The anatomy of a media manhunt

The attempt to take down Dominic Cummings revealed some uncomfortable truths about the media.


Topics Brexit Covid-19 Politics UK

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Having worked in journalism and been a member of parliament and a minister in a European country for many years, I find many aspects of the Dominic Cummings affair eerily familiar.

During my time as a journalist, I was often surprised by how openly some of the editors and reporters discussed how to ‘get’ someone. In daily meetings they would debate which pundits might be most critical of the person in question. This was before social media provided an endless source of condemnations to choose from and members of the public started competing to denounce heretics.

Working in journalism, it soon became clear to me that coverage of events was greatly influenced by preconceptions about the people involved. This was decades ago. But now, more than ever, the things that people do and say are judged not by the content or nature of what is said and done, but by who says or does them.

One of the greatest achievements of Western civilisation was reaching the conclusion that all individuals should have the same rights. The modern zeitgeist seeks to turn this principle on its head.

In effect, we now have a hierarchy of personal rights based on which group individuals are assigned to by the high priests of identitarianism. Very near the bottom of that hierarchy sits Dominic Cummings – highest among his sins in the eyes of intersectionalists is that he is blamed for the UK‘s departure from the EU.

This cultural establishment is hostile towards challenges to its authority. People who are seen as a threat to the ruling order must be quelled, and the opportunity to do so is eagerly awaited.

What turned out to be the long-awaited excuse for doing away with Dominic Cummings? He drove with his family from London to Durham to self-isolate and protect his child. How has British society come to this?

I now know that Durham is 260 miles from London, and feel confident that I could drive there without the aid of a map or GPS, having heard the route described ad nauseam. The path that Cummings’ critics have taken is, however, even more familiar to me than the route from London to Durham.

Cummings was known for his criticism of the elites. So he was presented as an elitist who thought there was one set of rules for him and another for everyone else. This was to have the added effect of getting ‘everyone else’ to unite against the offender. Hence the elites attacking Cummings because of who he is did so by claiming he was behaving as an elitist. The irony was apparently lost on the intersectionalists.

The pursuit of Cummings followed a familiar script.

With the perpetrator’s offence established, the hunters start reporting every criticism of their prey. Modern social media provides an inexhaustible well of such criticism, ranging from accounts of people who believe they may have witnessed the perpetrator committing other offences to gifs and other jokes from the internet (allowing for headlines such as ‘This video mocking Cummings’ trip has gone viral’). The objective here is to give the impression that more or less everyone is of the same opinion. Differing views get almost no attention, except when someone comes to the defence of the accused in a manner that is easily ridiculed.

Next, the public gets to hear the opinions of ‘experts’. Anyone willing to use their particular field of work or study to aid in the persecution are lifted to the level of being an authority on the subject, regardless of whether the person in question is an activist with an axe to grind. One ‘expert’ after another explains how much harm has been caused by the perpetrator.

This is made particularly effortless by use of ‘the accusation angle’, whereby accusations are made that allow for headlines like ‘X has been accused of Y’ or ‘It has been claimed that…’. Never mind innocent until proven guilty. The accusation is handled almost as a statement of fact.

Before long, people seeking attention, or seeking to contrast their own perceived virtue with the shortcomings of the delinquent, come running after the bandwagon, trying to climb on to it. Nowadays, this unfortunately usually includes clergymen with no recollection of the ideas of forgiveness or avoiding judgement.

All this provides for a continuous loop of media coverage. One outlet tells the public that the bishop of Whereverburry is critical of the accused. Another outlet picks this up, thus lending the story increased significance before adding that now the bishop of Somewhereinlsington is even more outraged. In essence, character assassinations are a serial, where every step is based on the previous groundwork.

If the prey is able to walk on and prove that the initial accusations were unfounded, the hunters simply change the accusations. The aim is not to get to the truth, but to catch the prey (win the game by forcing a resignation or exclusion). Initially, Cummings was accused of breaking the law. When that didn’t seem to be the case he was accused of having broken ‘the rules’, and then finally ‘the spirit of the rules’.

A classic ploy, much used by totalitarian regimes, is to constantly ask the subject to apologise. Asking for an apology has the appearance of being a reasonable request. ‘Do you feel no regret, are you really not willing to apologise to the people who have been making sacrifices?’ Refusing to apologise makes the accused seem condescending. But, as soon as the person apologises, it is interpreted as an admission of guilt.

