If historical analogies provide the measure of a man, then Downing Street henchman-in-chief, lead iconoclast and perpetual ideas recyclist “Classic Dom” Cummings is doing a spectacularly good job.
He has been likened to everyone in the “Who’s Who?” of strategy, warfare and statesmanship, from Sun Tzu, to “a cross between Macchiavelli and Rasputin”, alternatively “an amalgam of Thucydides and Stephen Hawking”, or “an unnerving cross between Robespierre and Dr Strangelove”, or in fact Thomas Cromwell to his boss’s Henry VIII.
Our classicist-in-residence, Sam, will have particularly enjoyed the perspective of how young Boris got framed and primed in the “rhetorical world view”, laying the foundations of the fine specimen that all media social and traditional relay continuously: “He assumes a natural agility in changing orientations. He hits the street already street-wise. From birth, almost, he has dwelt not in a single value structure but in several. He is thus committed to no single construction of the world; much rather, to prevailing in the game at hand.”
Freddie Sayers’ Unherd piece is the best analysis of the PM I’ve seen anywhere.
But back to Mr Johnson’s unelected slack-bottomed arch disruptor, whose remit now includes sacking the likes of Claire O’Neill, former president of the UN COP26 summit in Glasgow in November. His orchestrating attacks on the BBC and Westminster lobby journalists provided rich talking points for episode 32 of the SmallDataForum.
In a rare moment, Sam praised the Daily Mail for its firm siding with Westminster colleagues, not just in walking out of the selective No. 10 press briefing, but also for a sternly phrased rebuke in the paper’s leader column, recommending “some remedial tuition in the principles of open democracy”.
These things don’t happen by accident, and much as social media based political campaigning (any campaigning, really) is today entirely based on iterative trial-and-error experiments (A/B testing for the anointed), we agree that Prime Minister Cummings’s approach is of a different quality from the selective media briefings of the past, be it Bernard Ingham for Margaret Thatcher, or Alastair Campbell for Tony Blair.
Somehow the behaviour of No. 10’s communications director Lee Cain as the ‘henchman’s henchman’ seems more crass, more shameless, more Trumpian. And No. 10 might well find the Great British media to be less pusillanimous and obedient than their US counterparts.
And so we ponder the current state and besiegement of the BBC.
Neville points to increasing competitive pressures from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, whereas Sam sees the BBC’s ‘both-sidery’ as an increasing problem, as witnessed in the BBC’s treatment of the grand-daddy of the anti-vax movement, Andrew Wakefield; this Columbia Journalism Review article on the problem with balanced coverage is a good summary.
My main concern is with the perception of institutions such as the BBC (or the EU, for that matter) as sclerotic, self-serving, and not providing a democratic service. I think they do, and it is one of the populist puppet-masters’ more cunning ploys to paint themselves as the true democrats, as in the case of defender-of-the-people, Classic Svengali Dom.
Which brings me to trust, and competence, and ethics.
According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, competence and ethics are the new key factors in the formation of trust. I express my cynical detachment, and Neville is more positive about the concept, and the approach. At the very least, as Sam highlights, the 20 years of longitudinal Trust Barometer provide a rich repository of trend data. What we learn from it – remains to be seen.
There is plenty more to listen to, from Neville’s Brexit jaundice to Sam’s thoughts on press regulation, and me wondering how the climate change discourse – which clearly has been heating up in 2019 (apologies for the poor pun) – plays out in the privacy of people’s homes.
As ever, we have more to say, than time available. But there’s always a next time: in about four weeks, there will be more from our “podcast about the uses and abuses of data big and small in politics, business and public life” (according to Sam’s five second summary).
Listen to Episode 32: