From Saturday, the government is set to enter what has been dubbed by some an “extraordinary period of subdued activity”. Following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh on Friday, for the next eight days all press conferences, broadcast interviews, ministerial visits and announcements have been scrapped, although coronavirus advice will still be communicated to the public.
It’s a good job, then, that we have an active opposition to hold power to account in the meantime, for Labour too won’t be putting up frontbenchers for media interviews. The party has reportedly advised all of their MPs and peers to withdraw from media commitments for the next few days.
It seems like an apt week for the government to adopt a media blackout. As of Friday, Northern Ireland entered its eighth night of violence, in what police officers have called the country’s worst violence in years. The product of rising tensions about the state of the union and growing discontent over Brexit, the violence isn’t going to dissipate easily. But as buses burn and petrol bombs are thrown, all as the result of a completely foreseeable crisis of his own making, the prime minister has truly embodied the idea that ignorance is bliss. In typical fashion, Boris Johnson has chosen to do what he does best: nothing.
On Thursday, it was revealed that chancellor Rishi Sunak “pushed” Treasury officials to explore a plan that could have helped a firm David Cameron was working for participate in a multimillion pound Covid support scheme. In a news development that doesn’t seem to align with an aesthetic Instagram infographic, Sunak’s effortless avoidance of accountability serves to prove once again that the Conservatives are ‘world-beating’ at evading retribution.
“Carrying on with the job you’re elected to do and showing respect aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Next week, lockdown restrictions are due to ease. From April 12, outdoor hospitality, shops, gyms and hairdressers are set to reopen, confirming Step 2 of the roadmap. Despite this significant step towards the “new normal”, the government’s refusal to hold press conferences exemplifies its reliance on the power of “British common sense” to guide us through next week. “British common sense” clearly encompasses absolving oneself of responsibility during a pandemic, riots in Northern Ireland and endemic cronyism.
Like thousands of other families in the past year, the royal family are coming to terms with a personal loss. Given Prince Phillip is a public figure, the government naturally has a duty to show respect. However, when this is used to impose a media blackout in the middle of a public health crisis, it represents a complete dereliction of duty. Having no ministers on media interviews to answer questions is not a symbol of paying respect, but is reflective of evading accountability in the middle of the most challenging global crisis since the Second World War. Carrying on with the job you’re elected to do and showing respect aren’t mutually exclusive.
Of course, we could expect nothing different for somebody who once found sanctuary in a fridge to avoid answering a question. But the media and public cannot be forced into complacency. Putting democracy, vital transparency, and accountability on hold at a time where restrictions are easing is not only irresponsible, but shows a surprising acknowledgement of national grief from a man who is yet to pay respects to the 130,000 people who have died so far, or meet the families of those bereaved.
This avoidance of scrutiny is nothing new for the government – it is merely a continuation of their attempts to frame any form of scrutiny as political point-scoring.
In March, HuffPost UK revealed that Dominic Raab was willing to strike trade deals with countries that do not meet European human rights standards. In response to the leaked clip confirming this, Jacob Rees-Mogg accused HuffPost UK of using a “cheat” to “edit the recording”, labelling deputy political editor Arj Singh “either a knave or a fool”.
“Conflating the idea of showing respect with an abdication of media responsibilities during a national health crisis is not only fundamentally flawed, but characteristically selfish.”
Just a month before, equalities minister Kemi Badenoch publicly accused Nadine White, another HuffPost UK journalist at the time, of “making up claims” and promoting “disinformation” by asking questions about a video created to promote the coronavirus vaccine programme. Describing her questions as “creepy and bizarre”, Badenoch attacked White for her simple questions and subsequently triggered a torrent of abuse directed towards White. Months later, the Twitter thread remains.
Both incidents exemplify the Conservatives’ intense dislike of scrutiny, who view it as unnecessary, unwarranted and politically motivated criticism. While the media and nation are distracted, they are now free to pursue their divisive political agenda and control the narrative, with even less scrutiny applied to them than there previously was.
Ultimately, weaponising Prince Philip’s death to avoid scrutiny from both the media and the public typifies the cynical opportunism at the core of the government. Conflating the idea of showing respect with an abdication of media responsibilities during a national health crisis is not only fundamentally flawed, but characteristically selfish. Nevertheless, they can save the performative photo-ops.
The fact that the removal of press conferences has barely made national news or captured national attention makes it all-the-more worrying. In a time of heightened disaffection, the corruption and chaos are now merely background noise.
As eight days of public mourning begin, the government is more than willing to avoid media opportunities – albeit to the dismay of the chancellor, who may have to put his relentless personal branding campaign on pause. It’s worth being extra wary of the unchallenged corruption that’s about to subtly emerge as ministers disappear from public view. I’ve heard Downing Street needs redecorating.
Kimi Chaddah is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @kimichaddah_