Much of the coverage has been clownishly trivial and melodramatic
Partygate is a truly weird story, because it simultaneously manages to be quite serious while also contriving to make much of the media’s coverage of it appear clownishly trivial.
Look at this video from Laura Kuenssberg. She is interviewing someone about social gatherings in Downing Street. Yet the aesthetic is much more reminiscent of a key witness giving testimony on the mob (or, more fitting to the current moment, the IRA).
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"They were every week… wine time Fridays"
Insiders who attended lockdown gatherings in Downing Street tell @bbcLauraK that social events were held regularly and the prime minister was there "grabbing a glass for himself"https://t.co/qHfjNOmQFO pic.twitter.com/KQP9SQCO3J
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) May 24, 2022
The blurred-out silhouette, the professional voiceover, the sterile, cell-like backdrop for the interviewer — they have all wandered in from another story where lives are in danger.
But I don’t want to single out the BBC or Kuenssberg. We might just as easily take aim at those newspapers that sent journalists out to scour the area around where Sir Keir Starmer’s team were staying. These intrepid reporters then produced elaborate maps of where he and his team might have picked up a bite to eat.
And beyond these bizarre individual bits of coverage, the sheer volume of broadcast and newsprint dedicated to Partygate (and its spin-off, Beergate) is just extraordinary. Just today, there was a question over what font size the Sue Gray report would be in.
This seems in part to testify to the incompetence of the relevant authorities. How is it, for example, that after a formal (and very expensive) police investigation, the Daily Mirror is apparently still unearthing potentially illegal events which haven’t been looked into?
In another sense, the ridiculousness of the coverage surely reflects the character of the rules, with stories turning on details which seemed important at the time but are now, with the benefit of hindsight, absurd. (Did Boris Johnson know that his wife was going to bring a birthday cake to a meeting? Should he have fled the room when he saw it? Serious questions.)
The Prime Minister too must shoulder his share of the blame. If he had actually got ahead of this story with a proper mea culpa, it would not have had the oxygen to stay on the front pages for five months.
But he proved utterly incapable of doing this, meaning every new leak undermined his previous explanations (or evasions) and brought the whole thing front and centre again.
Fundamentally, people do seem to care about this story. According to a recent YouGov poll, over half (55%) the country believes that the Sue Gray findings matter while only one in five (21%) don’t. That is because millions of people stuck rigidly to the rules, at significant personal cost, feel that they have been made fools by the revelation that those who drafted those rules did not.
But the balance of coverage compared to much more serious issues — inflation, spiralling fuel and food costs, etc. — feels misjudged.
Perhaps it’s simply that many hacks are simply less equipped to grapple with serious economic stories at the sort of length we give to the Westminster rigmarole.
Or maybe it’s just a head-in-the-sand moment; choosing to live just a little longer in a world where a suitcase full of booze, rather than the cost of a basket of groceries, is the story of the day.