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Reporting on Dominic Cummings: Is this the best way to maintain public confidence? – Simon Carne

On Saturday, the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps led the daily Downing Street press conference with news of new transport infrastructure to help us in the current crisis and beyond.

But the mainstream media used up all of their questions to ask about the decision by the Prime Minister’s adviser, Dominic Cummings, to isolate himself and his family in Durham, rather than in London, when his wife fell ill with Covid-19.

On Sunday, Mr Shapps was booked to appear on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show and Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday. Yet again, the questions were all about Mr Cummings. “We’ll talk about transport another time,” Marr told Shapps.

Andrew Marr also interviewed Pippa Crerar of the Daily Mirror, the paper which originally broke the Cummings story. The Mirror had spent three weeks, she told us, pursuing it. Three weeks! Why? Because, she explained, this wasn’t a story about Cummings breaking the rules: it was about restoring faith in the lockdown when so many millions of people had endured so much pain and discomfort to support it.

That is the same nonsense excuse that the Sun used back in 2012 to justify showing a naked photo of Prince Harry. The Sun said they were showing us the picture in order to aid discussion about whether the press should publish the picture. If public faith in the lockdown has been undermined by Cummings’ behaviour, it is only because newspapers have publicised what he did.

That is, of course, the job of newspapers. There is a public interest in the publication of news. And there is a specific public interest in the press revealing that a person may be failing to comply with any legal obligation they have and/or that a person is providing misleading information. These interests are recognised in the codes enforced by press regulators IMPRESS and IPSO. But the public interest test is always a balancing act. For the press, it is normally invoked when justifying what would otherwise be a breach of their code. I fully recognise that isn’t the case here: the press has every right to publish the story.

But sometimes there is a greater public interest in the press exercising the right not to publish something. The job of a newspaper editor entails regular decision-making over what to publish and what not to. There are many stories they choose to delay publishing – or not to publish at all.

If the press really wanted to maintain public faith whilst the lockdown is ongoing, they would privately notify No 10 of their findings so that the PM could take action (or not, as has been the case so far) and the press would then sit on the story for a few weeks in the interest of public health. There is plenty else to discuss at the daily Covid briefings from Downing Street right now. There will be ample opportunity,  when the lockdown has been eased further, to challenge the Prime Minister over Dominic Cummings. In the meantime, journalists might take lessons from a QC on how to quiz Mr Johnson more effectively than they did yesterday.

I have never met Dominic Cummings. If I am to believe everything I have read about him over the years he has been in the public eye, there is a lot to dislike about him, not least his arrogance. But it is probably impossible to take all the flack that he takes and still carry on in his job without developing a very thick skin, which could easily be mistaken for arrogance. (Or he could just be arrogant.)

I’d like us to get through the health crisis as much intact as a country (and a world) as possible – in terms of both our health and our wealth. The Prime Minister has been physically wounded by the virus and I suspect he is far from fully recovered as yet. If the PM needs Dominic Cummings as an adviser in order to help the government function, I would prefer Cummings to stay in post, at least for the time being.

I don’t know whether Cummings’ decision to relocate to Durham was motivated by selfishness, coupled with a  belief that he is untouchable, or a genuine conviction – possibly a misguided one – that being close to his family was the best way to protect a four year old son in the event that both parents ended up in hospital. But I do firmly believe that the way the mainstream media is handling themselves this weekend isn’t making the best use of the press freedom, which they (and I) cherish so deeply.

A shorter version of this post originally appeared on the Simon Carne – Consulting+ website and is reproduced with permission and thanks

5 Comments

  1. Paul Lashmar

    What you are suggesting is the same as the Chinese Communist Party advocates and much prefers. Journalists investigate and tell the Chinese authorities about corruption, misbehavior, etc without publishing. Only when the police investigation is completed can the media be allowed to report the splendid way the government has handled it. If you think that is the way forward…
    Journalists are in the business of publishing and transmitting to the public asap. Only in most exceptional circumstances do we sit on info (e.g. kidnapping). By publishing we find out more information. It’s sort of how democracy works, not perfect mind you, sometimes very ugly but if you prefer the Chinese approach….. If you want to support the public health issue we could have told the government that their approach to care homes was wrong, not published and left them to decide. Do you think that would have been a better approach?

    • Simon Carne

      Thanks, Paul. You acknowledge in the second para of your comment that journalists sit on information “only in most exceptional circumstances”. My article is simply asking whether the widespread implications for public health might make the Cummings’ journey fall into that category.

  2. J Ba

    Delaying publication would have furthered a two-tier application of the law because whether or not Cummings did break the law, he would have been seen as too important not to publish the story. Further, an adviser who may be found to have recklessly or intentionally disregarded the law would in many people’s opinions not be fit to further advise on the relevant issues. No crisis should be an excuse for the government and its advisers to escape accountability, which the passage of time often facilitates.

  3. AT

    It is right that such matters are reported but everyone jumps on the band wagon to stretch the story further. Having watched the Andrew Marr show this week the main emphasis was about this story. The transport minister – Shapps had no opportunity to give details of what he was involved in as he was constantly questioned about Cummings. This is reporting gone mad

  4. Christopher Whitmey (@Seejayuu)

    My answer to your question, ‘Is this the best way to maintain public confidence?’ is ‘No’: but not for the reasons you give. Dr Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s chief medical officer, resigned in April for visiting her holiday home. I’m not suggesting Cummings ought to have resigned. However his behaviour once it became public should have been subject to a review by a neutral person: who could have asked the type of questions advocated by Dinah Rose QC. Self-justification or endorsement by your employer is inadequate to inspire public confidence.

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