"Live from his lower colon, it's the Sunak show!" On the endless emptiness of political journalism

The court stenographers were out in force for 'Dishy' on his big day

BBC News achieved something incredible in the run-up to the Budget yesterday: It managed to shoot, edit, and broadcast a tribute to Rishi Sunak from within the Chancellor’s arsehole. Not content with mere arse-kissing, the national broadcaster went one step further and entered the blessed orifice from which it seems to believe Sunak produces golden eggs.

You might balk at the grotesque imagery of the previous paragraph, but I’m just preparing you for the content of the video:

The voiceover introduces Sunak like this:

“From newly elected backbencher to Chancellor in less than five years, Rishi Sunak has made light work of Westminster’s slippery slope to the top…”

Putting the clumsy metaphor of climbing the slippery slope to one side, the video begins as it means to go on — avoiding explicit mention of Sunak’s public school education (he went to Winchester), investment banking and hedge fund past, or the fact that he’s married to the daughter of a billionaire. Perhaps those facts might have explained more clearly why he’s risen so ‘effortlessly’.

The package features two journalists — Katy Balls, deputy political editor of The Spectator and Pippa Crerar, the political editor of The Daily Mirror — presumably in an attempt to provide ‘balance’. But both of them offer glowing assessments of Sunak and while The Daily Mirror is still nominally classed as on the left of the British media, it’s drifted increasingly to the centre and centre-right. Crerar herself spent a decade at The Evening Standard.

In keeping with the obsequious tone of the piece, Balls says:

It’s really quite boring as a journalist to try and write a profile of Rishi Sunak because you call around lots of MPs and people who’ve worked with him to try and get the dirt and people just tell you how lovely he is…

Now, you might say that indicates that Sunak really is Mr Lovely Smoothie Chops Esq. But, you could also wonder how wide the net cast by The Spectator actually is and whether it’s remotely in its interest to discover luxuriously-dressed skeletons in Sunak’s closet. As one of the premier Tory fanzines, it’s not surprising that The Spectator’s take on the Chancellor resembles the coverage of Lisa Simpson’s crush Corey in Non-Threatening Boys magazine.

However, there’s an indication of how supine and narrowly-constituted the British media has become in Crerar’s take on Sunak:

[An] Oxford and Stanford education smoothie, really… I think because of the speed of Rishi Sunak’s rise he hasn’t really picked up any enemies yet…

And when she’s prompted to come up with criticisms, she talks about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme in the mildest of terms, making sure to say how ‘we’ all backed it at the time. Who’s we, Pippa? She says:

Eat Out to Help Out was very controversial — we all loved it at the time — but the bottom line is there were big question marks about whether that contributed to the tranmission rate…

The criticism-flavoured compliments continue with her assessment of Sunak’s endless self-publicising:

It all fits into the very carefully cultivated image of somebody who’s a bit geeky, but also very personable and sort of ‘man of the people’, even though he had a very gilded path…

The video cuts to a new section after those last four words — “a very gilded path” — so perhaps Crerar did mention the billionaire father-in-law and the fact that Sunak is one of the richest people in Parliament. Either way, the video leans far more on the idea that the Chancellor is a geeky ‘man of the people’ than the reality that he is firmly part of the elite.

The video narration also perpetuates a common but false and dangerously simplistic understanding of sovereign debt and the national finances in general:

All eyes will be on him again as he takes steps to try and tackle the UK’s enormous deficit, the figures are eyewatering…

Across the media yesterday, the dusty analogies of the ‘household budget’ and the ‘national credit card’ were dragged out again. Until I can print more money to pay my bills the comparison will never work, but journalists still perpetuate this misunderstanding because they seem to believe audiences aren’t capable of taking in more complex financial explanations.

