How the media lost the plot

An anonymous insider on why ‘gotcha’ journalism is failing in the age of coronavirus.


Topics Politics UK

I have a confession to make. I work for a national media outlet. And as you know, we the media aren’t so hot right now – with anyone really. Across the Western world, in fact, the media have almost become public enemy number one. The coronavirus pandemic we are all going through has been a challenge for our industry. How do we get it right? What do we report? Are we telling people the truth they need to hear, or are we alarming them with endless notifications of death and doom? Getting the balance right is always difficult. But the ultimate showdown between the media and Dominic Cummings has put the nail in the coffin… for us. We have failed.

Since the story broke last week about Cummings driving up to Durham, potentially breaking lockdown rules, all the London newsrooms have been buzzing with Cummings-fever. Why? Because he is someone many of us hate. A mysterious, dark, controlling Alastair Campbell-like figure who has no time for us and our questions. He likes to remind us that the media got Brexit wrong, and that he got it right, which is to some extent true.

Ever since Brexit, and especially since he got into No10 with Boris Johnson, Cummings has had it in for us. He dreams of being like Trump, excluding journalists, decrying ‘fake news’, and shouting journalists down. We have, of course, had it in for him in equal measure – often lowering ourselves to endless ‘gotcha’ moments and invasive doorstep filming at his house. I wouldn’t be surprised if some journos have already gone through his bins as the Fleet Street-ers used to do.

So when it was announced that chief adviser and prime minister-maker Dominic Cummings was to do a press conference in the historic Downing Street Rose Garden, shit hit the newsroom fans. We Westminster political junkies were about to get the best high of our lives. Cummings vs the media was going to be the political equivalent of Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman – a battle of titans. The irony is that most of the public probably weren’t watching and were carrying on going about their daily lockdown lives. But for those of us who did watch, it was clearly a total knockout.

The briefing started late. Of course it did. Cummings did it to piss us off – he left the journalists sweating in the sun. To take on the self-professed political mastermind, we wheeled out the best political journalists the UK has to offer. Laura Kuenssberg, BBC, went up first. Followed by Robert Peston, ITV. Next up, Beth Rigby, Sky News. The list goes on. One after another, the best and brightest journos took position in front of the fluffy dead-cat microphone. They swung. And they missed. No one landed a single blow.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Not only had none of our questions landed, but we came off looking much worse than Dom. Rightly so. We acted poorly, and brought journalism down. Why? What went wrong? How did this happen? I have seen this sort of thing happen before, but it has never been quite this bad. So let’s break it down.

The first problem was the media’s hypocrisy, which was clear well before the press conference. Cummings had been accused of breaking the rules he had set out on coronavirus by not social distancing and by travelling a long distance, thereby risking its spread. But we have been doing the same throughout. Even – rather hilariously and notoriously – outside Cummings’ house the other day, where we doorstepped him in a massive media scrum of journalists and camera crews. None of us were obeying social-distancing guidelines.

The second problem: there was no respect. Cummings delivered a semi-decent defence of his actions and why he did what he did. But something we did not know until that point was the extent to which he and his family had been hit by the virus. All of them became sick and his young child was rushed to hospital. We might have stood a better chance of extracting an honest answer from Cummings had we shown a semblance of humility and sympathy, even in spite of his mistake.

The third problem – the real issue – was the bad questioning. As one barrister rightly pointed out, the journalists’ cross-examination was dreadful and unworthy of a first-year barrister. ‘Listen to the answers, think, adapt the questions. Who checks their eyesight by driving for an hour? It makes no sense, whatsoever’, he tweeted. Cummings’ statement was a precarious defence. In the small amount of time they had, the journalists should have adapted their line of questioning. Instead, they delivered rehearsed pre-prepared questions:

‘Do you regret your actions?’

‘Will you apologise?’

‘Why don’t you resign?’

The same old boring questions that are asked at every one of those daily briefings. The public wants us to stop asking such irrelevant questions. As the holes in Cummings’ defence were becoming clearer the more he spoke, everyone watching must have thought the same thing: ‘I could have done a much better job than that lot in the Rose Garden!’

