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24 March 2021

How the media lost its power to hold the government to account

Dominic Cummings’ rule-breaking trip to Barnard Castle proved headlines no longer have the ability to force a resignation.

By Martha Gill

During Dominic Cummings’ reign in Downing Street he was supposed to shake up Whitehall, review judicial activism, and move the House of Lords orth. Some four months after his departure, these institutions all remain roughly where they were. 

Yet something of the legacy remains. His “war on the media” – where journalists from papers deemed hostile to the government were excluded from briefings and television shows were blacklisted – never quite ended, at least where some of his former colleagues are concerned.

Last week, Jacob Rees-Mogg falsely accused a HuffPost journalist of “cheating” and “editing a recording” of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in an article. No 10 refused to apologise for the comment by the Leader of the House of Commons, despite the full recording being available which shows the quote from Raab was exactly what HuffPost published.

Rees-Mogg is far from alone. Last month, reminiscing on his former career as a hack, Boris Johnson claimed journalists were “always abusing people or attacking people”. In January, the equalities minister Kemi Badenoch called another HuffPost journalist “creepy and bizarre” for sending routine questions to her office, and tweeted out screenshots of the offending emails. When asked about the incident, Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton defended Badenoch and was unable to guarantee that journalists who sent emails to government departments would not see them publicised on Twitter.

Then there’s the plan to continue broadcasting government press briefings after Covid, which is less media-friendly than it may appear. Untelevised, these daily briefings gave the lobby a chance to really interrogate the government, operating as a pack. It was possible for journalists to ask a string of follow-up questions, and if they didn’t get a proper answer, the next member of the lobby could take over. That doesn’t work so well on television – as the Covid briefings have shown, time is limited and most journalists get just one question, meaning they are less likely to spend it on following up someone else’s line of inquiry. 

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But perhaps Cummings’ most effective strike at the media was largely accidental. His rule-breaking trip to Barnard Castle last year produced weeks of the kinds of headlines which would once have ended a political career. Yet the Prime Minister’s chief aide was unruffled and went months later, on his terms (so he claims).

That has likely damaged the press because it added substantially to an existing trend. At some point – I’d place it around the Brexit referendum – politicians realised they could simply take bad headlines in their stride and carry on with their careers. Terrible press didn’t have to mean resignation if you decided it didn’t. You weathered the scrutiny for a few weeks, like a celebrity walking through paparazzi, then the caravan would move on.

Take Gavin Williamson, who presided over utter chaos with last year’s A-levels and GCSEs, and whose two biggest policy commitments this year – to keep schools open after Christmas and not to cancel exams again – were swept away in January. Despite a drubbing in the media, he is still in post.

Or there is Priti Patel. A Cabinet Office inquiry reportedly uncovered evidence of bullying in the Home Office, and found Patel had broken the ministerial code of conduct. Her refusal to resign was framed by newspapers as a blow to government. But it was also a blow to the titles that had been calling for her resignation: no one had listened.

Or consider Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary who admitted he helped Richard Desmond, a Tory donor, avoid paying tax on a new development. The Prime Minister said he had “full confidence” in Jenrick.

[see also: Why isn’t Keir Starmer calling for Robert Jenrick to resign?]

This shift in attitude, epitomised and exacerbated by the Barnard Castle saga, has altered the power dynamic between politicians and newspapers. And it is self-perpetuating: the less chance there is of a minister or official resigning as a result of an editorial, the less likely an editor is to call for their resignation in the first place. No one likes to look impotent.

Headlines still matter for political parties, but are of far less significance to the individuals within them. The press simply is less able to hold them to account. Power, in this place where it matters, is seeping away.