This weekend (16/17 January) we have all been given a stunning lesson in the strength of the Conservative Party’s propaganda machine. Hemmed in by his lies, his popularity plummeting faster than a spacecraft re-entering earth’s atmosphere and hurtling towards the sea, Boris Johnson called in favours from mainstream broadcasters, three major newspapers, and his pet client journalists.
The Sunday editions of newspapers accounting for almost two-thirds of circulation – The Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch, The Telegraph, part of the surviving Barclay twin’s empire and The Daily Mail, one of the multitude of assets of French-for-tax-reasons Lord Rothermere – all had the same story on their front pages. A grainy picture of Keir Starmer holding a beverage in the constituency office of Durham MP Mary Foy on 30 April 2021, with headlines screaming, “Hypocrisy!” This guaranteed it would be featured on major political shows in the next 24-hour news cycle: Marr on the BBC, Ridge on Sky and Ferrari on LBC.
For good measure, The Daily Mail ran it again on Monday, 17 January, client journalists took to Twitter to make sure the story went viral and Boris Johnson tribute act Michael Fabricant MP, with a few other ultra-right-wing Tory MPs in support, including (sadly) one of our region’s MPs Chris Loder, spear-headed the project to push the fake news story as far as possible. In fact, the story had already been debunked in April last year, when The Sun first ran it. It had not gained much traction then, because it was a non-story.
The covert video was shot during the campaign for the local elections and Hartlepool byelection on 6 May, 2021. Starmer had been in Manchester on 29 April, then Hull the next day, on to Durham in the evening for May Day meetings in the historic city, followed by another round of campaigning in Hartlepool. It was a punishing schedule. When he wasn’t out and about, meeting voters, he was on Zoom meetings in the offices of local MPs, as he was on the evening of 30 April, talking to Labour activists. He says he and his team grabbed a quick takeaway in between meetings, and yes, he drank a beer as part of that meal.
Now, this will have been no different from any other political leader, including Boris Johnson, who were all frenetically campaigning at that time. I seriously doubt, given his taste for wine, that the prime minister stuck to water. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with a tipple, if it’s within the rules, and there was a special exemption that would cover campaign teams eating together in The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2021 (see Schedule 2, Part I, 4. Exception 20 (29) (c)):
Exception 20: campaigning
(29) (c) the gathering is reasonably necessary for the purposes of campaigning in an election or a referendum held in accordance with provision made by or under an Act.
This was of course a very different story to the full lockdown situation we were experiencing in May 2020 when the garden party in N°10 took place. The two are not at all comparable. Boris Johnson supporters are desperately attempting to establish a false equivalence, because if they can seed a “both sides are guilty” impression in the public hive mind, that could lessen public anger towards their man and make his position more secure. However, it is like equating a man driving 40 miles per hour in a 40 miles per hour zone with a joyrider guilty of several drive-by shootings. One case has nothing to do with the other, and to say otherwise is malicious falsehood, but sadly the Coms department of this government won’t ever let the truth get in the way of a good hit-story.
No doubt the new revelation that Priti Patel’s staff were letting the prosecco flow in an illicit party in March 2021 and Dominic Cummings assertion that he’s willing to swear on oath that Johnson is lying in every particular about the May 2020 party, will knock the false accusations against Keir Starmer off the top of the news cycle. Still, it was a frightening reminder of how far and how quickly ‘the Establishment’ can spread a lie if it chooses, and how easy it is to give voters a false impression about almost anything. We must all be vigilant against the manipulations of a malign government that is a stranger to truth, integrity and our best interests.