Matt Hancock has proven yet again to be the scapegoat, but it’s those turning the right-wing media cog who are arguably the bigger villains.
We always knew Matt Hancock wasn’t the sharpest tool in the Westminster shed, but entrusting a political journalist, a right-wing one for that matter, who is known for courting controversy, and who is the partner of the leader of Reform UK for goodness’ sake, and is well-known for her anti-lockdown views, with more than 100,000 dodgy WhatsApp messages, takes his stupidity to another level.
But the latest humiliating political storm to sweep over the government says as much about the media landscape in Britain today as it does about the ministers in charge of the country. Namely, that a small group of right-wing activists acting under the guise of ‘journalism’, have access to public platforms to spout their political agendas, while a toothless regulator watches on. This is concerning and paints a dark image, that the ‘Foxification’ of UK media, that is the rise of ‘opinionated’ and ‘politicised’ news and more divisive, partisan journalism, widens political polarities, while bringing ‘culture wars’ to the fore. And this is the last thing our deeply fractured and ill-informed country needs.
If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s a summary. In the hope that she would help him write a book designed to rehabilitate his reputation as being a health secretary who was pro-lockdown during the Covid pandemic (wasn’t his excruciating Jungle appearance intended to boost his reputation?), Hancock gave Isabel Oakeshott access to tens of thousands of his personal WhatsApp messages. Instead of proceeding to ghostwrite the former health secretary’s book, Oakeshott shafted him – big time – by leaking the entire message archive to the Daily Telegraph. The Telegraph must have thought it had hit the jackpot, with a series of hugely damning anti-lockdown Hancock stories pegged for frontpage exclusives in the coming days. The first of the ‘Lockdown Files’ was published on February 28, and makes very grim reading about Hancock’s role in the care home crisis during the pandemic.
As well as confirming a catalogue of failures of Hancock’s handling of the pandemic, the story has raised questions about whether Oakeshott acted unethically, and wider concerns about the ethics of journalism.
Demise of source protection
Oakeshott’s leak broke the non-disclosure agreement (NDA) which she signed that promised she would only use the messages on background to ghostwrite Hancock’s ’Pandemic Diaries.’ The journalist vehemently defends her decision to break the written contractual promise that the messages would not be revealed, saying it was “overwhelmingly” in the public interest.
Whether Oakeshott and the Telegraph will get away with the breach depends on whether Hancock goes to court to seek enforcement of the NDA and even damages for the violation of the contract.
One key trait of quality journalism, and one that is drilled into journalism students, is the importance of trust and protecting the identity of sources. By stabbing Hancock in the back, Oakeshott broke the cardinal rule of journalism. Critics of Oakeshott say her decision to break the NDA not only makes her a ‘shameless weasel,’ but also points to a “complete collapse of basic journalistic standards.’
What the whole sordid story does reveal, asides confirming the government’s botched response to the pandemic, which we knew about already and which resulted in the country having one of the highest Covid death tolls in Europe, is the rise of right-wing journalists nuzzling their way onto public platforms, typically owned by billionaires, to tout their political interests, all in the name of journalism.
In this case, Oakeshott is a vocal anti-lockdown activist who is the partner of Richard Tice. Tice leads Reform UK, which was rebranded from the Brexit Party as an anti-lockdown voice during the pandemic.
The journalist doesn’t seem to possess much conscience when it comes to loyalty, which makes Hancock’s trust in her all that more foolish. As political editor of the Sunday Times in 2011, she backstabbed her supposed friend Vicky Pryce, ex-wife of former Lib Dem cabinet minister Chris Huhne. Pryce had told Oakeshott how she had taken speeding points on Huhne’s behalf. Oakeshott convinced Pryce to go on the record about the motoring offence. Pryce ending up being sent to jail as a result of Oakeshott’s frontpage story.
