Discover more from Conquest of the Useless
Baroness Casey's report on the Met and Boris Johnson's appearance before the Privileges Committee lead to a brief and illuminating bout of noticing.
Previously: Exiting the Vampire's Arsehole
Twenty years on, the British press and wider media are still making the same stinking excuses for the Iraq War and those who started it.
It is an extraordinary experience reading Baroness Casey’s report into the Met police. With every example she gives of basic structural organisational flaws, management incompetence, systematic bullying of the frail, endemic sexism, homophobia, racism, utter failure to protect women and young girls from violence or deliver justice to them, I think “well surely she’s not found anything worse than this”, and then she uncovers more horrors. How on earth was this disaster allowed to persist for so long in plain sight? This is an important question.
Robert Peston on Twitter, 21 March 2023
Journalism, boiled down to its first principles, should be the act of noticing things; stories emerge from observing what is happening in the world around you; listening to what people tell you; and discerning what is out of the ordinary; seeking what goes on behind assumptions and beneath the seemingly prosaic.
Bad journalists are people who do not notice things they should or indulge in a kind of strategic ignorance that means they don’t ‘notice’ until it suits them, the political faction with which they aligned and/or their bosses. Day in, day out, the anglophone media — but especially the British media — engages in a process of active not-noticing combined with sudden am-dram surprise at things that other people recognised a very long time ago.
ITV News political editor Robert Peston is a perennial player of the shocked face emoji game. His response to the Casey Review of the Metropolitan Police offers a classic example.
Peston has been a professional journalist since 1983. He was working for The Financial Times in 1993 when Stephen Lawrence was murdered; he was still there in 1999 when the Macpherson Report concluded that the Met was “institutionally racist”; in 2005, when Jean Charles de Menezes was killed by Met officers under the command of future Commissioner, Cressida Dick, Peston was Associate Editor of The Sunday Telegraph; in 2009, when Ian Tomlinson died after being struck by a Met officer, Peston was the BBC’s Business Editor; in 2021 when a Met officer murdered Sarah Everard, Met officers took and shared pictures of murder victims Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, Met failings were found to have allowed a serial killer to murder three more men, and a Met officer was convicted of being a member a neo-Nazi terror group, Peston was ITV’s political editor with his own self-titled TV show Peston.
That’s the CV of a man who is either genuinely surprised that the Metropolitan Police is not simply beset by rotten apples but rotting from treeline to deepest roots (an idiot) or pretending to be ignorant (a clown). Were he willing to reach back into history, he would have to reckon with examples like the Met’s harassment of and attempt to stitch up the Mangrove Nine; the killing of Blair Peach by a member of the Met’s Special Patrol Group (1979); and the unlawful killing of Harry Stanley by Met firearms officers for the crime of carrying a chair leg (1999). The history of the Met is drenched in blood and filth.
The Times columnist, Caitlin Moran — who was among those calling for the army on the streets during the 2011 riots — offered another example of noticing and not-noticing, again on Twitter1:
I recently had a long chat with a couple of female Met officers, who said, of the Sarah Everard memorial fuck-up. “It should have just been policed by female officers. We all knew it. And every female officer in the UK would have come down for it.” Imagine the difference.
No female officer at the Met could be implicated in its institutional corruption and reflex for self-serving defensiveness? Google Cressida Dick — who was Commissioner when that ‘fuck up’2 occurred — or the case of the four female Met officers who strip-searched a 15-year-old black girl — known as Child Q — at her school, without a responsible adult present and on the flimsy pretext that they suspected her of carrying cannabis (she wasn’t).
And as for “every female officer in the UK” lending a hand? Four days before Moran’s tweet, PC Mary Ellen Bettley-Smith, found guilty of gross misconduct for repeatedly beating Dalian Atkinson as he lay dying, was allowed to keep her job and could return to duty on the streets.
