In one of the most concentrated periods of breaking news stories on the same subject on a day-by-day basis that I can recall in more than 50 years in journalism, the last 10 days left me battle weary in trying to keep up with the rapid developments as Boris Johnson fought to keep his job as the UK's Prime Minister amid all the ramifications of the now infamous 10 Downing Street 'Partygate' scandal.
Our newspapers and broadcasting companies relentlessly delivered updates and follow-ups in one of the most remarkable, indeed bizarre, news stories in recent times. In keeping abreast of the news for my duties as the resident media pundit for Scottish Review
(plus my own avid interest as a Joe Soap member of the general public), I have predominantly relied on television for my diet of news – and that means monitoring the output on BBC1 and BBC2, ITV, Channel 4, Sky News, GB News and CNN, plus occasionally dipping into other foreign news broadcasters such as Al Jazeera.
That, you may think is enough to be going on with, but I have also followed the story in the national newspapers and my own daily regional newspaper – Aberdeen's The Press and Journal
(P&J). There is no necessity for me here to recap on 'Partygate' as I feel certain that Scottish Review
readers are pretty au fait with the issues involved and unfolding. And so fast-moving and dynamic has been this sorry saga that anything I write here as on Friday 21 January will almost certainly have been overtaken by further developments and twists and turns in this astonishing cause célèbre (or is it more appropriately a cause uncélèbre!).
However, it does afford me the opportunity to bring you two stories with an especial interest for us small coterie of professional media watchers. I daily monitor two of our main and well-informed UK media industry websites – Press Gazette
(HTFP), and it was in HTFP that I came across a media story which really stopped me in my tracks – relating how the editor of an English newspaper so poignantly related to her readers her own heart-rending experience during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The editor is Laura Collins, of the Yorkshire Evening Post
(YEP), who suffered a miscarriage during a lockdown period and was in an almost unique position to criticise Boris Johnson over the 'Partygate' scandal.
HTFP explained: 'Laura has opened up about not being able to hug her mother or best friend following the heartbreaking
experience because she stuck to the rules imposed by the UK Government. Laura has previously spoken about the two early miscarriages she suffered and called for an end to the social taboo
that surrounds it'.
HTFP goes on: 'But now Laura has added her voice to the real sense of growing public anger
about the party scandal as calls continue for Mr Johnson to resign'.
HTFP relates that, in an editorial in her own newspaper, Laura wrote: 'While Number 10 Downing Street was busy hosting alleged lockdown parties, I was struggling to come to terms with a second heartbreaking miscarriage. All I wanted to do was to go and see my mum for a hug and get that desperate reassurance that everything was going to be okay. I couldn't – we were in lockdown. I just needed to see my best friend for a shoulder to cry on. I couldn't – we were repeatedly told that we have to follow the rules that were set out for all of us without exception. Rules were rules'.
Laura said she was 'left feeling isolated, alone and unable to come to terms with what had just happened' while 'Partygate' was evolving, emphasising: 'Mr Johnson's 'apology – or lack thereof – brings little comfort to so many of us who have had to endure the heartbreak of hardship during lockdown'.
She added, harrowingly: 'There is only so long that the apologies can continue and, truth be told, the damage has already been done. How can the government even expect to have any confidence in the public if, heaven forbid, it should ever have to implement any additional COVID-19 rules again? Surely now the party is finally over once and for all Prime Minister?'
Earlier, HTFP reported how James Mitchinson, editor of the YEP's sister daily, the Yorkshire Post
, which had its origins in the Yorkshire Conservative Newspaper Company Limited and is reckoned to be the chief Conservative-supporting newspaper in England, outwith London, told the Prime Minister he was 'no longer welcome' at his newspaper in the wake of the scandal.
While not wishing to take sides in this sorry saga which made last week's news so gripping, I think it is really heartening to see two of the UK's leading regional newspapers speak truth to power. This is a media story about the media which I shall follow with much interest – and will be very interested to see if 10 Downing Street's large communications team and special advisers respond to Laura and James.
The second story involves broadcaster Trevor Phillips in almost bordering on tearful comments he made during his Sunday morning news show on Sky News.
Interviewing Tory Party co-leader: 'Let's go back to the weekend of April 17/18 and I just want to say something about what I did that week and other people will have the exact same story. That week I saw my two daughters outside at different times – one was pregnant, one was very ill. Their mother, stepmother and I were not allowed to meet them together. We all adhered to the spirit and letter of the rules.