Sometimes bad questioning happens because instead of chasing genuine truth or exploring a story, journalists go for the easier ‘gotcha’ question. These questions are designed specifically to set off a push notification, for a quote to put in a report or to include in a TV package which has already been pre-planned. The media need to go back to the original purpose of journalism – discovery. Instead, snappy soundbites and decontextualised quotes have become the norm. This isn’t a new problem. But it does seem to be getting worse. And it has been exposed by the challenge of coronavirus.

The reason the media are so important is that they play a unique role in scrutinising the government and keeping it accountable. Good journalism can make government better. But we are not meeting that challenge.

The media establishment needs shaking up. It is the old guard who are the problem. They keep pursuing 20th-century journalism. They sound the same, they write the same and, of course, they come from the same places. But we shouldn’t lose all hope for journalism. Many in the younger generation get it. I have seen first-hand what my peers can do and are doing. Once the new wave of journalists take the reins, the governments of the future will have to up their game.

The author works at a national media outlet.

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Brian Carter

8th June 2020 at 2:55 pm

A journalist defends cummings.
Must be bolsonaro’s media advisor

Hugh Bryant

27th May 2020 at 4:37 pm

“The reason the media are so important is that they play a unique role in scrutinising the government”

I was with you until I got to this. The establishment media ceased to “scrutinise” anything in an intelligent way a long time ago. If you want intelligent long form political discussion you go straight to youTube. All you get from newspapers is lazy, ill-informed and spiteful gossip. Your day is over.

Rob Newman

27th May 2020 at 10:42 am

It needs better teaching in journalism, it’s the mechanism that’s the fault, the system, not really the people. They need a greater understanding of philosophy, nuance – all those important balanced thoughts, that seem to have disappeared in the main – allied with an understanding of people. All these journos seem fit to do is obey their masters desire for a gotcha moment. Most newspaper and media owners/editors should stand to account. It’s their fault. After all, if I was served in a restaurant by ill-informed staff my instinct would be blame the staff, but in thinking about it a little, of course the blame lies with the management, not the staff. Sure there are still some very fine journalists, but there weren’t any on display at the Cummings garden party.

harry briggs

27th May 2020 at 10:01 am

It’s clear that the media are not going to be happy until Cummings resigns, that is their intent, not “holding the government to account” but to force Cummings to resign, to feel as though they have achieved something with their ridiculous antics, the government should learn from Trump’s treatment of the media and refuse to discuss this issue any further.

a watson

27th May 2020 at 10:25 am

Right.Who gave the MSM these dictatorial powers?

Highland Fleet Lute

27th May 2020 at 9:37 am

Murdoch candidate Hunt leads the Tory rebellion against Cummings as Civil Service sources reveal Sir Mark Sedwill’s plan to take out Brexit negotiator Frost

Anjela Kewell

27th May 2020 at 9:34 am

A very well placed article. I had no problem with Mr Cummings driving to his family overnight to keep his child safe. He is a public figure always surrounded and door stepped outside his home. If family are sick they need peace and quiet.

I had no problem with him having a drive out after recovering. He was silly to put this down to his eyesight. He should simply have said, we had all been sick and I needed to know if I had the stamina for a ling drive to London.

My huge problem is with the media. Not because of their two faced fake news and gotcha moments. We have all come to expect poor quality work from the lamestream and we accordingly have stopped listening. But their lack of understanding of anything outside London.

We live in Somerset. All through lockdown I was still visiting my daughter as she had been very ill during February and I had been going over every day to look after her, the children, the animals and make sure the family had a meal when their father arrived home from work. I carried on with this until my son in law re arranged his working day. Family will always come first outside the metropolitan village. Driving is part of every day life, sometimes long distances. The media today has no really good journalists, it is just full of hacks. People who have all been to the same universities, followed the same lecture courses and ended up working for people who have trod the same road before them.

We need journalism to be taken out of the universities. We need free thinking journalists who look at situations and ask their own questions. We need journalism to become a vocation rather than a career. It always was a vocation, like teaching or nursing but every single one of these professions have been sucked into a quagmire of group think, mediocrity and in some cases absolute venom for anyone who wants to be somewhere, rather than a vacuous anywhere.

Paul Donaldson

27th May 2020 at 6:48 pm

Spot on

Jerry Owen

27th May 2020 at 9:25 am

Your new job ?

