Good morning. This is The Burner, I’m James Butler and it is Tuesday May 26, 2020. We are still in lockdown.
And I confess a mounting sense of difficulty in reporting what is the top story across all the papers today, which is Dominic Cummings’ bizarre press conference at the Number 10 Rose Garden yesterday afternoon; in which Cumming’s effectively declared he had broken the lockdown regulations essentially because he decided it was alright to do so and this made it alright – definitely not a problem, no legal problem here.
Johnson also backed him in yesterday’s more standard Downing Street press conference, saying he thought Cummings had behaved both “reasonably and legally”.
And those really are the two key words, there – either of them which seem to be true – and gave him his full support. Let’s back up here for a moment and just note a couple of things.
One is that it’s passing bizarre that this press conference happened at all. Special advisors are not generally supposed to speak publicly, let alone hold press conferences. And, in general, when they become the story they’re supposed to resign. As with Jo Moore many years ago now suggesting 9/11 was a good day to bury bad news. We know, of course that won’t happen here.
It’s not like Cummings hasn’t been in the headlines a lot before. The only parallel I can think of is to Campbell’s gruesome finger-jabbing interview on Channel 4 over the dodgy dossier – the pretext for the Iraq war – and that was widely seen as the beginning of the end for him.
Will this be the same? I wonder. I got an odd sense watching the press conference; something of the lachrymose, whingeing quality of our public life, with Cummings determined to paint himself as an extremely humane and injured, more sinned against than sinning, victim of outrageous treatment by the press.
This is, of course, a favourite tactic for someone like Cummings: to make all problems a problem of the existence of the media and press inquiries – if only the press were so vigorous as Cummings really insist that they are. But he insisted on telling us that he regretted nothing. He regretted nothing. In great detail.
And there was something odd to the whole thing, like watching an alien who had encountered the concept of honesty, but who had had to reconstruct it from the outside in in order to mimic it. It was not the most convincing impersonation.
There was little hint of the interior self-examination, which true honesty requires, [with the] merely irritated statement, and restatement, that he believed he had done nothing wrong. And he was, of course, careful to keep the boss out of it.
Anyone who has ever given a legal or press statement knows the danger of talking too much. One of the dictums of crisis communications and management is that given a choice, less is more. If you talk too much, you might open up other lines of inquiry, or reveal that you’re pretty contemptuous of the whole process and you’re only bowing to it because of the pressure of public opinion.
Now, Dominic Cummings talked a lot and Dominic Cummings is not – though he is many things – an idiot. He suddenly opened up all sorts of questions. Who packs their kid into the back of a car and goes on a 60-mile round trip to “test their eyesight”, for instance, on their wife’s birthday? Little sceptical about that story.
Or since Cummings’ account seems to match the press accounts of his Durham jolly, why did Number 10 put out statements insisting it was all fake news from campaigning press? You can test almost nothing of their actual accounts. He just thinks he was right to do it.
And yet, the details that he relied on – at great length – to justify his breaking the regulations included a family hospital trip while in Durham and that is precisely the problem. Cummings knows, because he was intimately involved in drawing up the regulations and imposing them on the country, that the point is to prevent exactly that kind of situation. A sick person driving hundreds of miles away from their home to a new location, then attending a public facility where they can shed the virus everywhere – worse still if it’s a public facility full of people who are already sick or likely immunocompromised. Now, he tries to find loopholes. He tries to interpret and reinterpret the regulations to exonerate himself and in so doing implicitly sneers at those who are bided by their letter by, say, missing funerals or not visiting sick relatives.
The fact remains; he did exactly what these regulations were intended to avoid. Why? At bottom basically because he could, the law is for little people.
A couple more things on Cummings then.
Why the morass of detail, if it can lead to controversies over what he was actually doing or if he lied or over who knew what when? I think there’s a degree of squid’ing strategy going on here: empty your ink sacks of every fact available to you; quibbling over each of them can get everyone lost for days or weeks and the simple big picture story – that he thinks, and the prime minister agrees, he’s above the law that binds the rest of us – just disappears. Much better to deal with a minor quibble over how far you can drive on a full range Rover tank than whether your arrogance led you to flout regulations and dodge sacrifices made by the rest of your country and risk the health of many of the people in the city to which you were driving.
