Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Rarely has a peacetime Prime Minister struggling with a national emergency been as fortunate as Boris Johnson in being spared the broad sweep of hostile coverage that proved so debilitating to his predecessors.

Johnson has been blessed with a personal story line tailor-made for the popular press – ‘From death to paternity’ (Daily Mail, 30.4.2020) – and Conservative newspapers have remained his stalwart cheerleaders.  

For a critical two-week period, Boris Johnson’s near-death escape from the coronavirus infection topped the news agenda diverting the focus of much of the daily coverage away from vital, searching questions that needed to be asked about the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Day after day the tabloid press became obsessed with the fine detail of a sensational personal drama, a touch and go moment in the life of a Prime Minister, alone in Downing Street, separated from his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds, also infected by the virus.

BBC bashing by Boris Johnson’s closest aides and supporters has already been knocked on the head by the deepening coronavirus crisis and the government’s desperate need to maximise every possible means of communicating with the public.

Ministers are coming face to face with the stark reality that the nationwide network of television and radio coverage provided by the BBC is a unique resource that any responsible administration should be duty bound to preserve and maintain.

Well over half the 28 million television audience for the Prime Minister’s Downing Street address announcing the lockdown was tuned to BBC 1 and the channel’s Six O’clock New has been attracting as many as 9 million viewers, twice the average viewing figure.

Further evidence has emerged about the damage inflicted to Labour’s 2019 general election campaign by the orchestration and manipulation of attack lines generated by Conservative-supporting newspapers that were then backed up on social media.

Unlike the 2017 campaign when Theresa May failed to take advantage of the ammunition being provided by her press cheerleaders, there was deadly synchronisation between Boris Johnson and the Corbyn-tormenting Tory tabloids.

At the start of the 2019 campaign a well-timed intervention by the former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove helped to pivot the Johnson campaign on to territory where the Labour leader was especially vulnerable.

Ever since he emerged as a serious contender for the Labour leadership Jeremy Corbyn was subjected to unprecedented vilification by the UK’s dominant Conservative-supporting, pro-Brexit press.

Some of the country’s highest-paid columnists and commentators succeeded in delivering a master class in the character assassination of a British politician.

Steps can be taken to challenge the agenda-setting impact of national newspapers, but that requires the news media at large to have the courage the flag up the heightened politicisation of UK newspapers.