‘Call me Dave’ and dead pigs
In 2015, the journalist co-authored ‘Call Me Dave,’ a biography of David Cameron. The book set social media alight with claims, without too much evidence, that the former PM ‘had sex with the head of a dead pig’ during his student days. Oakeshott attempted to distance herself from the book’s most controversial passage.
In 2021, she joined right-wing fringe channel GB news as the presenter of a political programme. Less than a year later, it was announced she was joining TalkTV, GB News’ right-wing rival owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Giving the WhatsApp messages story further intrigue is the fact that Oakeshott decided to hand the trove of Hancock messages to the Daily Telegraph, despite being paid a reported six-figure salary to be a political pundit on TalkTV. The journalist therefore not only stabbed her source in the back, but she stabbed her employer, Rupert Murdoch, in the back too, by handing the archive to the Telegraph rather than the Sun or the Times, both of which her employer owns. So not only did TalkTV miss out on an exclusive that could have done wonders to help its paltry ratings, but the Sun and the Times missed the scoop too.
Why did Oakeshott do this? We can only speculate that she must have thought the anti-lockdown Hancock scoops would have greater impact in the Telegraph. She has also said that she is employed by TalkTV on a freelance contract and is therefore free to work for other publications. True, but still no rationale for the lack of morality. She has also denied any suggestion that she was paid by the Telegraph for the messages.
Oakeshott’s motivations aside, what we have seen in Britain in recent years, and certainly in the US where fake news and disinformation campaigns were given a ‘megaphone’ during Trump’s reign, is the rise of outspoken political activists being given public platforms to shout their propaganda to receptive but still – and this is the good bit – rather small audiences.
Meanwhile our supposed communications regulator, Ofcom largely watches on and does very little, and has been described as ‘toothless and weak.’ When it received nearly 2,000 complaints about Matt Hancock’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity, the watchdog’s response was that it expected broadcasters to take steps when the ‘mere presence’ of someone on their show was likely to cause offence – essentially shifting the responsibility onto the broadcaster, and thereby giving them a free reign to have who they want on air.
The Nigel Farage show
Take Nigel Farage. In 2021, the right-wing broadcaster GB News turned to the former UKIP leader to have a prime spot in a bid to save the channel’s pathetic ratings. Since the publicity-crazed Farage, who has been more or less unemployed since Brexit, took centre stage on GB News, the channel has basically become an unrestrained propaganda outfit for Farage and his agenda.
Then there’s that other right-wing political activist Laurence Fox. After appearing on BBC Question Time in January 2020 – I’ll come on to Question Time in a moment – Fox set up the ‘anti-woke’ Reclaim Party – aka ‘UKIP for culture.’ In 2021, Fox announced he would stand in the London mayoral elections, to ‘fight against extreme political correctness’ and to end the Met’s ‘obsession with diversity and inclusivity.’ The candidacy was endorsed by Reform UK, with Farage standing aside for Fox in the election. Millionaire British businessman Jeremy Hosking, was major donor of Fox’s campaign, having given Reclaim more than £100,000 in cash and services.
Like his mate Farage, Fox has his own show on GB News, so another right-wing political zealot of a political party that nobody votes for has precious airtime to spout their nonsense. He is also an avid Covid vaccine sceptic and, like Oakeshott, is an anti-lockdown campaigner.
Just this week, even GB News’ viewers became agitated at the content on his show. Viewers complained to Ofcom after a doctor made claims about the effect of the Covid vaccine on pregnant women.
Dr Tina Peers claimed 58 percent of women suffered a miscarriage during the Pfizer vaccine trial for the coronavirus, suggesting no research had been done on fertility studies.
“Laurence Fox had Tina Peers on his show last night, making a number of false statements about covid vaccines, including a ridiculous claim that 58 percent of women who got pregnant during the Pfizer trial had a miscarriage. This seems to be a variation on a long debunked story,” tweeted one irate viewer as the clip went viral.