This morning, budget delivered, Sunak is still receiving slurpingly indulgent coverage. In The Times, snuffling truffle pig-man Quentin Letts dedicates the opening passages of his sketch to the tightness of Sunak’s trousers and the skinniness of his body:

Rishi Sunak told a muted Commons that the economy had shrunk by 10 per cent. Something similar had happened to his trousers. When he came gliding into the chamber at 12.30pm, the draught must have been whistling around his ankles.

Those strides he was wearing were so skimpy, they could have been Max Wall’s tights. His suit jacket had been shrink-wrapped on to him, too, accentuating what a remarkably skinny lad he is. Bony as a wet whippet just in from the rain.

If anyone needs a bucket of water thrown over him, it’s Letts; what a horrible case of horny on main.

Elsewhere in The Times, we’re introduced to grinning homebuyers delighted by the continued stamp duty holiday and the economic editor’s analysis begins with a trumpet blast of celebration, “Rishi Sunak’s second budget was not short on ambition,” while its leader column — the paper’s collective view — says, “Rishi Sunak rightly chose to continue to support the economy.” Who’s surprised that the paper of the landlords and landowners is delighted?

Of course, the headbangers at The Daily Telegraph are not happy, but any rise in taxes, in any form, would send them into a spiral of rage and recrimination. Alastair Heath — editor of The Sunday Telegraph and what would happen if you asked a small child to paint an egg with the face of a man who has just smelled piss but can’t work out where it’s coming from — writes:

For the past 50 years, the Tory party had believed that high tax rates, especially on income and profits, were bad for the economy and had strived to cut them.

Today, this is no longer true: Rishi Sunak’s increase in corporation tax is the first time the rate has been raised since Denis Healey’s demented Budget of 1974, shortly after the infamous Labour chancellor had promised to squeeze the rich “until the pips squeak.” It is also a straight lift from Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto: he wanted to raise the rate to 26 per cent; Sunak opted for a near-identikit 25 per cent.

He’s conjuring up some of The Telegraph’s favourite bogeymen there (Denis Healey! Jermbody Crobnin!) and unsurprisingly failing to mention that kicking corporation tax up to 25% still means a lower rate than in the rest of the G7. Only a maniac would argue that Rishi Sunak is a modern-day Denis Healey, out to make rich people’s pips squeak. Sunak’s very protective of his pips, despite those tight trousers Quentin Letts is obsessing over.

While The Daily Mail matches The Telegraph for apocalyptic stories about how the rich will be rinsed, beneath the bluster it rows in behind the government and the Chancellor. Ruth Sutherland writes:

His plans to soak the middle classes are coupled with a jolting hike in corporation tax from 19 per cent to 25 per cent in two years' time – only just under the 26 per cent proposed by Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader. 

The difference is that Mr Corbyn was attacking business with relish, whereas Mr Sunak is responding to unprecedented circumstances.

Though the FT deserves credit for highlighting the pork-barrel politics of Sunak’s budget sending piles of cash to Conservative constituencies — confronting him with the issue at his self-aggrandising press conference — and BBC economics editor Andy Verity did his best to counteract the ‘national credit card’ analogy, the shallowness of British political commentators is all over yesterday’s coverage and today’s papers.

The BBC News video follows a clip from last year in which Sunak was pictured dressed like Superman.

Countless reports yesterday focused on the conveniently unearthed clip of the Chancellor declaring that he is “a coke addict… Coca Cola that is!” and yet again we’re being told how nice Sunak is and how much he cares as if that even remotely matters compared to unpicking the details of his proposals and the reality of the Conservative Party’s continuing corruption.

The quality of Sunak’s suits, the soft drinks he likes, and the Star Wars figures he likes to play with matter more to most British political hacks than what he’s actually doing. British political journalism is about who’s up, who’s down, who’s slagging off who and how.

By tomorrow, we’ll be back on stories about who hates Dilyn the dog and which expensive wallpaper the Prime Minister is trying to get rich donors to pay for. Sunak isn’t really a coke addict but we know the British press will keep getting high on style over substance.

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