Cummings fallout shows why sources should be named…

SEVEN hours is a long time for Dominic Cummings to have given evidence to MPs, and it’s hard to remember such a savaging for a sitting prime minister from a recently exiled ally.

Your takeaway from yesterday is likely to depend on what you thought beforehand.

If you dislike this government and its underhand ways, you will still dislike this government and its underhand ways, only with more evidence for your convictions.

If you like this government, and a surprising number of people seem to, you will say it’s all about revenge and anyway it’s a Westminster bubble about nothing much.

If you are generally anti, you will have to swallow the boiled fact that former Downing Street adviser Cummings, once seen by your side as the devil in a baseball cap, is now the man handing out the ammunition. If he was awful back then, is he acceptable now?

Everyone will have an opinion about this, or maybe their opinion will be that it’s not worth having an opinion.

Instead of joining that noisy crowd, here is another aspect to this: it’s all about the source.

When giving journalism lectures, I like to include a session on where news comes from. This sometimes comes with a dad-joke explanation of the difference between sources and sauces.

This came back to me this morning when skimming through what the papers had to say/spit about Cummings.

The man himself said something telling about sources. This was as follows: “The main person really though that I spoke to in the whole of 2020 was Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC, because the BBC has a special position in the country obviously during a crisis and because I was in the room for certain crucial things I could give guidance to her on certain very big stories.”

The social media haters will take this as proof that Kuenssberg is a witch in a pointy Tory hat. Such attacks misunderstand the nature of her job. She is basically a political reporter operating under the prevailing circumstances, where quoting anonymous government sources is the stuff of everyday political reporting.

Those unnamed ministers and sources are spilled all over this morning’s papers, as shown by the BBC website paper review.

In the Daily Telegraph, an unnamed adviser to a cabinet minister tells the paper Cummings was “quite selective on what he remembered”.

Over in The Times,  an unnamed cabinet minister – the same one; who knows? – tells the Times that Mr Cummings was after “vengeance”.

Also in The Times, there are quotes from several government sources, all questioning Mr Cummings’ credibility. One anonymous hit-person said the accusations were a “character assassination” that was “not backed by evidence”. Another says this was “revenge porn”.

Whoever said what, those anonymous cabinet sources are worrying – as too was Cummings when he was anonymously tipping off Kuenssberg.

Granting anonymity to sources for stories should be limited to those who need protection. Whistleblowers who could be putting themselves at risk by speaking out about something important need protection. This does not apply to cabinet sharks who remain nameless for their own Machiavellian purposes, while also leaving us uncertain about who is biting whom.

It’s always entirely possible that an anonymous source is made up – or is the prime minister himself. We just don’t know and that’s wrong. They should all be named.

At least The Guardian, the Daily Mirror and the i newspaper all picked the same directly attributed Cummings quote for their headline – “tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die”.

Below you will see a different take from the Daily Express. It’s perfectly mad but I’ll just leave it here, as if dropped from a faraway planet. Which is a way it was…

Leave a Reply