‘Fake’ journalists let off the leash
But then that’s the kind of content that is being spewed into the public domain as ‘fake’ right-wing journalists are let off the leash. This list published by the Press Gazette provides clear testimony as to the backgrounds of the presenters at GB News. Some are politicians, and other things like ‘comedians’, and are clearly not journalists. Several of those who claim to be journalists have only worked for right-wing outlets and have a record of right-wing activism. Tom Harwood, for example, is a political correspondent for GB News, who has worked for the right-wing political news website Guido Fawkes and had written for the Daily Telegraph. Before entering journalism, Harwood was involved in the student wing of Vote Leave.
In fact, only one GB News presenter on the list has any claim to the left. Gloria De Piero was elected as Labour MP for Ashfield in 2010 but decided not to stand for election again in 2019.
But back to Question Time. Worryingly, it’s not just the usual right-wing suspects giving platforms to ‘non’ journalists with dodgy political agendas. The BBC, which has been under the spotlight of the right for a number of years, has been accused of giving the far right a platform on Question Time. Despite a lack of representation in Westminster, as UKIP leader Nigel Farage and his colleagues managed to get regular airtime on Question Time. Isabel Oakeshott is also no stranger to the Question Time panel, as well as the BBC’s Daily Politics.
Amid this dangerously antagonistic media landscape, Ofcom isn’t doing much to regulate the quality – or lack of it – of journalism in Britain.
As the right-wing channels, GB News and TalkTV, geared up to launch in the spring of 2021, commentators called on Ofcom to ensure the ‘opinionated’ channels do not lead to the ‘Foxification’ of British TV news.
In what was a punch in the stomach to anyone who resents the bombastic rants and baseless claims made by divisive voices like Piers Morgan, in 2021 Adam Baxter, director of standards and audience protection at Ofcom, said: There is no absolute right not to be offended by what you see on TV and hear on radio.”
Instead of acting upon and reigning in such fears, what we have seen in the subsequent two years, are these fringe broadcasters, desperately vying for viewers, becoming home to a raft of ‘fake’ right-wing journalists – Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg being the latest.
Isabel Oakeshott may have thought she was ‘doing the right thing’ by handing the damning WhatsApp messages from the former health secretary to the Telegraph, exposing ministerial incompetence and lies in the ‘national public interest.’ But her agenda, it could be argued, is much more sinister and dark. As Hancock himself said in response to the data breach, “releasing them [the WhatsApp messages] in this way gives a partial, biased account to suit an anti-lockdown agenda.”
And for once, I might agree with him.
As Britain’s media shifts further to the right and becomes increasingly ‘Foxified’ with the arrival of two opinionated right-wing broadcasters, outspoken activists with their, some would say, cranky political agendas are being given a platform to talk to audiences directly. In one sense it could be argued that there is nothing necessarily wrong or new in that. The popular press has existed for 150 years and for much of that time, it has been dominated by press barons with their own, usually right wing political axes to grind. What is new is the absence of the kinds of checks and balances that could usually rein in the worst excesses of the traditional media, recruitment processes that value loud voices over the more considered, and the sheer speed at which the untruthful can be multiplied and amplified. Success is measured by criteria which have little to do with a journalist’s first responsibility, to try to tell the truth.
Matt Hancock has proven yet again to be the scapegoat, but it’s those turning the right-wing media cog who are arguably the bigger villains.
Right-wing media watch – Brexit-supporting media pins UK’s ‘great tomato crisis’ on the Spanish weather!
I’m not ashamed to admit that as an ardent Remainer I love a good Brexit disaster story. And this week, us Remainers have been in our element, with images of supermarket shelves in Europe packed with fresh fruit and veg flooding the internet.
Of course, jeopardising the livelihoods of growers, supply chain contractors and sellers, not to mention the UK’s health through fruit and veg scarcity is no laughing matter. The laughing is more a hysterical laughter, triggered by unwanted yet predictable events of our departure from Europe.