'Last Saturday, after seeing the funeral of Prince Philip, I went to one of my friend's 70th birthday parties. He rented a tent, he has lots of friends, but he had rented a tent for only six of us, so we could sit outside. He adhered to the spirit and letter of the rules.
'And at dinner I get called up, my daughter has collapsed, and as you know, she had been isolated for several months, she was ill. The following morning she was dead and she had kept to the spirit and letter of the rules. There will be thousands of people who have that story in their background and, if I may say so, you are in here and tell me about an official's inquiry, it will not answer the anger.'
'Does the Prime Minister really understand why people are angry?' asked a visibly upset Trevor.
A few minutes later, in an interview with Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, Trevor said he was sorry for raising the issue of his daughter's death. He said: 'I apologise to viewers, if I brought something personal into this discussion, let's try to stick to it'.
However, Streeting comfortingly commented: 'By the way, Trevor, I do not think you should apologise for talking about your personal pain because millions of people up and down the country have the same conversation'.
Phillips, 68, was knighted in the 2022 New Year Honours List for his services to equality and human rights. He currently fronts the Sky News Sunday morning news programme, having taken over from colleague Sophy Ridge in May 2021 while she is on maternity leave. He was the former head of current affairs at ITV station LWT and won Royal Television Society awards for his journalism in 1988 and 1993. Phillips was also the founding chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, having previously been the head of the Commission for Racial Equality from 2003.
He's the current chair of Green Park which found in February 2021 that black directors did not hold any of the top roles at FTSE 100 companies for the first time in six years.
Phillips was asked to provide expert support on a review into the impact of COVID-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in 2020. That appointment attracted some criticism after Phillips was suspended from the Labour Party earlier in the year over allegations of Islamophobia.
Thirty years since its formation, the need for Women in Journalism (WIJ) has 'never been greater' according to its chair Alison Phillips. Welcoming in WIJ's 30th birthday year, Alison, the editor of the Daily Mirror
and a board member of the Society of Editors, said that more still needed to be done to build an industry better reflective of society.
She pointed out: 'There are now women editors at The Sun
, The Financial Times
, The Guardian
, The Sunday Times
, The Sunday Mirror
and myself at the Daily Mirror
. Deborah Turness has just been appointed as chief executive officer of news and current affairs at the BBC – joining a raft of women in the most senior positions in British broadcast journalism. On screen, there has been huge focus on ensuring gender balance.
'With women in more leadership positions women viewers and readers have stories written and edited by people like them. Our concerns, passions and furies have found their way into the public arena because women journalists have taken them there. News has finally been able to escape from the prism of the all-male gaze.'
Despite considerable progress, women are still more likely to lose out, be on insecure work contracts and find it more challenging to get to the top, claims Alison. Additionally, social media bullying and trolling is heavily targeted at women.
She added: 'Journalists who are black or from minority ethnic groups have had an even harder, longer fight for representation in our industry. They are also frequently subjected to the online attacks which seek to silence them. There are now, as there always have been, many people who want women and their stories to be silenced.
'We have done so much 30 years on from our founding, but there is still much more to do. Women in Journalism want to continue to support and inspire, to campaign and promote the work of women and all those who are underrepresented in the media so together we can build an industry which fairly reflects our readers, our viewers and our society.'
The BBC has rejected claims it 'crowds out' the regional press after demands for a scheme that would create more than 100 journalism jobs to be scrapped. HTFP reports that the corporation has hit back after the News Media Association (NMA) wrote to the BBC's board to demand a U-turn on proposals to create a new network of digital community reporters.
HTFP explains: 'Under the proposals, announced in March last year, the BBC will launch the network to cover some of the UK's most under-served communities
as part of a major investment in local journalism. At the time, it sparked accusations from the NMA that the BBC was forgetting
the existing Local News Partnership with the regional press industry, which includes the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporting Service'.
NMA chief executive, Owen Meredith, had renewed his attack on the digital community reporter plans in an opinion piece in The Times
in October, describing it as an 'unprecedented assault' on the regional press. HTFP tells us: 'He has now gone one step further, calling for that proposal to be scrapped altogether and stating it represents a direct threat to the economic sustainability
of the regional press. But the BBC has hit back, claiming there is no evidence
that it crowds out
local newspapers with its own regional coverage'.
A BBC spokesperson said: 'The BBC's commitment to impartial local journalism across radio and online is long-standing. Our services are trusted by millions of people. There is no evidence the BBC crowds out other providers and no reason to think we will in the future. Industry analysis and international comparisons show it is the decline of advertising revenues that's the biggest challenge to local commercial journalism – not the BBC.