Earlier this month, woozy on fumes from Happy Valley’s copaganda, Moran wrote in a column with the headline I’m channelling Happy Valley’s Catherine Cawood that:
A week after the meter man, in Ally Pally Park, I saw another man pull a branch off a tree and start waving it around, shouting. Before watching Happy Valley, I would probably have just left it to someone else to call the police. This time, however – high on Cawood – I knew it was the duty of middle-aged women to keep the neighbourhood safe. “I’m calling in a public nuisance issue. I’ve got ‘eyes on’ now,” I said, after ringing 999. “He’s outside the Little Dinosaurs Nursery – that’s Lima, Indigo, Tango, Tango…” “Yeah, I’ve got it,” the responder said. “Can you stay at a safe distance, so we know his location, until we get there?”
She’s a columnist so there’s every chance that the anecdote is pure fiction (her colleague Giles Coren claims his columns are entirely made up) or has been embellished beyond all recognition. But if it is true, she called the police on someone who potentially had mental health issues and had not committed a crime. Later in the column, she reveals her ‘regret’:
Anyway, later that night – teeth now nice and clean – I experienced great regret. Catherine would have stayed “eyes on” the suspect. I’d let her, and me, down.
Another example of Moran’s self-consciously careless noticing was the ‘just for laughs’ piece she penned to mark Boris Johnson’s resignation as Prime Minister. It concluded:
Come October and the Tory party conference, otherwise surrounded by dull, old-fashioned “squares” in suits, he’s gonna do a triumphant, LOL-tastic appearance – total Elvis Presley ’68 Comeback Special – to rapturous applause, undermine the new prime minister, foment a bunch of shit from the back benches for the next six months and then run for the Big Job again. Because what I have ultimately learnt from Boris Johnson is that you rarely waste your money down at Ladbrokes betting on him never, ever getting his comeuppance. He is the Hotel California of politics: we’ve checked in to him. And now we can never leave.
From Moran at The Times to Marina Hyde at The Guardian (currently touring her book What Just Happened?! Dispatches from Turbulent Times to audiences of Britain’s horniest centrist dads), there is a significant slice of the British press which adored Boris Johnson being Prime Minister. Like Trump to America cable news channels, ‘Boris’ meant traffic and cash for the media and he still does.
He also allows for a very narrow type of noticing; a ‘noticing’ that frames him as some kind of special historical anomaly rather than a product of a system that continues to degrade. It is much easier for hacks to point at a Boris Johnson, a Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Lee Anderson, or a Nadine Dorries and pretend that these characters are outliers and imposters. To admit that they are as much products of the UK’s sclerotic society as the ITV mid-week drama candidate for PM, Sir Keir Rodney Starmer, would also mean admitting how much they contribute to this climate and revel in it.
Today, as Boris Johnson appeared before the Privileges Committee — a body that sounds like it was set up at a public school to get to the bottom of who’d been rifling through the tuck shop — journalists did a lot of furious ‘noticing’ that they had not been so inclined to do when Johnson had been up against Jeremy Corbyn, for whom all their most intense and often ersatz ‘noticing’ had been reserved.
On Times Radio this morning, Giles Coren said of Johnson’s upcoming select committee appearance:
I don’t think it’s important; I don’t think it’s important at all. I don’t care and I’m not interested. There’s two points: One is I think lockdown was a massive overreaction; it was badly done. Most of the rules were stupid and incomprehensible. I broke all of them and anyone I know broke all of them; Boris clearly broke all of them as well. I don’t think it matters whether he made them or not. It was a nonsense hysterical reaction to a disease nobody understood…
Coren went on to discuss Johnson being “a privileged narcissistic lunatic”. Takes one to know one and Coren really is one. He also sums up the big reason why the British press is so desperate to forgive and forget with Johnson: He is one of their own; a columnist who got to pull the levers of power for a bit.
For The Telegraph, where Johnson is once and future columnist king, Michael Deacon writes a piece so toe-curlingly bad that I should warn you it may cause dislocations. Beneath the headline, Boris might be finished – but we still have one thing to thank him for, he writes:
… no matter how tarnished his reputation may currently seem, and no matter how angry or let down some of his former supporters may be feeling, we need to put things in perspective. Because, whatever we may think about partygate, we should never let it overshadow the single most valuable service that Boris Johnson performed for this nation. Stopping Jeremy Corbyn from becoming prime minister.
