Philip Evans: My Isolation Diary – Day 69 (Wednesday, May 27 2020)
I’M still struggling with my conscious over whether I should be more supportive of the torrid time my fellow journalists are dishing out to Boris Johnson and his beleaguered Cabinet during the coronavirus crisis.
I grew up, professionally, surrounded by cynical old hacks who had no time at all for politicians of any hue. With a few notable exceptions, we thought they were all charlatans not to be trusted.
When I started out in this newspaper game 55 years ago this coming August, as cub reporters we were attached to an experienced journalist to help us learn the tricks – and pitfalls – of the trade.
They were mostly seasoned, chain-smoking, heavy drinking old hacks who were unhappy with their lot in life and even unhappier with having to keep an eye on us.
There were exceptions and one of these was the great Wally Fellender who walked the Pulman’s Weekly News Axminster patch from the war years through to a short-lived retirement in the 1970s. He was the archetypal small town reporter who new everyone and was highly respected by all.
Later, I worked for the incomparable Jimmy Hall at the Sidmouth Herald. He was an ex-Fleet Street journalist from whom I learnt a great deal. He could find a sensational angle to the most innocuous of stories and he did not mind who he upset in doing so.
When I moved in London I worked as a newspaper manager, not a journalist, which probably tainted my opinion of them as many were a nightmare to manage. I also came in contact with a number of politicians most of whom I viewed with great suspicion.
I went back to London more recently to launch a new group of local newspapers in the West End for regional press icon Sir Ray Tindle, which was a challenging but fascinating experience.
Throughout all these times, I firmly believed that those who make decisions which can affect our daily lives should be held accountable for their actions and robustly challenged, a view I’ve expressed in this blog many times in the 60 odd days I have written it.
The fact is that most journalists feel the same and in this more aggressive and competitive age little attention is paid to politeness in how they are questioned.
I have consistently questioned the purpose of the daily Downing Street press briefing. The manner is which the questions, especially from the big beats of television journalism, are asked have shocked many of those who have never taken an interest in such events before.
Whilst they always treat their inquisitors in a polite manner, the government ministers front the briefing rarely give a straight answer and are clearly irked when every question is the same. It seems to me that no one comes out of these encounters with any credit.
I have a particular problem with ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, a former stockbroker until he took up journalism and son of Labour Life Peer Lord Peston.
Peston has nurtured a quirky, laid-back style but it amazes me that someone who works in live television finds it so difficult to deliver his questions with clarity. He has made a fool of himself on several occasions at the briefings, huffing and puffing his way through.
To be fair to the chap, I thought he was quite eloquent for a change when questioning Dominic Cummings in the rose garden of No 10 and seemed a little more sympathetic than usual.
But he was put in his place, not for the first time, by Health Minister Matt Hancock, not his usual bouncy self, at yesterday’s briefing.
Peston asked why, when Hancock and his wife tested positive for coronavirus and with small children, they chose to stay at home while Cummings did not. What was the relevant difference between the Hancocks and the Cummings?
Hancock’s reply came with no waffle: “The relevant difference was that we had childcare while Cummings did not. Thanks very much.”
Taxi for Mr Peston please.
The BBC’s political editor Laura Kuennsberg is another one who divides people’s opinions with her no nonsense approach. She is widely acclaimed by her peers but many seem to be irritated by her schoolmarm approach. She goes straight for the jugular, no pussy-footing around.
This is all a part of the media game and the negativity that emerges from the delicate relationship between the press and politicians is seen by many as doom-mongering. It was ever thus.
There is some good news
Whilst the battle rages, there is more positive news about how the fight to defeat the pandemic is going in the right direction. Deaths from coronavirus have fallen to their lowest level for six weeks, boosting hopes for an end to lockdown a little earlier than expected. And the first drug for coronavirus was approved for Britain, described by Hancock as “the biggest step forward”.
Yesterday, I took my daily exercise accompanied by Mrs Evans. We even sat on the near-deserted pebble beach for a few minutes whilst families and sunbathers were enjoying the sandy beach at low tide.
I would have stopped to buy an ice cream had I had any money on me. I can’t remember a period of my life when I’ve spent so little. Up to this week there has been nowhere to spend your cash but more takeaways are opening all the time.
I can’t end this diary entry without another reference to Dominic Cummings. A growing number of Tory MPs are calling for his head and all the polls show that he has very little support in the country.
In one I saw 66% of the country says he should resign. They just don’t fall for the tale that he drove 60 miles to see if he was fit to drive back to London.
Much will depend on how many from Westminster join the ‘ditch- Cummings’ bandwagon.
Boris is staying loyal to his chum but how far can personal loyalty go? If it doesn’t die down soon, he may be forced for his own credibility, already under great scrutiny, to dispense with the most loathed man in British politics.
“Loyalty is a value but it can blind you at times. It doesn’t mean you should agree with everything that someone says to be loyal” – so said blues singer Charles Brown.