Fringe Box



Comment: How The Dragon Was Left Out in the Cold

Published on: 6 Nov, 2023
Updated on: 6 Nov, 2023

By Martin Giles

The revelations at the Covid 19 Inquiry, following those of “Partygate”, must be leaving those who lost loved ones during the pandemic disgusted. They deserved better. We all did.

It would be unsurprising if public interest in the Covid 19 Inquiry was focused on the expletive-laden messages between those supposed to have been wisely governing and leading us through probably the biggest national crisis since the Second World War.

Conditioned though I am to having generally low expectations of some politicians (along with most of us, I expect), the puerile level of discourse still managed to raise my eyebrows.

But the submission of the Public Information News Foundation (PINF) to the inquiry reminded me of another bit of government bungling, some might say corruption.

…the money only went to the major news organisations…”

In April 2020 the government laudably, it seemed at the time, agreed to spend £35 million on Covid-related advertisements in newspapers to raise public awareness. This, it said, would help support the newspapers in the face of lost circulation and lost advertising revenue and the “All In, All Together” campaign duly followed.

But the money only went to the major news organisations under the umbrella of the News Media Association (NMA).

According to the PINF submission to the inquiry, in May 2022 Dominic Cummings, then chief adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wrote in a WhatsApp exchange with the lawyer Adam Wagner: “Newspapers negotiated direct bungs to themselves with him [Johnson].”

“There were “no officials on [the calls],” he added, and Johnson “told officials to send the [money] dressed up as Covid relief.”

Small independent news organisations such as The Guildford Dragon NEWS were left out in the cold despite the best efforts of the Independent Community News Network (ICNN), to which we belong, and despite the independent sector they represent reaching nearly 15 million readers every month.

Newspapers negotiated direct bungs to themselves with him [Johnson].”

PINF’s submission to the Covid Inquiry has revealed how iniquitous this was.

The total sum given by the government is thought to be far in excess of the £35 million announced, perhaps as much as £200 million, or even more.

The recipients were large multi-million-pound organisations: News UK, Associated Newspapers, Telegraph Group, Reach, Newsquest, National World, Guardian Media Group and Independent Digital News and Media. Four of the eight are ultimately owned by billionaires who should have been able to easily give their own subsidies without noticing it.

Not only that, according to Cummings’ WhatsApp messages the whole scheme seems to have followed unrecorded phone calls between the then PM and newspaper proprietors or editors.

Furthermore, PINF submitted: “…the two government figures most closely involved with the scheme were Johnson and Gove [MP for Surrey Heath], both of whom had previous careers in journalism working for NMA-member, Conservative-supporting newspapers and both of whom remained close to those organisations. …these connections are bound to increase a perception that the All In, All Together arrangement was corrupt.”

Here at The Dragon, I remain very proud of the way our volunteer team dutifully kept calm and carried on, supplying news and cooperating with the county and borough councils to disseminate public information without any government support.

…we desperately need funds in order to make The Dragon at least sustainable…”

Included in our coverage was publication of detailed localised statistical reports for two years and interviews with councillors and the CEO of our local hospital to hear direct updates of how it was faring.

We were even issued with letters to show to the police if our status as essential workers was questioned. This was the most recognition we got but we did not complain. There were many others making far, far greater efforts and sacrifices than us.

Nonetheless, while it might be true that “virtue is its own reward” it would have been good to have our worth acknowledged by the government in some small way, ie a share of the advertising subsidy, rather than be so intentionally disregarded, especially by those ignoring the very rules we were helping to publicise.

Independence is an essential element of our online newspaper.”

Local news is in a parlous state. But although we desperately need funds in order to make The Dragon at least sustainable I would be reluctant to accept direct government funding.

Independence is an essential element of our online newspaper. The government and councils constrain our reporting enough already, through a lack of openness and accountability, without giving them extra control by having a hand on our purse strings.

We continue to await the outcome of our application for charity status. I don’t think it likely the news will be good. But we have other irons in the fire and, in the meantime, if anyone thinks they can help, especially if they have journalistic skills I would urge them to contact me at

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