Ready to “die in a ditch” with Boris Johnson the closer it gets to polling day are his blood brothers, a taxi rank of highly-paid wordsmiths able to twist and turn the daily news agenda as they strive to deliver a Conservative victory and get Brexit over the line.
Johnson has always been their hero, the Brexiteer-in-chief for much of the media class, a journalist admired for his wizardry in delivering an endless stream of anti-European Union exclusives about the mad machinations of the Brussels bureaucracy – the fake news of his day.
In his hour of need, columnists and feature writers employed by hard line Brexit-supporting newspapers – Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sun and Daily Telegraph – are only too happy to follow in his footsteps, able within a matter of hours to pull together an election story line into a hard-hitting column or feature.
Attack journalism is the forte of this elite commentariat: yet more character assassination of Jeremy Corbyn; a chance to ridicule Nigel Farage; trash Jo Swinson; or perhaps an alarmist set of predictions about the imminent disaster of life under a Labour government supported by the SNP.
If Conservative morale needs a boost after a run of unhelpful setbacks, they have no difficulty in conjuring up words to bolster the brilliance of Boris.
Envious of their speed of writing, fluency and turn of phrase, I persuaded a top columnist to describe the task of writing to order for the Daily Mail (this was in the days of its legendary editor Paul Dacre).
“You get the call mid-morning, after the editorial meeting. In offering you a commission, the backbench team have explicit instructions.
“Usually the headline is pre-determined, so there’s no doubt about the direction of the narrative.
“After some research and thinking it through, the piece is taking shape by mid-afternoon and the backbench team are on the phone, wanting to be updated, to be sure that the column is on track.
“As the deadline approaches, it can be intense, the pressure to go further and further to justify the headline; there seems no escape.
“It’s like riding on the back of a shark, fearful any moment of falling off and getting eaten alive.”
Some of the columnists are so in demand for the flexibility of their writing that they are not tied to one newspaper. Several rotate their by-lines in the pages of competing titles, and deliver instant articles across the political waterfront:
Leo McKinstry has few equals in the range of his output: “Threats may loom but Boris is still ahead of the game” (Daily Express, 4.11.2019); “Corbyn and his cronies who’d turn the UK into Venezuela” (Daily Mail, 30.10.2019); “Blood Brothers: Labour leader’s career dominated by links to terrorism” (Sun, 23.5.2017)
Ross Clark’s is another go-to by-line: “We finally have a compromise that can suit everyone” (Daily Express, 4.10.2019); “If Corbyn gets into No 10...we’re all in the chicken soup” (Sun, 6.9.2019); “People are waking up to the true horror of Corbyn (Daily Express, 24.11.2017)
Dominic Sandbrook is the mainstay of the Daily Mail’s production line of anti-Corbyn hatchet jobs: “What would Britain look like under Corbyn? Take a trip back to East Germany” (Daily Mail, 24.9.2019); “The useful idiot” (Daily Mail, 16.2.2018); “Apologists for slaughter” (Daily Mail, 28.10.2017)
The power of the commentariat derives from the exposure they gain: Conservative-supporting titles command 80 per cent of daily newspaper sales.
Two-page spreads and features alongside editorial columns supply punch lines that feed through to the commentary on television and radio programmes and spark off reaction on social media.
So in-your-face is the press commentariat of the right-wing press – and so heavily outnumbered are media voices from the left – that they command a far higher proportion of broadcast interviews and invitations to newspaper reviews on television and radio.
All too often the multiple roles – and political affiliations – of the commentariat’s elite get conveniently ignored by broadcasters.
When at the start of the election campaign, Dominic Sandbrook was interviewed on the World At One (4.11.2019) about the consequences of the “heyday of public spending in the 1970s”, he was introduced by the presenter Sarah Montague as “the historian, Dominic Sandbrook” – no mention was made of his stock in trade as the Daily Mail’s star anti-Corbyn columnist.
So long as press headlines continue to be treated as news – and the front pages are reproduced in extended television press reviews – the tabloids will retain, despite rapidly falling circulations, at least a fair degree of their previous clout.
Perhaps, as others are now suggesting, the BBC, ITV and Sky could make a start by including a health warning in press reviews by reminding viewers – and listeners – of a paper’s political affiliation.
A headline or quote could be prefaced by the lines that this is from a paper that advised readers to vote Leave or Remain in the 2016 referendum.
If there was clear signposting, the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sun and Daily Telegraph could hardly complain as they were jubilant in congratulating themselves on securing the Leave majority through the strength of their campaigning journalism.
I suggested in the inquest after Theresa May’s drubbing in the 2017 general election that she had been duped into thinking that voters were bound to agree after she had been crowned a popular hero by the Brexit press.
She had become cocooned in the deadly embrace of the anti-Corbyn hate of Conservative-supporting titles.
We will see on December 12 whether Boris Johnson’s blood brothers in the Brexit commentariat are making the same fatal mistake as in 2017 -- or whether tabloid editors will have the satisfaction of celebrating a triumph to equal that of their Referendum Day victory.
Media coverage of 2017 was the vilest of any general election of my sixty years as a reporter. I fear 2019 might be even worse.
Illustrations: Sun, 13.11.2019; Daily Express, 4.11.2019; Daily Express, 7.11.2019.