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.
In the months ahead, as he tries to steer the country out of lockdown, the shielding that he has enjoyed might well be at risk amid the chaos and contradictions that have bedevilled the country since the start of the pandemic.
Even when the government’s failings in tackling the coronavirus pandemic were glaringly obvious – and should have demanded the full focus of the news media – his ardent admirers in the tabloid press have stood by loyally, resorting to a variety of ploys to deflect attention and entertain readers.
On the day, the UK’s death rate exceeded that of Italy – and there was a dire need for diversionary tactics – there was no contest when selecting the front-page splash for the Sun and Daily Mail.
They both they took full advantage of the Daily Telegraph’s exclusive and well trailed revelations about the personal life of leading epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson.
There could hardly have been a more telling juxtaposition of headlines:
‘UK coronavirus death toll is now the worst in Europe’ (Guardian, 6.5.2020) was in sharp contrast to, ‘Prof lockdown broke lockdown to get his trousers down’ (Sun) and ‘Professor Lockdown quits over trysts with married lover (Daily Mail).
When interviewed on Today on Radio Four (6.5.2020), the Telegraph’s associate editor, Camilla Tominey, defended the paper’s decision to publish highly personal information about two visits made to Professor Ferguson’s home by his girlfriend, in late March and early April.
On being “confronted with the facts”, she said he had admitted an error of judgement, acknowledged the guidance on social distancing was unequivocal, and made clear he would be standing down from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
Ms Tominey was not challenged on either the source or timing of the story, which was published almost a month after the second visit to his home.
Despite her paper’s more restrained headline, ‘Lockdown professor steps down after breaking rules to meet married lover’, she couldn’t resist a nod to the Sun’s front page by reminding listeners, “yes, he has been caught with his pants down”.
Telegraph readers had to turn to page seven to find the headline, ‘UK death toll now highest in Europe’ above 17 paragraphs of text.
Cheerleading for Boris Johnson has continued apace since his near-death experience and release from intensive care, often side-lining attention from the unfolding calamity in abandoned care homes and the woeful record on testing and the supply of protective equipment.
Tabloid editors defend their wish to engage and amuse readers, to lift the spirits of a nation worried and worn down by endless statistics about infection rates, hospital admissions and mounting death toll.
Johnson and his media advisers have many allies in the newspaper industry and together they form a formidable alliance with unquestioned expertise in delivering exclusives and in creating narratives that build up a momentum of their own.
The Daily Mail backed a charity to raise money to buy protective overalls and masks for hospitals and care homes. The launch of its appeal – ‘Mail’s £1m airlift for NHS heroes’ (29.4.2020) – was the start of a campaign that not only directly involved readers but generated stirring headlines.
In the lead-up to the 100th birthday of World War Two veteran, Captain Tom Moore, there was blanket coverage of his daily walk to raise money for the NHS.
Once he had been hailed a hero by the popular press, his fund-raising appeal snowballed, and the tabloids had a heart-warming story line that could be pushed to the limit:
‘We Salute You’ chorused the Sun and Daily Mail (1.5.2020) for an RAF display celebrating an appeal that by then had topped £32 million.
The day before the Sun’s front page – ‘Happy birthdays’ – had declared there was ‘Good news at last for Britain’ (30.4.2020) as Captain Tom reached his centenary and Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds gave birth to a son.
Ms Symonds’ subsequent release of the first pictures of their baby, which was accompanied by an exclusive interview with the Prime Minister for the Sun on Sunday, were two astutely timed news lines that again succeeded in downplaying the government’s failures and deflecting damaging headlines.
The day after The Guardian led on the stark finding that people living in the poorest areas were dying at twice the rate of those in richest areas – ‘UK’s corona divide’ (2.5.2020) – much of the Sundays’ coverage was devoted to uplifting stories about the Prime Minister’s expanding family.
‘He’s got daddy’s hair’ (Mail on Sunday, 3.5.2020) was the headline over the first picture of Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas Johnson.
The Sun on Sunday’s used the ‘Bojo baby’ photo in one corner of a front page devoted to the ‘full amazing story’ of Johnson’s fight for life: ‘Docs were ready for me to die’.
Monday’s Sun exploited Johnson’s ‘only interview’ to the full: ‘Baby gave me will to live” (4.5.2020).
Yet another weekend of grim headlines had been successfully avoided by a Prime Minister eager and adept at taking full advantage of a personal and family story line that has strengthened his popularity ratings and that he hopes can be exploited still further in the weeks ahead.