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6 January 2021

First Thoughts: Boris Johnson’s moving targets, the Telegraph taken to task, and newsless newspapers

At 76, I am one of the 13 million that qualify for a vaccine. But I don't have any faith in the government's rollout. 

By Peter Wilby

Boris Johnson’s target, he told the nation from Downing Street, is to have everyone in the most “vulnerable” groups vaccinated by mid-February. Being 76, I am among the 13 million who qualify. This is a welcome prospect, particularly since I live in the Epping Forest, Essex, district that currently records one of the UK’s highest infection rates – for which I blame the footballers and retired East End villains who own the area’s biggest houses.

But I am not optimistic. It is hard to recall any of the government’s “moonshots”, “game-changers” and “world-beaters” arriving as and when promised. Last May, Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, suggested 30 million vaccine doses could be ready by September (2020, not 2021), a prediction that prompted me to say in this column that I would eat my mask if it came true. My mask remains undigested.

You may recall how a shortage of reagents slowed the “ramping up” of testing last summer. Now, even if sufficient quantities of the vaccine itself are available, plus enough trained people to administer the jabs, expect shortages of glass vials to hold them and possibly of syringes, too. Whatever goes wrong, though, you can be confident it won’t be Johnson’s fault.

[See also: Why isn’t the UK government talking about airborne transmission of Covid-19?]

Turning on the Telegraph

The Daily Telegraph marked the new year with a leader headlined “Let’s admit what we got wrong in 2020”. “We”, of course, did not mean the Telegraph itself, which is never wrong, but the rest of the country. On Twitter, however, a reader took the paper at its word.

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“I have some suggestions,” he wrote. In June, the Telegraph published Toby Young saying “the virus has melted into thin air” and there would be no “second spike”. In October, a leading article said ministers were wrong “to put England into [a second] lockdown”. In November, the paper said hospitals were “no busier than normal”. Throughout, it promoted the now wholly discredited idea of leaving the virus free to create “herd immunity”.

The tweeter was not a know-all Guardian journalist but the Tory MP Neil O’Brien, a Brexit supporter and parliamentary private secretary to Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary. When the Telegraph attracts such vitriol from the party it faithfully supports, the world has truly turned upside down.


The real deal

The claim that Johnson achieved a triumph in negotiating a deal with the EU – largely accepted, it seems, even by Remainers – can be dismissed in two sentences. The deal allows trade in goods, where the UK had a deficit of £97bn with the EU in 2019, to continue unhindered. There is no deal on trade in services where the UK had a surplus of £18bn.

Is that what the Brexit cheerleader Liam Fox meant when he predicted one of the easiest deals in history?


The PR press

After the First World War, Winston Churchill lamented, the whole map of Europe had changed but, “as the deluge subsides… we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again”. I feel rather like that about David Montgomery who, it so happens, is a Northern Irishman from County Down.

His newly founded National World company has just bought nearly 200 ailing local papers including the Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post. A former News of the World editor, Montgomery has spent the last 30 years – first as chief executive of the Mirror Group (now Reach) in the 1990s – taking over newspapers, cutting costs and sacking journalists. Newspapers never flourish under his guidance, but he delivers handsome returns to shareholders.

National World promises to “jettison legacy systems and archaic industrial practices to create efficient dissemination of news”. This allegedly “new operating model, powered by the latest technology” recalls the one Montgomery revealed in 2013 when his Local World company (later sold) took over another clutch of local papers. Journalists, he explained, could produce 20 times more if they “harvest content and publish it without human interface” – in other words, lift stories from PR handouts without leaving the office and talking to anybody. 

[See also: Why the lockdown debate was always conducted on false terms]

This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control