At Dominic Cummings’s press conference on Monday, reporters tried two lines of attack. One was to behave like local detectives, fixating on exact details of the Cummings family journey to Barnard Castle, such as why the car had stopped en route (answer: so that the Cummingses’ son, aged four, could have a pee). The other was to invoke viewers, readers, members of the public blind with fury that there was ‘one law’ for government bigwigs, and ‘another’ for everyone else. Yet Mr Cummings’s statement and answers made a good case that there had not been ‘one law’ for him, but that he had the ‘reasonable excuse’ that the law permits for everyone, given the needs of his son. His central case held up, yet most of the media would not accept this. Of course large numbers of the public will be furious if they think Mr Cummings got privileged treatment, but why do they think he did? Because the same media repeatedly told them so, without establishing the facts. Here, for instance, is Laura Kuenssberg on BBC radio news on Monday morning: ‘The Prime Minister has defended behaviour that is in conflict with what he told millions of people to do.’ The government machine and Mr Cummings himself may also have been at fault in not telling the full story earlier; but, as he hinted, things have often not gone well in the past when greater ‘openness’ has been offered. This is because there is a media bias against Mr Cummings more ferocious than any I have ever seen (except, perhaps, that against Boris Johnson), including frequent intimidation outside his front door in London. This bias exists partly because of his Brexit triumph, partly because he is often rude to journalists. There is no more huffy, self-important trade than mine, so his attitude is understandable. But it is also a mistake: media communications in Downing Street cannot be run like a campaign. They have to ensure the regular delivery of information and explanation, not snubs. This needs urgent attention.
Some of the chippier objections to the Cummings journey north may have been provoked by the words ‘Barnard Castle’. Many people do not know it is a town and the castle is a ruin. I think they think Mr Cummings was breaking the rules by visiting a castle, possibly inhabited by grand friends, while they were miserably locked down. Actually, all the Cummingses did was sit by the Tees, within yards of their car.
On the Today programme on Tuesday, Justin Webb did well to ask the Bishop of Worcester, John Inge, whether his earlier tweet describing Boris’s defence of Mr Cummings as ‘risible’ and ‘an insult to all those who made such sacrifices’ might not have been hasty and, well, un-Christian. The bishop avoided the point, comparing himself to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the need for the Church to be involved in politics. Yet the complaint against all these condemnatory Anglican bishops (I counted 12 on Monday, speaking as if on cue, eight of them veterans of the bishops’ anti-no deal ‘open letter’ last August) is not that they are ‘interfering in politics’, but that they are being judgmental — something which they usually condemn above all things. ‘What further need have we of witnesses?’ the High Priest angrily exclaims in the Gospel. That was, in effect, their line. One mini-Caiaphas is Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds. He asked in a tweet: ‘Do we accept being lied to, patronised and treated by the PM as mugs?’ On Tuesday, I texted the bishop and asked him whether, having heard Dominic Cummings’s explanation, he could specify what those lies were. I have had no reply.
Politicians have a constant need to deploy phrases which sound good but do not mean much. One of the favourites in the current crisis is ‘at pace’. Testing is being introduced ‘at pace’. PPE procurement happens ‘at pace’. This allows ministers to avoid having to say at what pace.
If China imposes its proposed new draconian security law for Hong Kong on the territory, where would that leave the independent judiciary? So far, genuine independence has been maintained, and Geoffrey Ma, the Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal (CFA), has spoken up for proper legal values. But he retires soon, and Beijing, which has not previously interfered, has the power of appointment. The CFA has on it, at any one time, one ‘non-permanent’ overseas judge out of an active body of ten, on a monthly annual rotation. These judges are mainly British, and always include the President of our Supreme Court (currently Lord Reed), as well as several retired Supreme Court judges. The most famous is Lady Hale, of the spider brooch. When each goes for his or her month in Hong Kong, each (plus spouse) is received with great state, and accommodated in luxury. If China overrides the Common Law system which our judges help uphold, will they resign? Or if, as is possible, the oppressive law passes through an intimidated Legislative Council, will they feel free to stay on? Lady Hale made herself famous by denouncing the British government over prorogation. Where will she stand on Chinese dictatorship?
‘Covid numbers continue to rise,’ said the subject box of an email I recently received. Total Covid-19 numbers are still rising, of course, but their rate of increase is now much slower, so I feared this might be the famous ‘second spike’. On closer inspection, however, I realised I had misread the headline. It was the weekly shooting newsletter of the Countryside Alliance and what it actually said was ‘Corvid numbers continue to rise’. This is, indeed, bad news for shooting, and for other birds’ eggs and babies, and should be stopped, though perhaps not by a national lockdown. It is not being. The newsletter explained that Natural England recently prevented a gamekeeper from setting a Larsen trap for corvids (crows, magpies) because it was in a Special Area of Conservation designated for lampreys.