The Liberal Democrats are demanding transparency over government Covid contracts and multi-million pound “bungs” to friendly media following Dominic Cummings’s explosive testimony to the Coivd Inquiry [pdf].
Cummings told the inquiry that state funding had been “funnelled” to the Evening Standard, owned by Lord Evgeny Lebedev – the son of a KGB spy who was made a member of the House of Lords by Johnson, against advice from the UK’s security agencies – in the form of public health advertising during the pandemic.
Former chancellor, Old Etonian and Bullingdon Club member George Osborne was editor of the Standard at the time and Cummings said there were “suspicions of corruption” surrounding his relationship with the disgraced former PM, Old Etonian and Bullingdon Club member Johnson.
Cummings – Johnson’s former chief adviser- said: “There was a general feeling in Number 10 that the way in which the [former] prime minister responded constantly to the media was extremely bad and extremely damaging to the Covid response.
“There were specific concerns about his relationship with the Barclays in the Telegraph.
“And there were specific concerns and also suspicions of possible corruption in terms of his relationship with Osborne, and funnelling money to the Evening Standard.”
Cummings claimed Osborne “had been begging for cash” from Johnson and that the ex-PM met with Lebedev just before a government fund was set up.
Responding to the ‘bungs’ claim, Lib Dems deputy leader Daisy Cooper said that while it was “absolutely right” the government spent money advertising “vital public health messages” in newspapers during the pandemic, “[B]ut given the PPE [personal protective equipment] contract debacle, we need to see full transparency in these deals.”
A spokesperson for the government said “no title received preferential treatment” while Lebedev said Cummings was “talking utter rubbish”.
The government set up the “All in, All together” scheme to buy adverts in more than 600 newspapers and 300 websites following intense lobbying by the newspaper group News Media Association (NMA) as sales plummeted during lockdown.
The Cabinet Office has refused to release the full details of the scheme and how much each publication received despite accusations “that the chief beneficiaries were the big, wealthy news providers: the Mail group, the Murdoch group, the Telegraph group and the Mirror group.” The “big regionals and the Guardian” were included but “[s]mall, independent news publishers which also lobbied the Government and which were far more vulnerable in the early pandemic period, received next to nothing.”
Byline Times first reported allegations that “all in, all together” favoured Tory supporting publishers. A report in March 2022 states a £35 million fund for the first three months of the pandemic was “swiftly arranged” and that the “special Coronavirus subsidy to the big newspaper groups” was still being paid nearly two years later.
“Just how much has gone to helping the likes of Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay family, Lord Rothermere and Lord Lebedev of Siberia is, as we shall see, a closely guarded secret – but it could be an awful lot,” wrote Brian Cathcart last spring. “One of the few things we do know is that it was meant to be £35 million for the first three months. It is now in its 23rd month. “
In May that year Byline Times exposed “’Bungs’ to Billionaires’ in a follow-up report based on Cummings’ testimony at the time in which the former PM’s chief aide said: “Newspapers negotiated direct bungs to themselves with him [Boris Johnson]”.
Taxpayer money was spent on wrap-around adverts, normal advertising and “paid-for editorial content labelled as ‘government-sponsored’ (though not always very prominently),” the newspaper states.
It calculated “the total to date [in May 2022] could well exceed £100 million” and asked: “how can the media validly claim to be holding power to account – to be exposing the avalanche of corruption and wrongdoing perpetuated by Johnson’s regime – when it is receiving substantial funds from that same administration?”