The Meerkat and the Lemmings

Suppose your London home was subject to daily harassment and brutish intimidation, far from anyone you could really trust. Suppose you lived there with your wife and four-year old child. Suppose you thought you very likely had coronavirus, and suppose your wife had just become very sick. Suppose you could drive your wife and child somewhere else, without stopping; somewhere where young adult relatives could care for your child if you and your wife became incapacitated; a place where you could, however, keep your family isolated if that didn’t happen. What would you do?

Suppose that you then had a nasty bout of probable coronavirus, recovered, still felt strange, and wanted to get back to London to help coordinate national government. Might you not take a brief test-drive, stopping nowhere special, and then drive back to work?  

            Those are the questions that our media do not want to ask. Why? Because they hate Dominic Cummings. He’s a maverick, an outsider—just look at his dress sense—; he’s a game-changer; and—quelle horreur— he’s a Brexiteer. Therefore, it seems, he’s also fair game for a witch-hunt.

            Unfortunately for the media, though, at yesterday’s press conference Cummings was the witch that wouldn’t float. Politically dangerous but personally quiet and sincere, Cummings offered a reasonable account of his movements, quoting the government guidelines, which tell us to use our grown-up judgement if we have young children. Beth Rigby of Sky suggested to him that he had ‘badly misjudged the public mood on this’. In reply, Cummings explained that any public anger was largely due to misinformation (he was too polite to say ‘fake news’). As he quietly insisted over the course of the interview, stories that he had stayed with his parents, that his parents had looked after his children, that he’d had a jolly at Barnard Castle, and that he’d gone back to Durham after his return to London, were all false. One’s overall impression was that the mad-but-loveable inventor Sergei the Meerkat had accidentally teleported himself into Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. But it took courage for Cummings to hold his line as he did, and one couldn’t but conclude that that courage came from his conviction that he’d done right by his family.

The media were really contemptible. One journalist suggested that, in using his discretion regarding his young child, Cummings had used a ‘legal nicety’, adding “there may be some legal loophole, but you’ve broken the spirit of it” [sic]. (Laura Kuenssberg would later write that Cummings ‘at the very least broke the spirit of the lockdown rules’[1]). The concept of ‘breaking the spirit of the rules’ of course makes no sense when the rules allow discretion, and in any case suggests a worrying conflation between the Coronavirus guidelines and actual law. Indeed, ‘loopholes’ are things one finds in complicated statute laws that judges must apply strictly—not in guidance that’s supposed to be followed and enforced with good sense. (I.e.: if the letter of the law says ‘use good sense’, then it’s impossible to break the spirit of the law without breaking the letter, and so the concept ‘the spirit of the law’ is redundant). The media’s use of such terms for the coronavirus guidelines is Orwellian and dangerous.

Another hack tried to magic up some mud, trying to suggest that Boris Johnson took no interest in Cummings’ movements until the issue had become publicly damaging. But as Cummings explained, his movements were hardly a natural priority for the PM, and, when they had discussed them after Cummings’ return to London, they had both still been feeling pretty strange.

Robert Peston said “your own scientists are worried that, by introducing some element of personal discretion into the rules, you are putting lives at risk”, his tone suggesting that ‘personal discretion’ was an inherently repellent notion. But of course that discretion was always there, even if the public didn’t perceive it to be. Technocratic Peston came across as inhumane.  

One Guardian woman then suggested that Cummings ought not to have made use of his parents’ spare cottage; for most people don’t have access to a spare house. He should have suffered like everyone else, she suggested. Well, I suppose that that idea accords with the Guardian’s blinkered notion of ‘fairness’, but what’s fair about putting your child, and anyone who might have had to care for him, at unreasonable risk? The same journalist also asked a typical barrister’s question: ‘you also just mentioned that you have made other mistakes…can you point us to any more of them?’, thus implying that Cummings had conceded that his travelling was a mistake (he hadn’t).

            If this sorry episode has taught us anything, it’s that the broadcast media think they can destroy anyone who lies outside the acceptable range of political thought, by manipulating the opinion of a seemingly credulous public. I sincerely hope they don’t succeed.

            Yet none of this unedifying furore could have arisen if it weren’t for our absurd sensitivity about ‘protecting the NHS’. As Kathy Gyngell has rightly said, Cummings—however unjustly—has suffered from the oppressive ‘lockdown’ culture that his government has created, and the media hysteria around it. The problem isn’t just that the media hate him; it’s also that, lemming-like, they are willingly acceding to a dangerous mentality, almost a dangerous new legal culture. Perhaps you will recall the old joke: in England, everything is allowed that is not expressly forbidden; in Germany, everything is forbidden that is not expressly allowed; in France, everything is allowed that is expressly forbidden. Britain seems to be slipping uncritically, almost unconsciously, into the second model.    


[1] Laura Kuenssberg, ‘Dominic Cummings’ press conference did not answer fundamental question’, BBC News, 26th May 2020, available athttps://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52802703