Look out, Johnson: columnists' knives were already out before Partygate
Media LeadersThe latest episode in Boris Johnson's Partygate scandal should leave no-one in doubt over the power, influence and earning power of today's leading newsbrand columnists.
One of greatest first sentences by a newspaper columnist was written a long time ago.
Cassandra – the Daily Mirror’s William Connor – came back from fighting in the Second World War and resumed his column with the legendary words: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, it is a powerful hard thing to please all of the people all of the time.”
Indeed it is, as many modern-day columnists must know, but more than 30 years of daily columns earned Connor a knighthood.
Since then the power, influence and earning power of the top columnists have become breath-taking compared to Cassandra, the modest hack, and the biggest beasts can sign multi-million, multi-media deals that can put film stars in the shade.
Morgan: Boris 'a shambles'
It is alleged that Piers Morgan on the run from his troubles at Good Morning Britain has been awarded a £50m deal by Rupert Murdoch to write columns for The Sun and anchor a top programme for the up-coming Talk TV news channel and Fox News.
Morgan burst into the Conservative-supporting Sun this week to the sound of trumpets and a full-page picture of himself and the launch of a ferocious attack on Prime Minister Johnson, although Morgan said that personally he “likes him as a bloke.”
The new Sun columnist told Johnson he was a shambles and that “running the country, any country, requires you to not just BE a character but to HAVE character.”
Morgan reminded the Prime Minister of his attempts to avoid his questions by hiding in a fridge and refusing for months to face an interrogation on GMB.
“Grow a pair man! (And you can start by being one of my first guests on my new global TV show…” Morgan suggested cheekily.
Although the first column was not wholly unfriendly to the UK’s beleaguered Prime Minister, it urged him to stop being a shambles and get things done.
The alternative is to “admit that being Prime Minister is simply too much for you and let someone else do it – before the party takes that decision from you.”
Such columns help to set the political climate and they do it not just for the print and online readers of the publication in which they appear. They are picked up and amplified and spread around the world within minutes by broadcasters who cannot otherwise express such trenchant opinions.
The message from the former editor of the Daily Mirror is clear. The hapless Johnson has to shape up before a Conservative meltdown in the May local elections – or else.
Neil: 'entirely self-inflicted'
A similar message appeared in the Daily Mail on the last day of the year from Andrew Neil another of the big multi-millionaire columnists bestriding the universe – this time on the run from GB News.
The flavour is that, yes of course Johnson is hopeless, but could yet defy those predicting his downfall.
In a single year, Johnson has seen “his poll ratings tank as his government became increasingly mired in sleaze, cronyism, hypocrisy and incompetence –all entirely self-inflicted by Johnson and those closest to him.”
Despite all of that Neil believes, rather like Morgan, that Johnson’s salvation is entirely within his own hands if he can transform his “lacklustre Downing Street operation with fresh blood and purpose- and provide the country with the leadership these difficult times require.”
Parris: our current PM, the vampire
Another of the go-to columnists, although almost certainly rather less well-paid, is former Conservative MP Matthew Parris. His words, at least on Johnson, are capable of penetrating the thickest armour plating.
The quotable Parris, long an opponent of everything Johnson is, and stands for, suggests in his latest effort that Johnson leaves a scar on all who deal with him.
Parris is one of those columnists who write in public what many only think in private, while avoiding a rant and staying on the right side of rationality – the very mark of what a good columnist should be.
The conscience of the Tory Party believes that Lord Brownlow of Downing Street Flats is “merely the latest among scores of individuals who, over decades, have become victims of the vampire, our current Prime Minister.”
Parris believes that former Prime Ministers Disraeli and (to some extent) David Lloyd George were confidence tricksters and more, but Downing Street is now occupied “by someone who is only a confidence trickster.”
Disraeli and Lloyd George may have used their wiles as persuaders, charmers and sometimes deceivers but they did it for a purpose.
While even the Pied Piper had a purpose, Parris says future historians will be baffled by the “essential purposelessness” of this Prime Minister.
Above all Parris warns the Conservative Party it had better watch out “lest it become the Vampire of Downing Street’s greatest and ultimate triumph.”
ITV scoop revives Partygate
The words of newspaper columnists may take flight and influence the current social mood but it is hard-nosed scoops that can bring down a Prime Minister, exclusives such as another missive from Paul Brand’s ITV scoop factory.
Just when you thought things could hardly get worse for Johnson, they just did.
ITV has a copy of an email from Johnson’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds inviting around 100 Downing Street staffers to a bring-your-own-bottle party in the Number 10 garden.
Witnesses say Johnson not only acquiesced in such a party but also attended with his wife and this during the first lockdown, when we were only allowed to meet one person outside.
As usual there was a political tinge to coverage of this most egregious breach of lockdown, which just might at last attract the attention of the Metropolitan police.
The Sun splashed on a Johnson appeal to get booster vaccinations, hardly a new story, while the Daily Telegraph’s main story was devoted to an issue we have seen before – splits over the length of quarantine.
The Daily Express was less forgiving with its splash headline: Enough Boris! You Must End ‘Partygate’ Farce Now, while the Daily Mail had Boris Rocked By New Party Revelations.
Today there were almost no exceptions: every national front page and many of the regional dailies added up to extremely bad news for Johnson
But Morgan, Neil and Parris were writing before the latest disclosures. God knows how many knives they will sharpen next time.
The only sadness is that we will never know what that greatest newspaper columnist of them all – Cassandra – would make of the current total shambles.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for Mediatel News on Wednesdays.
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