Downing Street claimed that, while in hospital fighting coronavirus, Johnson was still getting his briefing papers. In a statement on 6 April, Number 10 said “Any information the PM needs to be updated on or decisions that need to be taken by the Prime Minister will continue to happen. He’s still getting his box”.
Downing Street later confirmed: “He didn’t receive any papers while in hospital.”
The statement from 10 Downing Streeton 6th April that Mr Johnson was “still getting his box” on 6th April was untrue.
Some people may feel that given the severity of the prime minister’s illness Downing Street was justified in giving a false impression of his medical condition. It is nevertheless telling to contrast the principled anger displayed by BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell after being misled by Buckingham Palace about the Queen’s admission to hospital in October 2021 with the way Witchell’s counterparts at Westminster accepted without demur being misled by Downing Street on the Prime Minister’s health.
Witchell’s display of anger on TV after being misled by Buckingham Palace about the Queen’s health was arguably magnificent: 'We were led to believe on Wednesday that the Queen was resting at Windsor Castle. As we were being told that, and relaying it to our viewers and newspapers to their readers, in fact she was in hospital'.
This principled denunciation of Buckingham Palace deceit by Nicholas Witchell raises questions about why political reporters do not follow suit. As far as we can tell the only political writers even to reference the fact that Downing Street had misled the public were (to their credit) Harry Cole (now Sun political editor) and Patrick O’Flynn in the Spectator. Even they did not show anything like the anger produced by Nicholas Witchell on the BBC.
As this website demonstrates, parliamentary lobby reporters have been repeatedly lied to or misled by Boris Johnson and his ministers on every major issue from the economy and Covid to Brexit and have responded with barely a whimper of protest.
Why don’t political reporters mind being misled by Downing Street? I suggest there are two main reasons. First they depend on Downing Street to give them interviews and other forms of access to the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues. Making an issue of Downing Street deceit places that access in jeopardy. Second, many media organisations - including the BBC and most British newspaper groups - have had an editorial policy not to challenge the lies and falsehoods emanating from the British prime minister and his government. This policy has made them (at least in part) complicit with the culture of deceit that has become a defining factor in the Boris Johnson incumbency.
Finally, Nicholas Witchell’s evident concern that he was placed by Buckingham Palace in a position where he misled BBC viewers is important. In stark contrast BBC political reporters have proved themselves much less squeamish. The same point applies to many political reporters on British newspapers and other media outlets.