front page with no other evidence? It’s just the very latest example of how the right wing newspapers act as an extension of the Conservative Party press office.

Just this weekend, desperate Dan Hodges was assuring readers of the Mail On Sunday that the mysterious “Red Mole” was the one behind the leaks. And less than a week later, that briefing by ‘insiders’ looks even more silly as Number 10 switches track and puts all its efforts into flinging mud at Dominic Cummings. It’s not the whip smart strategy that Downing Street seems to think it is though.

In an extension to the old saying that you shouldn’t wrestle with a pig because you both get covered in shit and the pig enjoys it, you shouldn’t wrestle with Dominic Cummings because you’ll both get covered in shit and Cummings will write an interminably long blog post about the philosophy of shit and why “so-called experts” know absolutely nothing about shit compared to him.

Swinford’s piece includes a detail that casts doubt on the whole notion, pushed especially hard by Cole in The Sun, that there is only one suspect and it has to be Cummings. He writes:

Dyson’s company is understood to have sent copies of the messages to about 30 officials in the Treasury and No 10 who are likely to be interviewed as part of the inquiry.

That’s hardly a tight circle of trust, is it? It’s more a gaping goatse of information.

From a purely tactical point of view, Downing Street has done itself no favours. Cummings is due to give evidence next month to a parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. And Number 10 has just handed him a bucket of shit and assured three tame newspapers that he and he alone is the one who’s been throwing it around previously.

What makes them think that Cummings, who has burned more bridges than an arsonist with an arch fetish, will not revel in the chance to fight back in front of a bank of cameras? Boris Johnson’s press operation could have given the impression that Cummings was yesterday’s man. Instead, they’ve made him Cardinal Richelieu in a tracksuit, Machiavelli in a moth-eaten beanie.

And I suspect he’ll be delighted…