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5 July

Stop anonymous briefings – government officials must be held accountable for their lies

The Christopher Pincher scandal has collapsed truth within government.

By James Ball

We have hit the stage of exhaustion with UK politics: most of us have given up expecting even the most basic of decencies from the Prime Minister, a man who is shredding the notion of them entirely.

Until recently, it was more fashionable to condemn the people around him, who enabled his behaviour – first his advisers, then his craven cabinet, who humiliate themselves in media appearances by defending the indefensible, and then the civil service.

Such is the state of the rot in government that it’s barely a surprise that the No 10 press office repeatedly and regularly lies, or at least puts out statements that are misleading. We cannot know in any individual briefing whether a particular staffer is aware they’re telling a lie, or whether they are parroting what they have been told – despite knowing that they have been given false information numerous times before.

Last weekend’s barrage of official misinformation has been particularly shameful, centring around what Boris Johnson knew and when he knew about the conduct of Christopher Pincher, the man he promoted to the role of deputy chief whip, which includes ensuring the welfare of MPs, earlier this year. The first line given was that Boris Johnson was perhaps the only man in the UK to have heard no rumours or official word on inquiries into Pincher. That line shifted into saying that the PM had heard nothing specific. By Tuesday (5 July), the new line – a horrifying bit of backside covering – was that Johnson had heard specific allegations, and simply forgotten them.

That the No 10 press office will demean themselves and their station in this way is old news though. Anyone who has spent more than a few months there will have had to lie several times about No 10 lockdown parties and perhaps even their own conduct, as they stood by the “no rules have been broken” nonsense they spouted until it could stand no more. Indeed, Downing Street could be written off long ago as full of vacuous enablers of an unsuitable prime minister – civil servant and special adviser alike forgetting that they work for the public not for the Prime Minister, and betraying the former for the latter.

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But there is a hidden layer of enablers behind this – though they are perhaps a more unwitting group. That is those of us in the media who allow the people concerned to spout their untruths with the safety of anonymity. “No 10 official”, “No 10 spokesperson” and so on are long-established conventions in political reporting, a norm that has stood for a long time. But so too was there a norm of telling the truth if you held those roles. The collapse of one norm calls for the collapse of the other – as suggested by Sam Freedman, a former special adviser to Michael Gove, and others on Twitter.

When a minister goes on television to repeat press office falsehoods on national television, we get to see them do it. They have to own it, and it has to stick with them. The officials that relay the lie remain anonymous. This custom serves only them, and Boris Johnson.

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That compact is broken, and the lobby should acknowledge it. Government press office staff have broken their deal with the press and the public. What they say from this point on should be attached to their name.

[See also: Is this the end for Boris Johnson?]