More than one rogue shithead: Bashir didn't break the BBC, Symonds doesn't run No.10 and Cummings isn't Machiavelli...

The British media prefers having a baddie to blame over telling really messy stories.

The conspiracy theory de nos jours is that the ‘secret’ wedding of Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds yesterday was a marriage of Oh How Convenient!, a dead cat in a tasteful yet pricey veil, slung onto the table to distract from some other story already in the headlines or arriving imminently. But that presumes that ‘negative’ stories are chipping away at Johnson’s chaos energy soaked premiership and they’re simply not.

Similarly, the notion that Johnson and Symonds got hitched so he can call spousal privilege in some future criminal case is very wide of the mark. What justice universe do you think we’re living in? Boris Johnson will die old, free, and rich, unhaunted by the ghosts of the people he allowed to die unnecessarily, unbothered by the people he left poorer.

Dominic Cummings’ one-man mission of no mercy didn’t dent Johnson’s standing in the polls or raise the ratings of parcel-shelf nodding dog Keir Starmer, and there’s a high chance that the Tories will sweep up Batley & Spen in the forthcoming by-election. Sometimes a wedding is just a wedding, however horrific the participants. Boris Johnson doesn’t need to distract from shameful stories because he is medically incapable of feeling shame.

The more niche conspiracy theory in which I intend to indulge is that Harry Cole’s front page exclusive Sun story about Johnson and Symonds sending out save-the-date cards for a 2022 ceremony — published just 5 days before the actual wedding — was a red herring flung into his eager yap.

Could it be that Britain’s premier creepy ex-boyfriend was deliberately embarrassed by a story in his own newspaper as revenge for the time he sent Carrie those weird clay models/texted her 1,000 times in one month/offered to dye his hair blonde if that would change anything?1

The secret marriage story dropped long after the Sunday newspaper columnists filed, but Camilla Long had already dedicated hers to yet more Carrie analysis, beneath the headline — Never mind Dilyn — it’s Carrie who’s making an unwanted mess at No 10.

Her inspiration is a letter leaked to The Daily Mail but intended for The Times in which Symonds, having allegedly elbowed the Prime Minister to co-sign it, complained bitterly about stories ‘defaming’ Dilyn, the most complained about canine in Britain.

Long has a fine old time with this. She writes:

To say the letter is extraordinary is to understate the sheer tininess of the hill Symonds was prepared to die on. It went like this. The Times had run an article about Dilyn that she claimed was “wholly false” and “highly inaccurate”. It was a “gross invasion of privacy”, she sniffed, to write about their home life and suggest the dog “suffers from chronic ill-health”. She had received “abuse” from “members of the public” who had been “misled” by the paper; she wanted to copy the letter to the press regulator Ipso and complain under clauses that relate to harassment, privacy and, bizarrely, children.

And what terrible slurs had the paper printed? Just that Dilyn was crapping all over the carpets. Someone, possibly Boris, had suggested he would be rehomed, or they hadn’t, or — whatever. Does it matter? I think we now know at least some of it was true. Why pretend it wasn’t, unless you felt that your fragile self-image as an advocate of “animal welfare” was of national importance. Who even thinks writing about a dog is intrusive?

Using the time-honoured columnist’s trick of cutting-and-shutting two seemingly unconnected stories, Long then takes the opportunity to criticise Naomi Osaka for her decision not to do press conferences during the French Open:

What’s interesting is the chronic overreaction to criticism, the complete inability to cope with any negativity. It is like the tennis player Naomi Osaka, who said last week she didn’t want to do press conferences because they damaged her mental health. Creating a nightmare atmosphere and then claiming that you’re the victim is classic 2021 behaviour.

Inevitably she follows that sleight with a de rigueur dig at the Duchess of Sussex (“Who else speaks like this? Hmmm, let me think… the Duchess of Susses… [it’s] making accusations of sexism as a way of gaining power…”).

Long has… uh… long been head mean girl of the Sunday papers and she has no intention of surrendering the Swarovski-encrusted crown any time soon. She concludes:

The thing I’m worried about is the chilling effect this campaign has had on anyone who might want to ask serious questions. How much influence did Symonds have over hirings? Was she “trying to change a whole bunch of different appointments in No 10 and appoint her friends to particular jobs”, which was completely “illegal”, as Cummings claimed?…

Why is no one saying this? I get that there is some vague criticism. Symonds has positioned herself as the “little woman”, so no one wants to be the one to say she isn’t. This is, of course, in itself sexist: using your gender to disguise the fact that you have power and are abusing it. Meanwhile, Boris is apparently happy surrounded by angry, weeping women.

“Why is no one else saying this?” is another classic columnist’s trick. When you see this rhetorical flourish you can be certain that lots of other people, many of them in other newspapers, are in fact saying whatever it is that the columnist wants you to believe is a radical slice of straight-talking.

In the case of Symonds, the notion that she is the eminence cerise behind Boris Johnson is not a minority opinion. The Daily Mail dedicates page upon page to claim and counterclaim about Carrie. The issue is not that people think Symonds has undue influence on political hiring and policy creation — it’s pretty clear that she does, especially in the realm of vaguely unworkable animal welfare measures — but that columnists massively over-play the psycho-dramas.

It’s much easier for columnists and political hacks alike to write about characters in primary colour crayon strokes than to unknot complex power relationships or explain the realities of policy. Westminster reporting is like following the soaps, but the cast is uglier, the plotlines are more tedious, and nothing ever gets tied up. The canard is that all political careers end in failure, but most British political endeavours now end in handsomely paid PR and consultancy jobs.

Of course, Johnson and Symonds’ wedding serves a propaganda purpose. The Mail On Sunday splashes on the headline Boris And Carrie Wed as if it’s not a national newspaper but a particularly vomit-inducing family newsletter, and stretches credulity with a story inside that presents the relationship as a beautiful love story rather than a dismally common story of a man leaving his long-suffering wife for a younger woman. That headline reads: 'Very much in love': How Boris Johnson's relationship with Tory aide Carrie Symonds survived 'everything thrown at them' but they have 'come out the other side still smiling' 

The story includes the polite lie that there was no overlap between Johnson’s relationship with Symonds and his previous marriage (“There was little pause before Mr Johnson was publicly linked to Carrie Symonds…”) and the incident when police were called to her flat after neighbours heard them rowing is swept away as “merely a lover’s tiff”.

The Sun on Sunday — which, like The Mail on Sunday, claims to have an exclusive on the nuptials but palpably does not — goes with the headline Boris Johnson MARRIES Carrie Symonds in top-secret ceremony in Westminster. So secret, in fact, that multiple national newspapers have all the details. In sad news for Harry ‘Prince of Cucks’ Cole, he didn’t even get a byline let alone an invitation this time.

The story, written by David Wooding, The Sun on Sunday’s political editor, alongside reporter Nick Pisa and political correspondent Ryan Sabey, strains for drama in the news that two people we knew were getting married have… got married. The trio write:

Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds even caught top Downing Street aides by surprise with their cloak-and-dagger nuptials.

Answers notably absent include: Who paid for the ceremony? And how did twice-divorced Johnson wangle a ceremony in a Catholic cathedral? The answer to the latter, of course, is that the Catholic church can always find loopholes for the powerful; that’s its whole schtick. That and [redacted for taste reasons].

But while the papers are unsurprisingly obsessed with the ‘secret’ marriage, the ripples from Dominic Cummings throwing half a quarry into the Westminster pond continue…

Another Dominic — Lawson, this time — dedicates his Times column to a solipsistic recounting of a shared love of chess with Cummings and recommending Deep Mind’s Demis Hassabis speak to the then-senior advisor to the Prime Minister only to be told that was already happening.

Lawson uses the chess playing analogy to compare Cummings with politicians who he frames as mostly gamblers:

[Boris Johnson] is a political performer of genius (not the same thing at all as running an administration efficiently). His approach is best described as animalistic. He sniffs the wind. He detects the thermals in the political atmosphere and is borne aloft by them. He will procrastinate, apparently without a plan, until then. This, too, enraged Cummings — because it was lethal when a virus was spreading exponentially. In chess a clear and consistent plan — known as strategy — is essential. You are lost, and will lose, without it.

Here, however, the debate is about real loss: not of a mere game, but of many thousands of lives, and the extent to which a large number of those fatalities could have been prevented by better planning…

[Cummings] is objective enough to admit his errors to himself. It is a painful process that good chess players always undertake — unlike the most successful politicians.

While Lawson’s column has an advantage over many others in that he actually knows Cummings personally and is making his assessment, in part, based upon that knowledge, it still strives for a clean explanation where there isn’t one.

Columnists need to tell a story, to pick and define a line, and that means in the case of Cummings vs. Johnson that they pick a side and generate an explanation for why their choice is the right one. Actually, Johnson and Cummings are both liars, both telling partial stories about what happened — it’s Rashomon entirely recast with right-wing shitheads, monsters, and mediocrities.

Cummings is neither Machiavelli nor the moron he unconvincingly pretended to cast himself as during his parliamentary committee appearance.

That brings me to the final character in today’s newsletter: Martin Bashir. Just as Cummings is still all over the papers like a puppy who hasn’t passed through the pissing everywhere stage, Bashir and the BBC remains fertile ground for columnists, particularly at the batshit Beeb-bashing Telegraph.