'We spend up to £8m a year supporting the local commercial news sector through our Local Democracy Reporting Service. We pay for 165 journalists across the UK who produce stories used by a range of local media providers every day. We offer this support because we believe audiences value having a real choice of local news provision.'
The NMA's demand comes amid a national debate over future BBC funding after the UK Government's Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, revealed a plan to freeze the licence fee for the next two years at £159 before abolishing it altogether in 2027.
Owen Meredith wrote in the letter to the BBC board: 'It is increasingly evident the BBC's proposals, funded by taxpayers through the licence fee, represent a direct threat to the economic sustainability of independent local news media, in turn undermining media plurality, diversity and consumer choice.
'In the BBC's centenary year, as it searches for relevance in a digital world, it is unthinkable that it should seek – intentionally or otherwise – to undermine the viability of commercial news providers and the many diverse community voices these publishers represent, leaving the BBC a monolithic provider of news in the UK.
'We therefore ask the BBC board to withdraw the local news plans set out in Across the UK
and commit to working in a meaningful way with the independent commercial news sector, setting boundaries to the BBC's online news remit, to ensure access to quality journalism, from a range of sources, remains a cornerstone of UK democratic society.'
Meantime, the BBC's director-general, Tim Davie, has refused to rule out axing BBC2, BBC4 or Radio 5 Live as a result of the two-year licence fee standstill deal announced by Nadine Dorries on 16 January. In a response to the new deal, Davie said 'everything's on the agenda' for cuts because the licence freeze at £159 would lead to a £285m funding shortfall by 2027 that will affect the BBC's frontline output.
After the two-year freeze, the licence fee will be allowed to rise in line with inflation for the final four years of the deal. Davie pointed out: 'We are disappointed, we would have liked there to have been an inflation rise throughout the period. People, clearly and rightly, are worried about what the cut brings, but also, as an organisation, we need to reshape ourselves for a digital age'.
Jake Kanter, the media correspondent of The Times,
wrote revealingly: 'The corporation has largely exhausted behind-the-scenes savings, according to the National Audit Office, meaning frontline programming and services are increasingly in the firing line. Sources are openly speculating about the demise of channels including BBC2 and BBC4, while there is also expected to be a squeeze on big-budget dramas such as A Very British Scandal
. Viewers are likely to be served up more repeats and programmes acquired from elsewhere'.
Nadine Dorries asserts that it is right to ease pressure on 'wallets of hard-working households,' explaining: 'The BBC must support people at a time when their finances are strained, make savings and efficiencies, and use the billions in public funding it receives to deliver for viewers, listeners and users'. She said UK Government ministers would consider alternatives, such as subscription, before the BBC's next charter renewal in 2027.
Tim Davie admits there are times when the subscription model does appeal to BBC employees but he stresses that this would pose a threat to the UK's creative industries and the BBC's standing around the world.
'Of course [the BBC] could be a commercial operation, but it will not do what it does today,' he points out. 'You are doing things that are there to make a profit… When you think about local radio, you think about the World Service, you think about the radio stations we operate, we are not operating them on a commercial model.'
The former Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, who now sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Davidson, is to host a live Friday afternoon show for London-based Times Radio. Ruth, a former MSP at Holyrood, and a journalist with BBC Scotland before entering politics, will take over the slot previously held by Giles Coren from 18 February.
Ruth, whom I reported recently has relinquished her weekly column in the Scottish Mail on Sunday
because of heavy commitments, tells us she is 'very excited about combining my two great loves: politics and live broadcasting' in the programme which will 'take a deep look at the big political issues of the week'.
She said on Twitter: 'I was a journalist and broadcaster for over a decade before I entered politics, so coming back to live radio feels like coming home'.
Tim Levell, programme director of Times Radio, said: 'Ruth is well-known as one of the most liked and respected politicians of her generation,' adding: 'Ruth will dive into politics, as they'd [listeners] expect, but also culture, entertainment and sport, plus all the breaking news of the day'.
Meantime, it has emerged that the BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg, who is standing down from the post at Easter, will not be replaced by her extremely capable current deputy, Vicki Young. Vicki has announced that 'for personal reasons' she will not be applying to replace Laura in one of the the UK's top broadcasting jobs. Sources close to the Westminster political village speculate that Vicki may have been deterred from applying because of the level of abuse that Laura's reporting role has attracted on social media.