But sigh, unsurprisingly, the Brexit-loving media is blaming the shortages on anything but Brexit.
‘Yes, we have no tomatoes! But don’t blame Brexit blame greedy supermarkets, shouted Carole Malone in a column for the Express.
“It’s all because we left the EU” scream the usual (ill informed) suspects on social media who blame all of Britain’s current ailments on the fact we escaped the clutches of those unelected bureaucrats in Brussels,” Malone writes.
Well, yes, we are making such noises Carole, but it’s not because we’re ill-informed. Quite the opposite in fact.
Ex Sainsbury’s chief has blamed the shortages on ‘Brexit and energy costs,’ and you’d think he’d know more about such matters than an Express columnist looking to create a reaction. Justin King told LBC this week that while poor weather conditions had meant an interruption to supplies, in the past there would have been production all year round in the UK. The former Sainsbury’s boss alludes to Thanet in north Kent, home to the largest greenhouses in Europe. These greenhouses, says King, have been ‘hurt horribly by Brexit’, as well as the government’s failure to help growers with soaring energy costs.
Liz Webster, chair of Save British Food, told GMB that Brexit was having an impact on the shortages. She said: “We have had absolute negligence from the government who do not care about food production or food supply or anything. They believe the supermarkets should sort it out.
“But ultimately the government delivered Brexit, what they should have done is put far more focus on growing food in Britain to actually give us that cushion for supply.”
“To destroy food production is very, very quick. To ramp it up takes a long time,” she added.
Spanish growers blame Brexit costs and red tape
While the likes of the Express wail that ‘extreme weather’ in southern Europe and north Africa has caused the empty supermarket shelves, and that blaming Brexit is ‘shameless,’ Spanish growers have come forward and said Brexit is to blame.
Alfonso Galvez, general secretary of the Murcia brand of Asaja, Spain’s largest farming association, says the current shortages in the UK may have more to do with logistics and bureaucracy than the weather. “There have been logistics and transport problems when it comes to exports, such as a shortage of lorry drivers to service the UK market, and the problems we’ve seen with the queues to get into the country through Eurotunnel,” said Galvez. “On top of that, you’ve got the costs of all this bureaucracy and all these waits, which mean that perhaps the UK market isn’t so attractive,” he added.
Lisa Langton, who lives in Andalusia, told me how the Almeria-based company her husband drives a lorry for was the biggest supplier of fruit and vegetables to Waitrose and Asda. But a decision was made that because of red tape and bureaucracy at customs, it was “just not worth it when there are other countries that they supply within Europe.” “So sadly, Britain you are of no consequence to Spanish growers,” said Langton.
Fuelling the ‘tomato crisis’ ridicule on social media was our environment secretary Therese Coffey’s comments that Brits should ditch salad in favour of our homegrown turnips. The comments must have been planted as some kind of distraction tactic (throwing in the dead cat I think it’s called), but perhaps that’s being too kind to Coffey.
The Daily Mail certainly went for the distraction angle. Perhaps recognising that turnips have to be one of the most loathed vegetables in existence, the paper opted for watercress.
‘Run out of lettuce? Try watercress!” shouted the Mail. The newspaper claims that because of ‘poor weather conditions in areas of Spain’ which have ‘stripped supermarket shelves in Britain of fruit and vegetables and especially salad items,’ watercress sales have gone through the roof.
Fortunately, even Mail readers weren’t convinced about the watercress replacement.
“Next you will be eating grass cuttings and turnip which is essentially cattle food. Brexit benefits… lol,” one reader commented.
And then they have the audacity to belittle us for moaning about Brexit!
Woke-bashing of the week – Britain’s drag scene should be fearful of Tennessee’s draconian anti-LBGT+ bill
With iconic music, culture and entertainment scenes that were the envy of the world, I feel privileged to have grown up in Manchester and later in Liverpool at university in the 1990s. Watching drag performances on Manchester’s Canal Street and in Liverpool’s Garlands, where the drag scene has been part of the cultural fabric since the 1970s, was a regular night out.