This is not an uncommon technique – essentially flooding or overwhelming a story. It has its analogs well beyond the media too. It’s also the cultural reflex of participatory neoliberalism in which you’re constantly asked for your opinion or review of this or that small part of the whole – usually a transaction of some kind – and that neatly forestalls any wider conversation about the wider setup.
But here, it’s intended as a great vanishing act – hopeful that public anger will dissipate in the baffles of detail and quibbling over minor fact. We shouldn’t let that happen because of the story, at its root, is really very simple. Cummings, and the prime minister, believe they are above the niceties of the law.
Does any of this matter? Who really cares if the prime minister’s chief of staff drove to Durham? Of course, it’s more than that, more even than just the hypocrisy and the deception and the attempt to shift the blame to the press for reporting on it. To me, it matters because in politics consequences should matter. They do matter. They matter because they tell us our rulers are under the same law that we are under. That is the pact that we make with them. We vote for them and, in doing so, we endow them with the power to make and shape the law and at the same time they submit themselves to be bound by that law, like any of us.
This is why justice is represented blindfolded. She is, or rather should be, [irrespective] of persons and this is a basic premise of democratic politics: equality before the law. Without it the whole edifice begins to fall apart. Why? Because immunity from consequences, both legal and political, is effectively a way of saying: in fact, democratic politics is really all fraudulence and show. If the mechanisms of responsibility and consequence ever did work in democratic life, they really don’t now and your attitude to them should be one of cynicism or nihilism.
It’s a deeply, deeply demobilising and poisonous message for a political establishment to send, not least because it forgets – or maybe doesn’t care or takes for granted – the democratic politics. [These are] actually quite a fragile achievement and that it’s always under threat from oligarchy and other brutalities.
That might all be fine for Cummings, of course. It’s less often remarked than it should be that Cummings’ relationship to democratic politics is basically one of contempt and loathing – something that is occasionally obscured by his celebration of the plebiscite on the European Union, as a kind of great act of democratic authorisation.
But for him, that’s it. The actual process of democracy, the stuff that follows afterwards – of agonistic conflict and plurality and debate – that’s always been an inconvenience. It’s why at every opportunity he gets, he likes to try to teach the public to view democratic politics as he does: a sort of lying pretext to dress up your own will to power, with cynicism, self enrichment and personal gain, the true and secret motive force.
So, you feel like a fool ever to have had any hope in even the possibility of democratic politics at all.
But, of course, it would be absurd to imagine that Cummings set up this situation in order to inculcate this message. But his belief, that it all is simply something to be disregarded and [intends] to suffer no consequences whatsoever, are powerful teaching aides, even if you happen to cross them by chance.
So, here’s my view. The details are interesting in a legal sense, but we already know enough. Let’s not get lost in them. The story here is a very simple one. The ruling class of this country, with their estates and their woods and their staff, believe they’re above the law because they believe they’re a breed apart from you and me. They are not, and the law should humble them.
Now, something on one aspect of the coronavirus pandemic you may have seen – just momentarily – fluke and splash above the media attention line and disappear again under it. But it is important.
Here’s Gary McQuiggin, freelance video journalist and head of Video at Novara Media
GM: For the past two months I’ve been locked down in my own home, staring out the window, listening to the birds and, of course, spending hours and hours and hours on the internet. But imagine you spent your lockdown in a room the size of your bathroom with no window, maybe a window [with] bars on it and no phone. That’s the reality for tens of thousands of people currently locked down in the UK is prison system. To learn a bit more about what’s going on with coronavirus and prisons, I spoke to Oonagh Ryder. [She’s] campaigner with the Prison Solidarity Network and host of Novara Media’s podcast The Lockdown, a podcast about prisons and criminal justice.
So Oonagh, hello.
GM: What’s going on?
OR: So, I’ll give you a bit of the backstory of what the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) response has been to coronavirus, because it’s been a little bit chaotic, a little bit all over the place.
At the end of March, Public Health England recommended the MoJ release 15,000 prisoners. This was to give the space for prisoners to be moved into single cells, because a lot of prisoners share cells, in order to make social distancing possible.