Jerry Owen

27th May 2020 at 9:23 am

I don’t appreciate articles penned by anonymous people.
Was this article satire? New wave of journalist to make government up their game.. I suspect it was.
‘Holes in Cummings defence’ , the media hacks pierced none.
For me Peston has to be the most odious ‘journalist’ when he brought Hancock’s children into the debate last night. I always thought it was a given to keep politicians kids out of politics, this is another new low. We have the same disgraceful media attention on whether a four year old autistic boy took a leak or not on a car journey, WTF is wrong with these people.. they are positively unhinged.
Criticise St Greta and you are condemned, enquire about a four year old autistic boys bladder size and the world wants to know.
Battle of the titans .. I saw a battle between titan and a load of tits.

Rob Newman

27th May 2020 at 9:08 am

Will you be interviewing Dominic Cummings there? I realise he has the perfect name for your site.

Rob Newman

27th May 2020 at 9:05 am

Succinct, excellent and pertinent article. Lord we need journalists who are capable of changing questions on the spot, the Cummings debacle on the garden is such a fine example of pathetic questioning, no listening, nor, as the article says, adapting. It was embarrassing.


27th May 2020 at 8:47 am

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Praise God!
The honest English journalist.
But seeing what the brute will do,
Unbribed –
There’s no occasion to.

Warren Alexander

27th May 2020 at 8:29 am

it is worth watching political interviews from around the 1970s and 1980s, before the 24 hour news agenda and social media. They were slower, more thoughtful and as a result far more revealing. Intelligent, well read interviewers such as Brian Walden and Robin Day were feared by politicians not because they attempted “gotcha’ questions but because of their dogged and calm pursuit of answers to important questions.

Mike Coops

26th May 2020 at 10:37 pm

We wheeled out the best political journalists the UK has to offer…….I’m sorry you proved to be inept,unprofessional and looked more frightened than Mr Cummings who presented himself professionally and came over as genuine.I don’t need to defend Mr Cummings but I accept he and everyone of us are human beings who sometimes don’t do or act how others might given the same set of circumstances.
I have seen much of the press and coverage including tweets and Facebook comments,some by media and celebrities who have embarrassed themselves as much as those questioning Mr Cummings yesterday. There are more important things than the media vying for the scalp of Mr Cummings to report.I won’t buy another paper and I’ll give you a two finger salute when your next showing your face on TV trying to be smarmy and clever. You’re the type of journalists who give your profession a bad name. Yesterdays inquisition was lost by you having already hung drawn and quartering him in previous features in the scummy press. By all means do your job,but get your facts right and instead of trying to be a celebrity try being a journalist.I dare you to watch yourselves and see how pathetic you all looked yesterday.Mr Cummings has a family and you didn’t show any respect for them or his young child.

Paul Duffin

26th May 2020 at 9:17 pm

National media outlets are busy running this article though textual analysis software to see if they can identify the author.


26th May 2020 at 9:36 pm

Perhaps its Clark Kent.


26th May 2020 at 9:15 pm

If you want to stay in work nowadays you do not express any differing views from the set agenda-Trump/Tories evil Sir Keir Starmer/Biden electable as Corbyn/Sanders too authentic. As people have families to think of its probably quite worrying making sure you don’t accidently say the wrong thing and lose your job.

Tim Wheeler

26th May 2020 at 8:07 pm

I saw Madeline Grant of the Telegraph on the Sky Papers Review. She was one of the very few who displayed a measure of perspective and common humanity and understanding. Most are completely rabid in determination to destroy Cummings. I note that someone called the author “Cowardly” for being anonymous. I’m guessing he or she would lose their job if they’d signed it. The mob hate free speech and free thought if it challenges their narrative.

Michael Fereday

26th May 2020 at 6:24 pm

What this clearly communicates to those with common sense is that (from Ferguson to Cummings) they do not believe their own hype. The project of fear and control, to the glee of lockdown fanatics who would imprison us for every flu season to follow this new virus, is meant for the little people whose rights to freedom, liberty and economic autonomy are an affront to their communistic wisdom.