Drag culture is free speech. It is one of the most liberating forms of freedom of expression. Manchester and Liverpool might be over 4,000 miles from Tennessee, but news that the state is planning on banning drag shows from public property came as a gut-wrenching reminder of the terrifying freedom and cultural-quashing, ‘woke’-bashing escapades of the right – the very people who claim to be champions of free speech and freedom of expression.
On February 23, a bill banning ‘adult-oriented’ entertainment from public properties was passed by Tennessee’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The bill also limits so-called ‘adult-oriented’ entertainment to venues for people over the age of 18. The author of the anti-drag law is Tennessee State Representative Chris Todd, who filed the legislation after a long-winded dispute over a Pride drag show in Jackson. Todd claimed the show amounted to ‘child abuse,’ and that his legislation is a ‘common-sense, child safety bill.’
Child abuse? Surely starving youngsters of being acquainted with colourful and unique identities and culture through autocratic and repressive legislation is more on a par with child abuse. Like many of these over-zealous right-wingers and their rants, it remains wholly ambiguous how Todd equates people attending fun and innocent drag performances voluntarily as child abuse.
This week Bill Lee, governor of Tennessee, announced he will sign the bill, which bans drag show performances within 1,000 feet of public parks, schools, or places of worship. If the bill becomes law, first-time violators could face fines of up to $2,500 and up to a year in prison. A further offense would be classified as a felony that is punishable by up to six years in prison.
You would expect that those imposing such draconian measures on drag culture would have no personal connection to the form of expression. Yet, a photo recently surfaced on Reddit of Lee dressed in drag in 1977. When asked by the Daily Beast about the photo, Lee’s office insisted there is no comparison between what he did as a teen and what he is trying to make illegal. Just another case of ‘one rule for them’ and freedom of speech if it’s ‘our’ free speech, I’d say, and in this case, quite literally.
The bill, sadly, is just one of a string of anti-LGBT+ legislation introduced and passed in states across the United States in recent years. In 2022, efforts led by ‘parental rights’ groups and influential conservative Christian legal organisations to target LGBT+ Americans dominated Republican campaigns. Advocacy organisations tracking the bills have estimated as many as 600 measures affecting LGBT+ people may have been introduced.
Would similar efforts be made in the UK? Worryingly, in a country where the right has a tendency to look to American allies for policy inspiration, and the ‘Americanisation’ of politics and culture gains traction, there is a similar trend for politicians to build their profile on a platform of anti-LGBT+ sentiment. Just look at the new deputy Tory party chairman Lee Anderson. He has a long history of anti-LGBT+ comments. After Eddie Izzard announced she would be seeking the Labour nomination in Sheffield, the Tory MP made a transphobic rant on TalkTV that he would “not follow [her] to the toilets.”
Anderson was also one of the most vocal critics of Scotland’s efforts to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). He accused Nicola Sturgeon of using “dirty tricks” to advance the cause for independence, implying that gender recognition reform was nothing more than a political ploy. In 2019, 21 MPs voted against LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education in schools in England.
While the right in Britain will have you believe that identity issues and trans people are the biggest single issue facing the public today – Lee Anderson, sorry him again, having recently said the Tories can win the election on ‘culture wars and trans debate’ – the reality is, such hate-filled narrative is unsuccessfully being pushed out by a small division of out-of-touch right-wingers. The UK public are clear and consistent – trans issues are not a cause of national concern, as a YouGov poll in 2022 showed.
Of course, it doesn’t take a YouGov poll to imagine the uproar if drag shows were outlawed in the likes of Canal Street in Manchester and Garlands in Liverpool. It would be like giving these culturally vibrant cities the personality-depleting lobotomy that was forced on Randle McMurphy by Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
A scary thought indeed.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch
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