Dominic Cummings, former No. 10 Chief of Staff, has made serious allegations that the government has been paying news outlets to produce content portraying the Prime Minister in a positive light, and smearing his opponents.
Cummings has outspokenly opposed his former boss ever since leaving his role at number 10, calling for Conservative MPs to move for a vote of no confidence in his leadership on multiple occasions.
Cummings’ fresh allegations, if found to be true, could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, after Johnson has stubbornly held onto his position through scandal after scandal.
“Newspapers negotiated direct bungs to themselves with him [Boris Johnson]”
And accused the Prime Minister of telling officials to:
“Send the [money] dressed up as ‘COVID relief'”
During the first few weeks of the pandemic, news outlets lobbied the government for COVID relief payments, and the government has defended the payments as such, with Rishi Sunak insisting that the money was spent “in support of the print newspaper industry”.
Yet the relief was paid almost entirely to the largest outlets, with smaller outlets, more vulnerable to COVID, receiving little, if any, funding.
Furthermore, these funds appear to have materialised as a government propaganda campaign, with wrap-around ads and articles praising the government’s handling of the pandemic appearing throughout the funding periods and the “government-sponsored” label often discreetly tucked away in small print.
The COVID relief payments to news outlets are believed to be ongoing, although at a much lower level than at the start of the pandemic.
British politics often receives criticism for the manner in which the media, particularly the broadsheet newspapers, attempt to shape public opinion on the whims of their billionaire owners.
Johnson’s No. 10 appears to have an especially strong relationship with the right-wing press, with around 25% of Johnson’s meetings with external organisations between July to September 2021, which are believed to have been with representatives of such publications. Cummings even accused the Prime Minister of referring to the Telegraph as his “real boss”.
Johnson also made Evgeny Lebedev, who owns the Independent and the Evening Standard, a peer of the House of Lords. In doing so Johnson ignored the advice of his security services, who had advised against the appointment.
There is also a roundabout of sorts in No. 10 staff, with former journalists being appointed as staff, and former staff going on to work in journalism, creating numerous strong links and two-way direct access between the prime minister and large news publications. James Slack, deputy editor of the Sun, who has also worked as political editor for the Daily Mail, served, for a time, Johnson’s director of communications, while Jack Doyle, Slack’s successor in the role, was once a reporter for the Mail. Meanwhile, Johnson’s current communications director, Guto Harri, was a presenter on right-wing broadcasting service, GB News.
Responding to questions about the allocation and use of the COVID relief funds, a No. 10 spokesperson said:
“We recognise the valued role of national, local and regional newspapers, and actively supported the whole industry during the COVID pandemic. “
“This included investing more in advertising our public information campaign through national and local media and radio, which saw vital public health messaging advertised across approximately 600 titles including UK nationals, regional dailies, weeklies, and independent media.”
“No title received preferred treatment, and all outlets were selected by the Government’s external media planning and buying agency purely on their ability to engage with audiences at a national, regional and local level.”