Christopher Tyson

26th May 2020 at 6:06 pm

It’s good to know that an insider at the 4th estate is taking the trouble to contribute to a discussion here. Incidentally Ms/Mr Anon, could you perhaps tell your editor about my stuff, I don’t just do politics, I do reviews, humourous stuff, all sorts really, and my work situation… I’m not sure how that’s going to pan out.
The question of ‘the future is with the youth’ is something that I’m sceptical about. Remember New Labour and Cool Britannia? Or even Harold Wilson rubbing shoulders with the Beatles. There’s a tendency to see young people these days as an identity group. But age is actually a number, you are getting older everyday. By the time you have shown that you are reliable and responsible enough for leadership, you won’t be young anymore. Indeed your potential has already been noticed, you are someone with enough youthful energy and enthusiasm but not too much, you can be co-opted, or bought, you might even liven things up without bringing them tumbling down. The radicalism of young people is often pretty shallow.
The idea of an ambitious older person is an oxymoron in our culture, partly because the people with the purse strings and the power cannot mould older people, and even if they could they wouldn’t get the years of service out of them.
Ironically, Cummings also want to ‘shake up the Old Guard’. So the question is not about your youthful energy, or your wish to overthrow the establishment, it’s about your beliefs, what’s the point of overthrowing the old guard and replacing it with a younger more vibrant version?
In the UK it seems that many of the cleverest people become journalists or stand up comedians. At times watching press conferences I’ve thought ‘clearly this guy doesn’t know the answer to your question, if you’re so clever, why don’t you answer it yourself?’
‘..scrutinising the government and keeping it accountable’ is that really a ‘unique’ role? What about the role of the opposition parties or the electorate? ‘Scrutinising the government’ looks like job,
it may or may not keep the government ‘accountable’ and that might not even be part of the job description. I would say, do your day job, and if you want to do a bit of propaganda on the side, something that you believe in or are committed to, do that, you can even use a false name.
However Samuel Johnson famously said ‘only a blockhead writes for nothing’, as I say, can you show this to your editor, I do other stuff too…

Steve Roberts

26th May 2020 at 5:54 pm

Anonymous means zero credibility, this has been a major social crisis where people, especially those of influence ,needed to stand up, to lead, anonymity is the opposite regardless of how genuine are the intentions.Rights and freedoms were not won in anonymity. “The reason the media are so important is that they play a unique role in scrutinising the government and keeping it accountable” No, that’s wishful thinking or looking back in history, if that is to be how it is , when the older ones have gone apparently, then the new generation will have to do much better than this participant has, time to stand up and fight, just like Spiked do always, just look at Fraser-Jay Myers articles regards care homes deaths recently, that’s journalism, not jobsworthism.

Christopher Tookey

26th May 2020 at 5:53 pm

I am shocked at the stupidity and vindictiveness of the campaign against Dominic Cummings and his family. This is all too obviously a last-ditch attempt to sabotage Boris and Brexit. Lies in the Mirror and Guardian have been spread irresponsibly by other papers, including even the Telegraph. Whatever happened to fact-checking? Never have journalistic standards been lower – and I used to work for Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail, a paragon of sweetness and light by today’s standards. Journalists should be seekers after truth, not a pack of brainwashed attack dogs. It also helps if they listen to answers and don’t just carry on asking prepared questions (like their beloved Keir Starmer). Moreover, if as a journo you’re going to pursue a hard line on social distancing, you should adhere to the rules yourselves. Come to think of it, it might be better if they all just stayed at home and stopped making idiots of themselves.

Rosie Maxima

26th May 2020 at 6:36 pm

“…including even the Telegraph”. They are not what they used to be having taken on a more crass form of conservatism in recent years and attracting an equally crass or bigoted readership. They have reported on some stories in a shockingly biased and unfactual way which makes me realise that the case with all mainstream media is that they are very fickle and manipulative – they’ll report according to where they have a vested agenda, truth or fact be damned. Shoddy journalism even about one topic makes me question that outlet’s credibility as a source.

Andrew Levens

26th May 2020 at 5:17 pm

Well i watched the same press conference i think. But i heard him say that his wife suggested they did a test drive before setting out for London because he had been so ill, shaky on his feet and also poor eyesight, which seems sensible. He did not say he drove half an hour just to test his eyesight, which would have been silly. This was some time into a hostile grilling by the journlists, classic police methods to try and get people to make mistakes. Come off it! The whole family had been very ill! 14 days later they had been declared safe to return to work, but they thought they would do a short local journey first to see how it felt before launching onto the motorway.
He should have had a lawyer with him.
Even ‘anonymous’ is clearly not on Cumming’s side. He/she just thinks they could have done a better job at skewering him.that’s not the point. He did nothing wrong. They just wanted to make him lose his job because they disliked him. Is that really what a ‘free press’ os for? Reeally??