The population back in March was just under 84,000. This is in England and Wales and there was a lot of concern that coronavirus would spread really, really fast in prisons. Hygiene standards in prisons, cleanliness, access to health care, all of those things, are already really, really poor inside prisons. It can be hard in some presence to even get hold of soap and get access to hot water. So, there were a lot of concerns that this would spread like wildfire.
Researchers from the university of London predicted that 800 people in prison would die if no measures were put in place. Prison reform charities and prison abolition groups were calling for large numbers of prisoners to be released in order to prevent the spread of the virus. And lots of other countries have been releasing prisoners in March.
On March 24, the MoJ suspended ALL family visits and put prisoners on lockdown. So, this means that prisoners were being held in cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, only let put semi-regularly for showers, for using the phone, for a small amount of exercise in the yard. Sometimes all of these things have to be squeezed into kind of half an hour out of the cell per day.
So, eventually in April, the MoJ announced that they would be running an early release scheme, releasing up to 5,000 prisoners. So, nowhere near the 15,000 that Public Health England had recommended, but it was something.
Then, in mid-April [the MoJ] accidentally released 6 of the wrong prisoners.
GM: They accidentally released them.
OR: Yeah. So, 6 people released from prison. The MoJ suddenly went “oh, these are the wrong people” and brought them back to prison. They all returned voluntarily.
GM: Okay, so they all returned of their own volition.
OR: [Laughter] We’re not sure exactly what the details of this [are]. I mean, it does happen every now and then, it’s admin errors in prisons or within the prison probation service.
So, this happened and the MoJ then paused the programme as a result of it. Then, in May they came out and said “no, we’re scrapping the programme altogether”. This was after actually purchasing almost 2,000 electronic monitoring tags from private companies already, though presumably [these] are not in use now.
So, today actually only 81 prisoners have been released early as a result of coronavirus; some of them are pregnant women, although there are still pregnant women in prison; some of them are women with children, and others are just other prisoners, men who have been released close to the end of their sentence.
The thing that does seem to be working is that the death levels have not been anywhere near what’s expected. The latest numbers are that 21 prisoners have died, and 7 members of staff have died. At the moment, 432 prisoners, 555 prison staff and 24 prisoners’ escort staff have tested positive. So, these aren’t nearly as high as the numbers that were expected. Obviously, campaigners are really, really pleased that we haven’t seen anywhere near the levels of deaths we were expecting.
But this has essentially been done by putting tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement. And the plan seems to be, more or less, to keep them in solitary confinement.
GM: What you’re saying is that by keeping all these people in solitary confinement, it seems – as far as we can tell – that the spread of the virus in prisons has being contained. But what repercussions are they going to be of putting all those people in solitary confinement for such a long time? At the moment, is it [for] an indefinite amount of time?
OR: At the moment, it seems unclear. The MoJ has said 12 months. There’s been nothing confirmed to people in prison. They’re kind of receiving lots of mixed messages at the moment.
So, it does seem that [solitary confinement] has, to some extent, contained the virus. People still have concerns, particularly where there are prisons where people are still sharing cells. There’s still lots of concerns that outbreaks could happen and that would be hard to really suppress them once that had happened.
But the ramifications of this level of isolation are just huge. Family visits have been suspended since March 24 and there’s speculation that these will be suspended for 12 months.
In a previous job, I worked on Lord Farmer’s review of family ties for men in prison. I’m doing some of the research for that and during that review, we found people would tell us over and over again that the one thing that gives [them] hope, the one thing that keeps [them] alive [are] those family visits. It’s knowing that [they] can see [their] family and knowing that [they] can phone them.
So, this is huge for people and it’s really, really huge for people on the outside as well. The feeling within families – partners of prisoners, children of prisoners – [is that they are] just tearing their hair out now. They don’t know when they’re next going to see their loved one. They’re not getting any clear information and many people are saying “I don’t know how long I can do this for”. The strain on people’s relationships is just absolutely huge and the mental health issues this is causing for people in prison and people outside of prison will have really, really long-term ramifications.
There’s also the issue that people can’t even phone as much as they could. In many prisons, access to phones is limited because they’re having so little time out of their cell. In some prisons, they do have in cell phones. In some prisons they’ve issued mobile phone handsets. But in many they’re still relying on having to use the shared phones on the wing. All in quite a short amount of time.
