Sometimes the soundest opinions come from the least expected quarters. Tony Blair talking cool good sense on Brexit, for example. Or the political commentator Peter Oborne on Downing Street sources.
I’ll be inviting Oborne along to my lecture on sources on Monday. Not in person, sadly. But he’ll be there in print and in a clip from Channel 4 News. Unless he fancies rolling up, of course.
With luck my journalism students will take notice – no talking on the front row, please; just listen to the old bald bloke at the front.
Oborne says much that is surprisingly sound for a writer usually cast as being on the right. He’s the former chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and now writes a column for The Mail on Sunday.
On the Open Democracy website, you will find an excellent article headlined, “British journalists have become part of Johnson’s fake news machine”. In an accompanying interview on Channel 4 News, Oborne referred to the “gang of feral smear merchants” working in Downing Street under Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s political adviser and strategist.
Cummings has attained a sort of mythic status as a dark political genius, although it’s fair to say that those who rise darkly sometimes fall the same way (here’s hoping).
Oborne’s article is too long to quote at length but do give it a read. His main point is that political journalists are being “guided, managed and manipulated by the Downing Street sources”. On the Channel 4 clip, Oborne mimes air quotation marks around the last three words.
Sometime the stories based on these anonymous sources are complete baloney, and only supported by that unnamed source. Oborne cites a splash in The Mail on Sunday (mentioned here before) in which an unnamed Downing Street source supplied the headline: “No 10 probes Remain MPs’ ‘foreign collusion’.”
The single quotes supplied for the last two words tell you all you need to know. This isn’t news, because it didn’t happen – but it might just have happened, and The Mail on Sunday happily put out a message approved by Boris Johnson.
As Oborne writes in his Open Democracy article, “Of course this bogus story fitted like a glove with the dominant Downing Street narrative that the Benn Act – which ruled out a No Deal Brexit – was actually a ‘surrender act’ designed to thwart Brexit altogether.”
He phoned Dominic Grieve, one of the Remainers mentioned in the article, who said that he “had not sought the help of any foreign government ‘in drafting and tabling a British statute’”.
Moving on, Oborne attacks the BBC and its political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, for being manipulated by Downing Street, often by breathlessly tweeting stories based on those anonymous Downing Street sources. “This compliance is part of a pattern,” Oborne writes. “Political editors are so pleased to be given ‘insider’ or ‘exclusive’ information that they report it without challenge or question.”
A BBC spokesperson tells Oborne: “While our journalists always prefer on-the-record quotes, there is a well-established practice in politics of reporting information from unnamed sources to give audiences a greater sense of what is going on in Westminster.”
The trouble with that line is that this isn’t reporting what’s going on in Westminster; it’s reporting whatever dodgy version of events Boris Johnson wants out there, without any supporting evidence.
Oborne even-handedly includes Robert Peston of ITV in such criticism.
Political reporting is a great line of work (wish I’d thought of it myself years ago), but it’s also to belong to a claustrophobic club. They’re all part of the same political gang – not a party-political gang, but a self-referencing babble of people pursuing politics or writing about it.
Oborne proffers the obvious solution: that those sources should be named. This is not a new suggestion, as a tweet from Private Eye shows.
As long ago as 1970, Auberon Waugh wrote in the Eye that newspapers should “refuse to use any story from a political source until politicians subject themselves to the same scrutiny as everybody else”.
Journalists should not be willing participants in the grubby game of passing on fake headlines scribbled in Downing Street. As Oborne points out, “there is now clear evident that the prime minister has debauched Downing Street by using the power of his office to spread propaganda and fake news”.
How telling it is, too, that Peter Oborne hawked that article around all the usual inky places, and no newspaper would print it.