Lyn Keay

26th May 2020 at 7:22 pm

Surely, one of things about journalism is that it shouldn’t be on anyones side, but aimed at getting to the bottom of things so that the people being reported to can judge for themselves.

Wrt to your statement. That is what I saw as well. However, it wasn’t in the middle of an intense media grilling, but in the middle of reading out a prepared statement.

Lyn Keay

26th May 2020 at 4:33 pm

This is hardly the most political point, but even by their own standards they failed. I would have asked:
1. Mr Cummings what are the public health reasons the government has told people not to visit their second homes? (the answer is because rural hospitals are sized for the rural population & so could have been overwhelmed if a summer sized population got ill in the area)
2. Mr Cummings when your son was taken to hospital, wasn’t this exactly the sort of event the government advice was design to prevent?
3. Mr Cummings hundred or thousands of vulnerable older people were sheltering away from their younger families in caravan parks around the country to protect themselves from Covid-19. As a result of government advice they were thrown out and put at additional risk to protect those rural hospitals. Do you have anything to say to these people?

Are journalists too stupid or lazy to bother to understand the reasons behind the rules, or do they just not care about ordinary people?

I see a little more humanity from anonymous, but nothing that gives me his confidence in this next generation of journalists.

Gareth Edward KING

26th May 2020 at 4:17 pm

This shouldn’t’ve been published anonymously. What he should’ve done is to have spoken to his colleagues first so that a joint piece could’ve been put together. Don’t tell me that, say, 20 journalists could’ve been sacked all together. The journalist concerned should’ve had the strength of character and the bullishness to put authorship to this piece. The Brent school headmistress: Katherine Balbirsingh lost her job at her school as deputy head when she spoke up about the crisis in schools at the 2010 Tory Party congress. She put her mouth where the money is seeing how she now runs her own free school.

Vivian Darkbloom

26th May 2020 at 3:51 pm

“…we wheeled out the best political journalists the UK has to offer.”

The best? Gawd help us! I didn’t see any journalists; I saw activists.

Highland Fleet Lute

26th May 2020 at 3:29 pm

“Cowardly anonymous journalist’ tells you all you need to know about how the media lost the plot.

Nick Catt

26th May 2020 at 4:12 pm

Nowhere does it say the author is a journalist, the article states: “The author works at a national media outlet.” For all we know, the author could be employed do anything, e.g. a camera operator.

Perhaps if they have their name published they will lose their job. I don’t know, but I imagine they have a contract that specifically states this.

Rather than being a “Cowardly anonymous journalist’, we actually get some insight from someone with firsthand knowledge.

Ecgbert King

26th May 2020 at 3:18 pm

Isn’t it telling that a perfectly reasonable description of events in content and tone has to be published anonymously?

Isn’t this in itself an admission that those that constitute “the best political journalists the UK has to offer” are little more than intolerant, unbalanced, bullying, self-obsessed tyrants that should actually find an alternative way to make a living?

Stef Steer

26th May 2020 at 3:15 pm

The chasing of genuine truth, I simply don’t expect that from the mainstream media and I don’t buy its because the old school are in charge. For example I simply don’t expect anything near the true picture about the EU or Brexit or Trump or China, there are editorial decisions made long ago probably to do with funding and definitely to do with ideology that mean it is going to be a very long way from the truth.

If I want anything resembling objective nuanced truth then a select group of alternative media outlets is where I go. spiked for instance.

Ecgbert King

26th May 2020 at 3:14 pm

“The reason the media are so important is that they play a unique role in scrutinising the government and keeping it accountable. ”

Your role is to illicit information from government. I’ll do the scrutiny of it. I’ll keep the government accountable via the ballot box.

Jerry Owen

27th May 2020 at 9:34 am

Excellent point.

Frank Sutton

26th May 2020 at 3:12 pm

@Andrew Mawdsley – So true!

Andrew Mawdsley

26th May 2020 at 2:57 pm

Only one thing to say about the article. Calling Laura Kuenssberg, Robert Peston and Beth Rigby the best of journalistic talent in this country really is a shocking indictment of the state of the broadcast media. God help us all.

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