Attempts to procure an apology are usually followed by accusations of a lack of humility. ‘If only he had shown more humility, people might have been able to show more understanding.’ Balderdash! The accusers are not seeking humility, they are seeking degradation.

Once it has been established that the nation is outraged and wants the accused to ‘take responsibility’, an easy next step is to claim that the person in question is harming the national interest. But if the media really thought that Dominic Cummings harmed the national interest by going for a drive, and thus setting a dangerous example, why were they constantly telling people that his behaviour would be seen as an invitation to break the rules? Who was really encouraging rule-breaking here – the man who went for a drive weeks ago or those who were constantly telling people it provides them with an alibi to do as they please?

According to Sky News’ Beth Rigby, ‘Ministers worry that [the impact of Cummings’ drive to Durham] could mean the R number begins to rise, bringing in turn more cases, more deaths and even a second wave; the economic, social and public health consequences of which are unconscionable’. There we have it: Cummings’ previously unknown drive to Durham might cause untold death and destruction.

Why do the media behave in this way? There are several reasons. These stories create excitement and competition, where contenders see the situation as a chance to prove themselves. Meanwhile, criticising other journalists or offering another perspective risks undermining the work of colleagues, or even being branded an apologist. It is easier to convince yourself that you are on a worthy crusade on behalf of the people.

What’s more, many journalists now feel that their role is more important than just revealing the facts. They feel they must influence what happens, not just report it. Thus gaining a position of influence means you must use that influence to affect the agenda. That makes the competition even more important. It isn’t just a sport, it is a fight for social justice. And when the target is already seen as an enemy of those values, it provides a very strong extra incentive.

The media crusaders also tend to become completely blind to how it all looks to people outside the bubble. This is equally true of politics. Those within the political bubble have great difficulty comprehending how what they do looks to outsiders. A good politician will try to step outside the bubble to get a better view, but that can be very difficult.

If the accused is involved in politics, an essential part of the process is to cause anxiety within his or her party, in order to create pressure from party members to sacrifice the targeted individual. Internal friction is a natural feature of most political parties, so this usually yields quick results.

If those with an axe to grind, or hoping for promotion, do not jump at the opportunity, the hunters will try to get the party’s rank and file to influence them. Party members are often sensitive to criticism, so the constant reports about opinion polls and the national will are often enough to do the trick in many cases. Once again, today’s journalists don’t even need to call anyone up. Ploughing through social media will provide all the criticism they need.

In a parliamentary group of 365 people (as in the case of the British Conservatives), you will always find someone willing to criticise the accused in order to signal their own virtue. Then the counting begins, in order to increase the pressure on the party leader: ‘This evening we have learned that three more MPs have joined in criticising their own party leader….’

To help with the tallying, stories are told about how MPs have been inundated with angry letters from constituents. This is despite the fact that these constituents may be people who would never vote for said MP, and may well loathe his party – but that is not part of the narrative.

After all this, why did Boris Johnson not give up and get rid of the problem by getting rid of Dominic Cummings? The hunters will tell you that he is so reliant on Cummings that he feels helpless without him. A likelier explanation is that the prime minister realised what was going on, and knew that by giving in he would be confirming that he can be broken through such methods, making it all but certain that he would face many more such scenarios, all with the end goal of making him the eventual target.

Still, there will be many more fights like this one, and in most cases the hunters and prey will come from the groups dictated by modern identity politics.

People will also continue to complain that modern politics lacks leadership. This is true, but we should ask why this is the case. I fear it has a lot to do with stories such as the Dominic Cummings affair, and so many others before it. For most modern politicians, their main objective is to get through each day without doing something that might be considered controversial. But a decision that requires leadership will – almost by definition – be controversial.

All this results in weaker politics, more focused on personal attacks than a rigorous debate about the fundamental issues facing our societies. While politicians and much of the media are preoccupied with defaming the character of their competitors, the unelected establishment runs the country. The end result is a weaker democracy where the voters are increasingly disenfranchised. They no longer have the opportunity to influence how the country is run and are reduced to choosing a symbolic representative, determined only to get through a term without doing anything even mildly controversial, interesting or useful.

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Topics Brexit Covid-19 Politics UK


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