Dominic Cummings has claimed it “drove the media mad” and that he “essentially stopped talking to almost all journalists almost all the time” in 2020, while chief adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
One notable exception, he said in evidence to MPs on Wednesday, was BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, to whom he spoke “every three or four weeks on average” last year during height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Cummings claimed Johnson is “about 1,000 times far too obsessed with the media in a way which undermined him doing his own job”. Cummings also told MPs he would not make public his messages with journalists.
Addressing a joint session of the Science and Technology, and Health and Social Care committees, chaired by Tory MP Greg Clark, Cummings said he had “quite a lot” of engagement with the media before the December 2019 election campaign period began, but afterwards had “extremely little dealings” with journalists.
“In January  I essentially stopped talking to almost all journalists almost all the time,” he said. “This basically drove the media mad because nobody in my position had essentially stopped talking to the media for decades.”
Cummings’ relationship with Laura Kuenssberg
Cummings claimed he worked 100-hour weeks as Johnson’s chief adviser, which included less than an hour a week talking to the media. He added that he spoke to journalists “close to zero” in 2020.
“I did occasionally talk to people,” he said.
“The main person really though that I spoke to in the whole of 2020 was Laura Kuenssberg at the BBC, because the BBC has a special position in the country obviously during a crisis and because I was in the room for certain crucial things I could give guidance to her on certain very big stories.”
For example, he said Kuenssberg called him to ask about the veracity of a story on 18 March last year claiming there could be a London-only lockdown.
“I said I can categorically tell you it’s definitely not true, you should definitely not report it, I absolutely 100% guarantee it. And that meant the BBC did not, like some of the media… run the story. But that was really very occasional.”
The Guardian’s fact-check of Cummings’ evidence labelled his claim to have cut off contact from most journalists in 2020 as “hard to prove, but smells fishy”.
It went on: “…eyebrows will be raised across Whitehall, Fleet Street and beyond at his claims that a man who was regarded as a prodigious leaker during his time in government suddenly went cold turkey on long-term contacts.”
Boris Johnson ‘obsessed’ with the media
Cummings said he rarely spoke to Johnson before briefing the media.
This was, he said, because the former Telegraph and Spectator journalist was “already about 1,000 times far too obsessed with the media in a way which undermined him doing his own job so the last thing I wanted to do was to involve him in further conversations about the media.
“In fact I did everything I could to limit the conversations the prime minster had regarding the media.”
Cummings later said he had a “diametrically opposed perspective” on the media to Johnson who “gets up, reads the papers, says what are they doing today, and then cannons around”.
He added that Johnson changed his mind every time the Telegraph wrote an editorial, with Cummings describing his former boss as being “just like a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other”.
The adviser said many journalists had recognised a tension in early 2020 within Number 10 because of his plans to reconfigure its dealings with the media.
He claimed that for the past 30 years Number 10 has been “essentially a press answering service where everything is dedicated to the media”.
“I regarded this as a disaster and I wanted to move the whole culture of governing away from that,” he said.
Cummings added: “The media realised that there was this tension going on and I was essentially trying to massively diminish their influence and therefore they wanted rid of me.”
Journalist text messages
Clark asked Cummings if he would commit to publishing his messages with journalists. He had already pledged to share his communications with Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, among others.
But Cummings said although he was in favour of “maximum transparency” in general, it would be “difficult territory” to share communications journalists had assumed to be private.
“Having a system in which all written communication between everybody in government and all journalists is all published is a very, very serious change to how the media operates in this country,” he said.
“There’s all sorts of ways we could improve the system, there’s all sorts of ways we could have greater transparency. I’m not sure that it’s possible in a free society…”
Cummings agreed instead to look through his messages and extract “anything which I think is significant to how decisions were made – in particular mistakes that were made, including by me”.
Clark’s demands caused concern among many journalists watching the meeting on Twitter. Channel 4 News’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy said: “A few journalists currently panicking I’d imagine about what they said to Cummings on WhatsApp.”
Independent journalist Hannah Fearn described it as a “completely unfair” request: “Protection of sources is essential, even – especially – in the middle of a national crisis. Of course we need scrutiny of Cummings, but it should not be at the expense of the private, professional work of the journalists who engaged with him,” she tweeted.
Telegraph associate editor Gordon Rayner agreed it was an unfair request.
Cummings also slammed leaks to the media from Cobra, the committee that is convened to handle matters of national emergency and is designed to have the highest level of security. He said such leaks caused “chaos”.
“The problem there is that the Government should be much more transparent but the answer for that is not ministers, spads, officials just leaving the room and picking up the phone and randomly calling whoever they feel like, often to get a favour from someone.
“That’s not proper transparency, it’s not good government, what that does is sew absolute chaos through the whole system.”
Picture: PA Wire/House of Commons