GM: And surely using a shared phone in itself is a bit of a risk in terms of containing the virus.
OR: Yeah, definitely. Many people inside have felt really worried about that. Some people have even avoided using the phone if they’ve got underlying health conditions. That puts additional pressure on families where they know that their loved ones are having to risk their health in order to have that kind of that 5-10 minute phone call.
There’s also obviously been a big impact on people’s finances. So, phone calls within prison are incredibly expensive. They can be up to 20p a minute, due to contracts with BT who run the phones. In some prisons, they have added extra money to prisoners spends. In some of the private prisons, they’ve managed to negotiate reductions in the rate with BT. But, for most people, they’re just having to spend much more on phone credit. This puts financial pressure on families, and it puts financial pressure on people inside. And, of course, many, many people just can’t afford it. There are also limits in prisons based on how much you can spend, based on what level of the behaviour scheme that you’re at. So it means that some people are really, really limited in the phone contact that they can have with their family. Some people can have more contact but are paying for that with a big financial hit.
GM: I assume a lot of people who aren’t in prison have [had to deal] with [the] inability to see their family and friends by getting on zoom and having to learn how to video chat, etc. I imagine there’s nothing like that.
OR: Not at the moment. The MoJ has actually announced that it’s starting to roll out virtual visits.
One of the big concerns about the things that have been put in place as a result of coronavirus is how they will live on through the system after the virus. So, I talked before about people being moved into single cells in order to prevent the transmission of the virus. That’s being done through bringing in shipping containers and bringing imported of cabins, so people will be in what is called a single cell – meaning there’ll be living in a shipping container or living in a porter cabin.
The concerns are that this extra capacity that has been brought into the system will remain when the virus passes. Similarly for the virtual visits. Many family members are really, really desperate to have this virtual visits [programme] running because they need to see their loved one.
But there’s a lot of concerns about what the long-term ramifications of that will be. In the US, where a really high proportion of prisons have introduced virtual visits, [these prisons] then cancelled in person visits. There’s a lot of perverse incentives with virtual visits for prisons. It kind of ticks their security boxes, it’s easier for prisons – people aren’t just coming in. There are also incentives for private companies to be making a profit through people using the virtual visits app rather than having lots of face to face visits. So, although families are really, really keen to be able to see their loved ones over video, there are also a lot of concerns about what that means long-term for whether those in person visits will be coming back.
GMÑ Yeah. It’s the same with like the solitary confinement aspect of it, where they can kind of say “hey, look how well this has worked, why not keep these measures in place?”
OR: Exactly. And we’ve seen things like the former chief inspector for prisons kind of celebrating the success of prisons and containing the virus and saying that other institutions and other public services could be learning from them. Seemingly forgetting that the UN defined solitary confinement as torture. This miracle response from this public service to coronavirus is essentially torturing tens of thousands of people. This cannot be a humane and sustained response to the situation, to have up to 80,000 people in solitary confinement for a year.
GM: what have been some of the reactions in civil society organizations and campaigners?
OR: In March and April, we’ve seen organisations – such as the Prison Reform Trust, the Howard League for Penal Reform and also the Prison Governors Association, which is the most surprising one – calling for large numbers of releases from prison.
We’ve since seen some retreats there. The Prison Reform Trust, the Howard League for Penal Reform were initially launching a legal case against the MoJ and they dropped that – for reasons that are unclear to me – when the MoJ released some more information about the modelling for the numbers of deaths.
There are other organisations who lean towards a more abolitionist framing. So, there’s Inquest, which is a charity that supports family members of people who have died in state custody. And there’s also Women in Prison, who provide services for women who’ve been in the criminal justice system and also campaign on issues of women in the criminal justice system. They’ve launched a joint campaign to put pressure on the MoJ to release large numbers of people, to actually ensure that the virus does not spread through the prisons and also to ensure that the response to coronavirus doesn’t end up filing the human rights of tens of thousands of people.
They have written a letter to Boris Johnson requesting for more people to be released and the public health is taken seriously.
GM: So, if people want to show solidarity with these prisoners who face being locked down for the next year, what kind of things would you suggest? How can people practically show solidarity and support?
OR: So, firstly I should say that a lot of the things I’ve been talking about, a lot of the information that I’ve got has come a social media account called Blue Bag Life, you can follow them on Instagram or on Twitter. So, that’s Lisa Selby and Elliot Murawski.