Camilla Tominey, taking a break from obsessing over Meghan and Harry, turns her Sauron’s eye to the Bashir story again, dragging Hacked Off into the fray. Under the headline Where is Hugh Grant's condemnation of the BBC's unethical actions? and an acid lede (“It is precisely this blind adoration for institutions like the BBC that leads to catastrophic blunders…”), she writes:

Isn’t it odd that we haven’t heard from Hugh Grant about Martin Bashir’s “deceptive” and “dishonest” journalism at the BBC? The silence from him and his Hacked Off chums on the 1995 Panorama interview with Princess Diana has been defending.

Presumably, they have all been too busy mourning the loss of their chief censor.

Paying tribute to Mr Mosley, the fetishist turned Formula 1 chief, who died on Monday aged 81, in a statement issued on their website they said: “It is thanks to his courage and generosity that the movement for a more ethical press remains so effective today.”

They curiously failed to mention that in his quest for “the truth”, the son of renowned racist Sir Oswald Mosley was caught in a lie, telling the News of the World privacy trial that he had no knowledge of disseminating leaflets in 1961 alleging “coloured immigrants” brought disease, only for the offending literature to surface, with his name on, 10 years later.

Grant, 60, did sign a letter about the BBC last week… attacking the government for its plans to reform this “significant national asset” and warning that funding cuts would “diminish” public sector broadcasting “at a time when Britain needs it most.” It is precisely this sort of blind adoration — also reserved for institutions like the NHS, which was last week revealed to have infected more than 32,000 hospital patients with covid, that causes these sorts of catastrophic blunders in the first place.

I wrote earlier this week about Mosley’s fascist past and why it should not be ignored while we also accept that his case against The News of the World was entirely necessary and justified.

But Camilla Tominey is not writing from the moral high ground; she is an employee of the remaining Barclay brother Frederick, who along with his recently deceased sibling David, revelled in a life of tax exile, sharp business practices, and bugging each other in rows over money. And that’s even before we get into Tominey’s own record of royal ‘journalism’…

Tominey quotes 12 words from a 570-word open letter. Selective quoting is one of The Telegraph’s specialities and it’s a peach in this case. You can read the full open letter here; if you do you’ll discover it’s quite far from the unhinged anti-government screed that Tominey implies it to be.

Just as Symonds is set up to be the ‘real’ power in Number 10 and Cummings is painted as a many-tentacled Machiavelli or a malevolent non-entity, Martin Bashir has become the catalyst for all that is bad within the BBC in the eyes of columnists and lazy comedians alike.

On this week’s episode of Have I Got News For You — a show that has yet to truly come to terms with its role in the promotion of both Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage — David Mitchell delivered one of his trademark tweedy rants about Bashir. He said:

The thing that makes people love the BBC is not the ruddy news. The news is a boring programme; we all know it. And in their desperate attempts to make the news watchable, they have stooped to tabloid tactics, and that is going to destroy a corporation that is loved for the drama, comedy, and documentaries it has produced for decades.

And the Tories will cheerfully get rid of that and use this bullshit as an excuse, and Martin Bashir may have unwittingly been the executioner of the BBC. It makes me very angry and bitter, but it had to come…

It’s worth repeating the first line of the newsletter edition I published on the day after the Dyson report into Bashir’s deceptions was published…

I come not to praise Martin Bashir, but to bury him. It’s just that I also want to throw some of the cheering observers at this sick funeral in the hole with him.

… because Bashir was a liar then, he’s a liar now, and his tactics in securing not just the Diana interview but many others were despicable, not the least the occasion when he seems to have lost crucial evidence in a murder case.

The problem I have with Mitchell’s sermon, however, is that it buys into the lines pushed by the very tabloids (and their larger thesaurus-having broadsheet siblings) that he is so angry about.

To take the case of Bashir and the handful of self-serving executives that declared him innocent 25 years ago and extrapolate it to the entire output of BBC News is, in itself, a tabloid tactic. It is guilt by association. It’s rich from a man sat in the presenter’s chair on a BBC show about the news to pretend that the news is ‘boring’ and self-serving for him to lift up the corporation’s comedies, which are very thin on the ground these days, as a reason people ‘love’ the BBC.

His glib, shallow analysis also avoids questioning what BBC News is doing right now. Take for example Laura Kuenssberg’s relationship with Dominic Cummings and how it was entirely ignored in the corporation’s coverage of his evidence to the select committees, even though he explicitly named her as his most frequent contact in the British media.

Mitchell managed to be both too critical of the BBC and not remotely critical enough, all at the same time. His take collapses in the middle just like the analyses of columnists and commentators who are themselves obsessed with Cummings, Symonds, and Bashir.

One of the biggest problems in our media and politics is the idea that it is all down to a handful of personalities who are causing the rot when it’s actually the system that’s broken. But then, when you’re a comedian sitting in the heart of the system being paid handsomely to gently poke at it, pointing that out would be extremely bad for business…

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Note: These are jokes that I also firmly believe could have happened.