It’s just as well that Thursday saw the last official “clap for carers”. Not because the health and care workers and all those others providing essential services don’t deserve our continuing gratitude. Of course they do.
Anne Marie Plas, the 36 year old mother and yoga teacher from Streatham who first proposed the weekly clap says she doesn’t want it to get “politicised”. People should find other practical ways of giving their support, she suggests.
Over the past week the spirit of national common purpose in the face of a horrible threat has evaporated. Just about every question about next steps against Covid-19 has become politicised. The spirit of 2020 is in danger of being replaced by the partisan rancour of 2016.
There is no need to feel too sorry for Dominic Cummings whose behaviour prompted this change in the weather. Sowing division, and reaping its harvest, is what he does. As the editor of Reaction, Iain Martin, has cleverly pointed out, Mr Cummings talent is to drive his opponents so crazy that they start making crazy mistakes – such as voting to hold a general election last December.
The difference this time is that Mr Cummings did not choose this battle. Presumably. He would have to be masochistic rather than Machiavellian to be willing to expose himself and his family deliberately to such pressure. Nevertheless political discourse has been dragged back onto terrain where he is comfortable, with partisans mustering around opposing polls. The stakes have been raised. He stays and, seemingly strengthened, he can press on with his “anti-blob” radical agenda. He goes and the Prime Minister will have to look around for other ideas.
Mr Cummings knows how to pick a fight. No apology and chastened appeal for forgiveness for him. Instead he asserted provocatively that his actions were legal, within the rules, and right. A position which the public has rejected in the opinion polls by more than two to one. He also egged on his supporters to blame the media for breaking and following the story. His seemingly casual remark to the press door stepping his London home that they should be observing the two-metre distancing rule was converted into an online campaign against “#MediaScum”.
Marc Owen Jones, an academic based in Qatar, took it upon himself to analyse 19,000 Tweets sent out from 7,900 accounts. He characterized hundreds of “media scum” tweets sent in a couple of hours to the accounts of Piers Morgan, Laura Kuensberg, Beth Rigby, Robert Peston and me as “cyber harassment”. The senders, he said, conform to three types, “genuine people, sock puppets, bots or otherwise”. What Reporters Sans Frontieres have identified as “press freedom predators” seeking to amplify disinformation and to intimidate. Such people can come from across the spectrum of extreme political opinion.
This week those who could be identified from their online biographies were Pro-Brexit, Anti-EU and Pro-Trump. A lot of the responses to this thread,” Owen Jones points out, “have involved whataboutism or deflection. Mostly ‘what about the scrum of journalists outside Cummings’s house’. It’s irrelevant to the case at hand not least because none of them are the ones getting the most abuse on Twitter.”
Professor Owen Jones is right, I don’t do much doorstepping these days and I have been nowhere near the Cummings’ London home. I have done plenty of it over the years. I think it is essential to democracy and freedom of speech that reporters should be able to try to get a response in public spaces from people who might want to avoid them. We can all be approached by others in public and we don’t have to reply.
What I am about to say will infuriate many non-journalists, I know. My own father, a doctor, used to shout at the television “how can they do that?”. In my experience it is often not as bad as it looks for either side. I have never done “the knock” in person, but, in the past, I have phoned the recently bereaved for comment. To my surprise I found that the overwhelming majority of victims were willing to talk about their losses.
In less tragic circumstances the vilification directed at my colleague at Sky James Matthews for ringing the bell on the gate of Mr Cummings’ parents’ estate strikes me as pure spite. Until now Cummings fils seemed to rather enjoy his pavement encounters with the press, taking the opportunity for an acerbic or superior aside – such as when he suggested the government could benefit from the inclusion of the characters in the children’s TV show “PJ Masks” or when he name dropped a favourite “superforecaster”, irrelevantly.
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Mr Cummings’ idiosyncracies are at the heart of his difficulties now. With reference to the USSR and Russia’s propaganda strategy before and since the Cold War “whataboutism” has been defined as “a strategy of false moral equivalences, seeking to discredit the opponents’ position by charging them with hypocrisy without contesting their central argument.”
Mr Cummings has joined the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers and Downing Street in claiming there are many inaccuracies in the newspaper reports about his behaviour when, in truth, the only newspaper allegation substantively rebutted in his statement was the suggestion that he may have made a second visit to Durham in April based on a member of the public thinking he might have seen him then.
Cummings is no stranger to such “whataboutism”. What is unique this time is that he has left it to his self-appointed supporters. But there really is only one Dominic Cummings or “special one” as a doorstepping journalist cheekily suggested. Only one senior government advisor involved in drafting the lockdown rules has bent them and kept his job. There is no moral equivalent for that. Few are clapping for Cummings.