The Johnson-supporting press is playing the deflection game

The Johnson-supporting press is playing the deflection game

Coverage of the Covid Inquiry has been less than adequate thanks to Johnson-friendly outlets doing his PR for him.

The Covid inquiry has already produced many memorable moments.

The chief government scientists all insisting they were not consulted by then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak before he announced his lethal, scientifically illiterate, Eat Out To Help Out scheme was clearly one of them.

Matt Hancock, then Health Secretary, admitting that the first lockdown came three weeks too late, is clearly another, prompting even the most casual observer to wonder how such a thing could have happened.

The BoJo show

But the big-ticket story starts this morning, when former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the person in charge throughout the pandemic, begins two days of evidence.

A few things can safely be predicted — that Johnson will face a much rougher ride from Baroness Heather Hallett, who chairs the inquiry, and her team of interrogating KCs, than he ever did from Speaker Hoyle or backbench Tory supporters.

Therefore Johnson will have been schooled within an inch of his life by an expensively-assembled legal team to demonstrate an element of contrition while of course maintaining that he got the big decisions right.

We do not have to guess what Johnson’s approach will be because much of it has already been placed — leaked is far too robust a description — in the Johnson-supporting press.

Getting the retaliation in first

We have Saturday’s Times front-page splash to thank for an uncritical setting out of the best foot-forward exposition of the case Johnson will submit today and tomorrow.

Mistakes were “unquestionably made” but thousands of lives were saved by the decisions he took, and hey, look at the vaccination programme.

David Yelland, former editor of The Sun and long-term public relations strategist, spluttered over his cornflakes and called it rule 101 out of the PR handbook. Make the agenda your agenda by getting the retaliation in first.

LBC’s fiery left-of-centre presenter James O’Brien had harsher things to say on how The Times had approached the Johnson issue.

It was, he said “profoundly dangerous” for the media to treat “disgraced liars” on both sides of the Atlantic as if they were normal politicians.

“They should surely not be treated as if they were not disgraced liars who abused the highest office in the land,” O’Brien argued.

The deflection game

Unsurprisingly the Daily Mail got into the deflection game with an article saying Johnson believes that the inquiry should be looking at whether the pandemic was caused by the leak of a manmade virus from Wuhan labs in China.

The former Prime Minister acknowledged that such an issue was probably beyond the remit of the inquiry, but what the hell — anything that muddies the water.

The Mail continued on Monday with its inquiry warm-up coverage with the extraordinary revelation that the plucky British Prime Minister had even asked the security services to plan a raid on a Dutch vaccine plant because of what he saw as the EU blocking export of Covid vaccines to the UK.

The paper, naturally, was well informed about Johnson’s up-coming evidence showing he planned to cite the vaccine rollout as evidence that “he got the big calls right” during the pandemic.

It has, however, been The Times that has been in the vanguard in this version of the Save Big Dog manoeuvre presumably in the belief that lawyers such as Baroness Hallett and the KCs are far more likely to come across The Times than the Daily Mail.

It would be entirely scurrilous to suggest that the favourable coverage in The Times had anything to do with the fact that the paper’s editor Tony Gallagher has been a jogging mate of the former Prime Minister.

The Times was at it again yesterday with more of Johnson’s evidence in advance, this time spreading the blame more than a bit by planning to claim that he had only been taking chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty’s advice on the massive “disbenefits” of lockdown.

This could be a very useful “loophole” which might enable Johnson to deploy his undoubted “greased piglet” skills.

As Times analysis pointed out, Sir Chris admitted at the inquiry that cautioning Johnson against the risk of acting too soon was one of his biggest mistakes.

There will be at least one direct conflict of evidence. Johnson will say that Sir Chris and Sir Patrick Vallance, former chief scientific advisor, were consulted about the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, something they emphatically deny.

The ‘inquiry is rubbish’ line of argument

The other noticeable tendency in the Conservative/Johnson supporting papers is at the same time as ignoring, or underplaying some of the crucial evidence, they have moved to rubbish the nature of the inquiry.

Columnists have been rolled out to say it’s too long, too expensive, too backward looking, asking the wrong questions, and when it is not a witch-hunt it’s a kangaroo court.

Such critics tend to ignore the fact that we have only reached module 2 looking at Government decision-making and problems of governance and that a wide range of other matters will be dealt with.

It would be totally bizarre if Baroness Hallett does not pull together all the lessons to be learned once all the facts are known.

A more respectable version of the “inquiry is rubbish” line of argument came yesterday, again in The Times, from William Hague, former leader of the Conservative Party. Hague is, conveniently, of the opinion that “the blame game” won’t help with tackling the next pandemic — something which may or may not be true.

From Johnson’s point of view Hague’s contribution is to normalise the Johnson position. Of course mistakes were made but that is only to be expected and it’s all already water under the bridge. As the financial markets say, it’s all already in the price.

“By the end of the week we will be able to judge that he got some decisions right, others wrong and probably wasn’t the best person to have in charge when we hit by a global pandemic. But we know all this already,” said Hague more than a little complacently.

An easy ride

By the end of the week we will also know whether the media, with honourable exceptions such as The Guardian and the Today programme, are going to improve their less-than-adequate Covid Inquiry coverage — or not.

Will Johnson continue to get an easy ride as he has had in The Times over the past few days, or will it be another example of presenting the case for the defence while stirring in a few flaws and mistakes for the sake of authenticity.

Then there will be a very strong second act when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will get a chance to say where he got his scientific advice from before launching Eat Out To Help Out.

Thanks to the Covid Inquiry we already know it did not come from the SAGE committee or the Government’s top scientific advisors who insist the scheme came as news to them.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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