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First Thoughts: The Cummings affair, declining circulations and the elusive track and trace system

Emboldened by a referendum victory followed by an election triumph, the government is now making elementary errors in press and public relations.

By Peter Wilby

If Dominic Cummings was confident he had done the right thing in taking his apparently virus-infected wife and his son to Durham, couldn’t the Downing Street press office have explained his case earlier? 

I am told that Cummings’s post-lockdown journey to his parents’ farm was the subject of common gossip in the area from early April. The Guardian and Mirror were both tipped off by a plausible source on 5 April and, in an unusual broadsheet-tabloid alliance, later joined forces rather than risk either being scooped by the other or by two more newspapers that were then investigating. 

Downing Street repeatedly refused to comment, even after Cummings had left the area, removing understandable concerns that he and his family might be harassed while they were ill. Only a statement by Durham police on 22 May that officers had spoken to someone at the property gave the papers sufficient corroboration to publish. 

Stories of this sort always have more impact if there is evidence of a prolonged cover-up. After the crisp “stay at home” line, the communications strategy in Boris Johnson’s government has deteriorated badly and the Cummings affair is just another example. A referendum victory followed by an election triumph led ministers to believe they have the confidence of “the people” and can dismiss the press as biased purveyors of “fake news”. They are now making elementary errors in press and public relations. 

PR problems

The press doesn’t always handle its own public relations well, however. The Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) has just agreed with national newspapers that they can keep their circulation figures secret and make them available only to advertising agencies that sign non-disclosure agreements. Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers – the Times, Sunday Times, the Sun and its Sunday sister – have taken immediate advantage. 

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In the latest ABC figures, covering the period between lockdown and the end of April, most papers record circulation falls of between 12 and 20 per cent on pre-lockdown, though two fell much further. Sales of Murdoch’s papers, however, are shown as “private”. 

We can plausibly deduce that no paper, daily or Sunday, now has a print circulation of more than a million. Twenty years ago, five newspapers sold more than two million copies each and the Sun, on 1.2 million when we were last allowed to glimpse the truth, sold 3.5 million.

Making it up

The ABC says it wished to stop anybody writing “a negative narrative of circulation decline” (like this one, I guess). The Daily and Sunday Telegraph cancelled their subscriptions to the bureau in January so that their figures could be audited privately by an accountancy firm. Newspapers needed the option of secrecy, the ABC decided, if they were to be kept on board.

The papers point out that many more readers now access them online. Some pay for this but many don’t. The obvious solution is for digital as well as print readership to be recorded. Alas, nobody can agree on how to present such data. Newspapers will be allowed, the ABC explains, to choose their own “metrics” and “create the sales narrative that fits their strategy”.

As the veteran tabloid columnist Richard Littlejohn would say, “you couldn’t make it up”. But when it comes to their own sales figures, newspapers will now do exactly that.

Testing, testing

Ministers’ promise of a “world-beating” test, track and trace system by 1 June reminded me of Downing Street’s promise on 2 April that “we will test 100,000 people a day by the end of this month”. Though there were 122,347 tests on 30 April, they included nearly 50,000 tests given to the same person twice or more (for “clinical reasons”) and tests put in the post. 

On no day so far has the Department of Health recorded more than 80,297 individuals being tested. On several recent days, the figure was “unavailable”. Presumably that is because the department is too busy working out how its inadequate testing capacity can be presented as world-beating.

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This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak