Under pressure from Downing Street, the newspaper withdrew a story about Carrie Johnson being offered a lucrative role by her future husband when he was Foreign Secretary
The cosy relationship between the press and the Government is a story familiar to regular readers of this newspaper – epitomised when The Times dropped a story in June about Boris Johnson allegedly trying to recruit his now wife Carrie to a £100,000-a-year job when he was Foreign Secretary.
The story, written by veteran Westminster reporter Simon Walters, was published in the first edition of The Times newspaper on 18 June, before being mysteriously yet conspicuously hooked from later editions.
As the New European reported in the wake of the affair, “after initially choosing not to make any comment about the story when Walters had approached her office, Carrie had her aides barraging The Times’s legal department with threats when it was discovered the story had made it into the paper”.
Downing Street later stated that it had intervened to complain about the report, after it had gone to print, calling it a “grubby, discredited story”. A spokesperson for Carrie Johnson likewise said that the allegations were “totally untrue”.
The claim made by Walters was that, in late 2020, Johnson tried to hire Carrie as his taxpayer-funded chief of staff when she was a Conservative Party’s press chief. Johnson’s plan fell apart, allegedly, when three of his close advisors learned of the idea and threatened to resign. At the time, Johnson was married to Marina Wheeler.
Walters defended the story, after it was pulled, saying that he stood by it “100%” and that it had been confirmed by multiple sources. “I was in lengthy and detailed communication with Number 10 at a high level... and Mrs Johnson’s spokeswoman for up to 48 hours before the paper went to press. At no point did any of them offer an on-the-record denial of any element of the story,” he said.
The pressure subsequently applied to The Times following publication is therefore intriguing. However, the Cabinet Office has refused to release this correspondence, after a Freedom of Information request by Byline Times.
It said that "disclosure would be likely to limit press officers’ ability to engage internally in similar exchanges in future (such as how to draft or frame a response to the media), without the expectation that such internal discussions or drafts would themselves become an official comment on the public record".
“In this context, disclosure would be likely to have a prejudicial effect on the way in which discussions take place, and thus hinder the effective and efficient operation of a press office,” the Cabinet Office added.
However, the precedent for this decision is unclear, given that similar declarations have been made by other Government departments. As previously revealed by Byline Times, internal press office correspondence showed how the Department of Health and Social Care deleted a tweet critical of the Daily Mail “for relationship management purposes”.
It could well have been the case that The Times made a similar calculation, albeit in reverse – erasing Walters’ article in order to maintain good relations with the Government.
The rejection of Byline Times' request means that it is not known how officials attempted to twist the arm of executives at the newspaper – whether they denied the substance of the story, made threats based on curtailing the paper’s future access to people in high office, or both.
The relationship between politicians and journalists in Westminster grew even closer during the pandemic, as the Government became the part-time paymaster of those tasked with scrutinising it.
Byline Times is one of the only publications to have covered the ‘bungs for billionaires’ scandal – exposing how the Government paid out millions in COVID subsidies to major newspaper groups, largely owned by right-wing oligarchs.
“Newspapers negotiated direct bungs to themselves with him [Boris Johnson]”, the ex-Prime Minister’s former chief aide, Dominic Cummings, said on Twitter. There were “no officials on [the calls]”, he added, and Johnson “told officials to send the [money] dressed up as ‘COVID relief’”.
Budgeted at £35 million for the first three months, the subsidy scheme still appeared to be operating two years later – the Guardian published a story under its banner in March 2022 – but the Government and the industry have repeatedly rebuffed Byline Times’ questions on how much has been spent in total.
Buy the May edition of Byline Times, and read more about the ‘bungs for billionaires’ scandal.
Therefore, not only were reporters indebted to the Government for their stories – the Westminster ‘lobby’ system reliant on journalists maintaining ‘access’ to ministers and advisors – but their media outlets were also financially indebted to Johnson’s regime, which was helping their bottom line amid declining print circulation and commercial advertising revenue.
The most influential right-wing newspapers subsequently came to Johnson’s aid when stories emerged in other publications of repeated lockdown breaches in Downing Street.
From mid-January 2022 to the end of May – during the most intense months of the ‘Partygate’ scandal – 90% of the Daily Mail’s front page coverage of the episode was positive towards the Government, including one infamous splash, ‘Don’t they Know there’s a War On’, which attempted to use Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as political cover for the then Prime Minister.
Of the eight leading UK newspapers, only three (the Guardian, the Mirror and the Daily Star) ran front pages on ‘Partygate’ that framed the Government in a negative light the majority of the time, according to an analysis by the Press Gazette.
In 2018, Theresa May's Government formally dropped the second phase of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards launched in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. This would have examined relationships between journalists and the police, potentially exposing yet more wrongdoing in the upper-reaches of the media.
The phone-hacking scandal revealed that journalists had obtained confidential information by gaining access to the mobile phone messages of celebrities and, in the case of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler, victims of crime.
Will this mutual loyalty between the press and the Government continue with a new Prime Minister at the helm?
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