The rest of the ‘article’ — I’m loathed to lift its status so high — is anti-fan fiction about a hypothetical Corbyn administration. As much as I enjoy a great counter-factual, such as “What if the deranged Barclay Brothers had never acquired The Daily Telegraph?”, we needn’t waste our time talking about imagined horrors when we live in Britain in 2023. But British newspapers will never skip a chance to rage against galactic evil/independent backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn.
Over at The Times, a panel of writers is convened to opine on the latest ‘Boris’ performance. Before we get to their verdicts, let’s remind ourselves of what the paper wrote when it endorsed Johnson for the Tory leadership and reiterated when it backed the Conservatives in the 2019 general election; it called its beloved ‘Boris’ “an instinctive One Nation Tory who had the charisma and talent to find solutions,” while warning that Labour would “turn the clock back 40 years… to economic chaos…”
Less than four years later, Matthew Parris — who has long distracted from his calls to rip up international asylum law and strip GRT people of ethnic minority status by giving ‘Boris’ a kicking and delighting guppy-brained liberals — writes:
The division offered us that 15-minute pause. In the hiatus two things from what he’d just said struck me. First, to suggest that Sunak would have known about any rule-breaking was to suggest that a chancellor of the exchequer should have been expected to act as whistleblower to his own prime minister. Second, his remark that Cummings had “every reason to lie” will have raised in thousands of viewers’ minds a thought I hardly need spell out.
Alice Thomson — who worked with Johnson at The Spectator and wrote a soft profile of his wife Carrie last summer — says:
For a moment I was fooled. Boris Johnson, tie straight, shirt unstained, hand on Bible, told the privileges committee that he took “full responsibility” for what went on in No 10 during Covid… … Why should we listen to this man any more? Because if he has knowingly misled parliament, it matters. And because our ex-PM is probably already plotting a Churchillian return. But in the Commons it is clear he has lost the love. Few bothered to vote with him against Rishi Sunak, who is still struggling to pick up Boris’s dog messes. We won’t know for weeks whether he will be censured but it feels as though the politicians and the people have finally had enough of his drama.
Who is she kidding? These papers, along with broadcasters and comedy shows like Have I Got News For You, built up Johnson into this character ‘Boris’ — a name his family doesn’t use between themselves; they can call him Al — and are unlikely to resist “his drama” any time soon.
Matt ‘Chuckles’ Chorley rounds out the panel and comes to a similar conclusion:
Whatever the committee decides to do next, though, doesn’t matter. Johnson might get suspended from the Commons, he might fight a by-election he might lose. Whatever. That’s a sideshow.
So we can rely on Chorley minimising coverage of Johnson’s future antics on his Times Radio variety show from now on? I’m not a betting man but if I was I would not burn my cash on that wager.
Today’s instalment of the Johnson Show (“All balls, all the time!”) will lead to a rash of ‘noticing’ in the papers and on news shows tomorrow but it will fade fast, just as the ‘noticing’ around the Met will dissipate quickly. “Things will have to change this time,” has been the battle cry after every scandal in the force’s history and it just doesn’t.
Already, Commissioner Mark Rowley and Home Secretary Suella Braverman have echoed each other in dismissing the word “institutionalised” as “politicised”; policing is political, no matter how often they hammer us with the old lie that we experience “policing by consent” and not under threat of the nightstick, extending baton, and, ultimately, the bullet.
I was listening to a panel on Iain Dale’s LBC show feverishly debate whether Boris Johnson’s career was over as I drew to the end of writing this edition. It reminded me of something I noticed reading an essay by C.L.R James from 1949 (‘Winston Churchill – Tory War-dog’), earlier this week. In it he writes:
… before 1939, when the outbreak of war saved his career, Winston Churchill had established himself as the most discredited, the most untrustworthy, and the most irresponsible of all the senior politicians in England. The rulers of Britain did not take him seriously on the politics of war because, except for his capabilities as a war minister, they did not take him seriously on anything except his capacity to make a serious nuisance of himself.
I won’t be alone in noticing the parallel from history or the warning.
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It wasn’t a ‘fuck up’; the Met was working as designed: a violent arm of the state.