Elliot was in prison for a little while and Lisa was his partner. They’ve been doing an incredible job throughout this crisis of gathering information from people inside from their families and friends and really showing the public what those people are going through.
You can follow them to find out more, it’s really one of the few places you will directly hear from people who are actually affected by this. You can also sign the letter by Inquest and Women in Prison. You can find that on Inquest’s websites: https://www.inquest.org.uk/covid-19-letter.
Another thing you can do is donate to a fundraiser that the Solidarity Network London are running. We started up this fundraiser in March. What we’re doing is distributing money directly to people in prison to help them pay for phone calls and also to help them pay for hygiene items – things like soap or hand sanitiser. All these things are really crucial at the moment. Families are under a lot of economic pressure, really struggling to send money into people inside. We’ve had a huge amount of applications for funding from this fund. So we really need every penny we can get to help distribute the money to everyone who needs it.
Another thing you can do is also join a pen pal scheme and start writing to people in prison. That’s social solidarity. That connection with the outside is more important than ever at the moment. So, if you want to get involved with that you can get in touch with the Prisoner Solidarity Network London over social media or you could join another scheme like Bent Bars. There’s not nearly enough connection between people outside and people inside prison. So this is a great thing that you can be doing at the moment.
GM: Great. Thanks for speaking to Oonagh.
OR: Thanks for having me.
JB: My thanks to Gary and to Oonagh for that. I’m not sure but I think that’s the first interview that Gary has done for us, despite having been the [inaudible xx] of our video section for many years, and effectively the director and producer of a vast array of our content. So, that’s nice.
And Oonagh of course, many of you will know, but if you don’t you can find her podcast called The Lockdown on the Novara Media website. And, if you’ve never done prison letter writing, you really should. My thanks to both and more to come, I hope.
All the headlines this morning are on big Dom’s day out. There’s also a funny little story about his vanity brewing, which is that, at the beginning of his press conference yesterday, Cummings highlighted his godlike prescience in predicting the coronavirus pandemic and pointed to the press his blog.
Except, of course, the XML site map reveals he, uh… Edited in the specific references to coronavirus in March this year. Truly, he really is an early 00’s blog crank at heart.
Of course, wider warnings of the consequences of global pandemic have been around a lot longer than Cummings’ blog. If we’re awarding places in public life based on pandemic prescience, I look forward to Mike Davis – probably my favourite living Marxist writer taking charge with the UK government. He did, after all, write the book on it 15 years ago.
The split in the right-wing press continues, with most of the billionaire press playing nice with Downing Street or at least pulling their headline punches a bit. It is The Mail though – which usually has its eyes trained strictly on the fluctuating mood of middle England – [which] has come out [with an] attack over Cummings this morning. In fact, its frontpage headline is virtually identical to that of The Mirror. Is that the first time that’s happened?
Meanwhile, the Metro splashes with “Stay elite” on the front cover, possibly the most damaging headline of all. Especially so from a less-nakedly political paper than others. He must be thankful there are still fewer people commuting this morning.
Gove is on the march through the studios to defend Cummings. But it’s not just the media that matters. Now, if you’re cursed with a Tory MP – I’m sorry – but now might be the time to write to them expressing your fury and your dismay.
Ministers are also giving quotes to journalists about their fear over dangerous public health consequences of the Cummings story. It seems quite likely to me that it will have an impact on how many people are taking lockdown seriously if at all. One minister also gives a quote to the time saying: “He’s saying he’s so much more important than us, plebs. I think we’re in big trouble. We can’t campaign our way out of this. We are losing trust and confidence is draining away before our eyes.”
Now, the violin I’d need for that is so tiny, it would be subatomic.
Johnson declared yesterday that some shops and other markets are able to reopen under strict conditions from mid-June. More on that and the loosening of the lockdown’s incoming battle over schools later this week.
But otherwise, that’s all. Stay safe, stay home, wash your hands, and don’t drive hundreds of miles while sick with Covid-19 and whinge about it on TV or, in other words, don’t be a prick.
That’s it. This is The Burner. I’ll see you tomorrow.
This broadcast is brought to you by Novara Media. Go to novaramedia.com/support.