Spending social capital during the pandemic faster than Rishi Sunak raised the national debt, I feel like an organic extension of my phone and laptop. The Daily Mirror’s Canary Wharf newsroom shut last March and won’t reopen until the spring at the earliest, while Westminster, where I’d loitered for 16 years, is a ghost parliament with few MPs attending and even fewer worth talking to. Mask-to-mask whispered conversations at a socially distanced two metres could’ve been devised by Downing Street to halt the free flow of interesting information and divulging of official secrets.
So, instead of collaring MPs in Portcullis House, gossiping over coffee, enjoying spilled beans for lunch and boozing in Strangers’ Bar with informants – I like to joke that their choice is to be a source or a victim – the transformed modus operandi of political journalists is drinks on Zoom, texts, calls, emails and WhatsApp messages. All largely from home. Like many hacks, I’m relying on relationships with people I’ve known and written about for years, so they’re happy to take calls and open up.
Coronavirus has changed journalism as significantly as the shift from hot metal to computerisation did in the 1980s. Wapping was the catalyst and symbol then. The deaths, many of them unnecessary, of 90,000 people, is why we work differently now. And will do so in the future.
Speculation mounts over whether No 10’s televised, US-style daily briefings will ever launch, now that Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain have left the building. Dastardly and Muttley never fully thought through their wacky wheeze. They departed after losing a bruising battle with their line manager, Boris Johnson, and his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister having snubbed the pair by picking the ex-ITV, BBC and Guardian journalist Allegra Stratton as the public face of the Downing Street propaganda drive. She has arrived but her soapbox hasn’t, delayed until the pandemic is over – whenever that is. Word is that Johnson is starting to have second thoughts about the idea, fretting she’d steal some of his limelight. Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab and a clutch of other ministers who enjoy being on the TV similarly have no wish to play second fiddle to a highly visible press secretary.
Stratton has been operating in the shadows since the start of the month, avoiding straight answers on regular calls with journalists. I’m in a minority of political journalists who would welcome the broadcasting of lobby briefings in the belief it would destroy masonic conspiracy theories and expose numbing mundanity.
Westminster hacks were polled on admitting the cameras during Gordon Brown’s reign at the instigation, if my memory serves me correctly, of the PR guru Stephen (now Lord) Carter, who endured a brief, ill-starred period as the Labour PM’s chief of strategy. Stratton should look away immediately. Those of us favouring broadcasting briefings were hammered in the ballot.
[see also: Commons Confidential: The workers divided]
Boris Johnson and me
The Boris Johnson of the Before Coronavirus era would greet me like a long-lost friend – which means the lazy, incompetent, cynical PM either doesn’t read what I scribble about him, mistakes me for somebody else, is incredibly forgiving, or behaves that way with everybody. We overlapped three decades ago on the Daily Telegraph. He manufactured fake news and pernicious views, first in Brussels and then the Isle of Dogs office, while I attempted to be a fastidious Labour correspondent.
In fairness to our then editor, Max Hastings, I was permitted to give trade union viewpoints a decent hearing. Hastings has subsequently regretted publishing the Euro distortions of his more famous hireling. My first beef with Johnson was a column he wrote that inaccurately attacked Jimmy Knapp and the striking National Union of Railwaymen. The small correction printed didn’t specify the error was his, not mine, and I fretted readers might mistakenly think it was yours truly. Never let it be said I don’t hold a grudge.
Journalists are sceptical by nature and an open mind is vital in the job. The Daily Mirror’s celebrated former industrial editor and friend of Nye Bevan and Michael Foot, the great Geoffrey Goodman, was a hero of mine. We enjoyed many a lunch extending late into the afternoon at the Gay Hussar.
I was surprised during an earlier lockdown phase to receive a call from the Sunday Times alleging that released Czech files claimed Goodman passed information to the Soviet satellite’s spooks. I was doubting if curious. More recently I discovered that Joe Haines, a Mirror colleague of Goodman’s, recalled when he was Harold Wilson’s press secretary that the cabinet secretary, John Hunt, waved Goodman’s MI5 file in 1975 and demanded his sacking as head of a Downing Street counter-inflationary unit.
One of the charges against Goodman was he passed to the Czechs detailed accounts of Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) meetings. Haines noted drily that the NEC was “the leakiest invention since the colander”, with complete stories invariably running in the following morning’s papers. These days the only difference is versions usually appear on the internet first.
I don’t miss commuting while working from home and will exercise during the saved hours, running and walking miles every day. I smiled self-knowingly at a cartoon of a shopkeeper selling a Fitbit counting how many steps a customer would do and how many people they’d tell how many steps they’d done. I was smugly delighted with last year’s monthly average of 22,591 steps until money saving expert Martin Lewis disclosed his was 24,300. I’m chasing you in 2021, Lewis. Unless it’s worth catching trains to parliament again.
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden