For those lucky enough to be out of touch with British politics, the current covid inquiry is investigating the decisions made by government leaders during the peak covid crisis of 2020-21 for the purposes of public awareness and learning from previous mistakes. Whilst ‘the inquiry can demand evidence and compel witnesses to attend, no-one is found guilty or innocent but lessons learnt are published.’ Witnesses have written statements expressly for the inquiry and had their cache of WhatsApp messages revealed in an attempt to delve to the bottom of the cesspit that was the government handling of the pandemic.
The ongoing inquiry is revealing lots of hideous things about hideous people but to list them all would be too long and depressing. Less depressing and more interesting, however, is this inquiry’s exposure of the odd public, media, and political response to bad language. Whilst there is fruity language in most WhatsApp interactions between government officials, that of Dominic Cummings has come under particular scrutiny. But why, in 2023, are we so scandalised by swearing?
Reading someone’s messages is a bit like reading their diary – you feel bad, but when the owner is enough of a scumbag, you just don’t care. So it is that we can sit back to enjoy the guilt-free reading of the messages between government officials and aides.
Since Cummings’s choice insults were aired to the world during his testimony at the inquiry, most attention has fallen on the swearing in his private WhatsApp correspondences rather than on the meaning behind the messages and what they reveal about the government’s incompetence at the time. Whilst none of his correspondence is squeaky clean, two particular comments have caught the eye of the media, public, and inquiry lawyers. Firstly, his description of several ministers as “useless f***pigs, morons, c****, actually”; and, secondly, “I don’t care how it’s done but that woman [Helen MacNamara] must be out of our hair – we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state whilst dodging stilettos from that c***.”
The inquiry, quite rightly, pressed Cummings on the misogynistic content of the latter comment but he defended it by saying “I was much ruder about men.” A brief flick through his other WhatsApp messages proves this to be correct. George Osborne, speaking on his podcast with Ed Balls, felt the need to add to the debate by saying “From what I understand, there are some staggering things that have been said on those WhatsApp messages…Really pretty disgusting language and misogynistic language.” This is quite the bold comment from the man who once said he would not rest until Theresa May was “chopped up in bags in my freezer”. Perhaps he has no issue with appalling, misogynistic comments if they are rendered in the Queen’s primmest English.
Ridiculous as Osborne’s hypocrisy may be, his comment is useful proof that people are too easily distracted by bad language. His statement on Cummings’s testimony does not address his salient points on the serious government failings of the period, even though they offer a wealth of information on the topic and are very useful to this inquiry. He merely tries to make Cummings feel like a naughty schoolboy who should be sent to bed with no dinner.
If we look beyond his bad language, Cummings’s messages help to confirm many of the government failings of the pandemic period. There is some truth to his opinion that “Hancock is unfit for this job. The incompetence, the constant lies, his obsession with media bulls**t over doing his job. Still no f***ing serious testing in care homes, his uselessness is still killing God knows how many” and, if taken seriously, might remind future governments to choose their ministers more carefully. He also acknowledged that there was “essentially no shielding plan at all” for those most at risk of contracting severe disease and “that entire question was almost entirely appallingly neglected by the entire planning system.” Information like this is crucial for better pandemic planning in future and finding the exact government processes that neglected such an important task. But, at the moment, nobody wants to think about that because they are too busy sniggering or fainting at the word f***pig.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this outrage at Cummings’s bad language is that I am now forced to defend him and that is not something I ever imagined myself doing. Though it pains me to say, his honesty is refreshing: often, when politicians’ private messages are leaked to reveal their rude opinions, they feel obliged to issue grovelling, meaningless apologies which neither they, the public, nor the subject believe. Cummings, however, made no apology for his messages, stating that “My appalling language was obviously my own, but my judgement of a lot of senior people was widespread.” He was also able to remind the inquiry that “a thousand times worse than my bad language is the underlying issue at stake that we had a cabinet office system that had completely melted.” Details of this melting can be found in his messages, meaning they, in combination with other investigations, can pave the way for better pandemic contingency planning in future.
By chastising his language, we are focusing on the wrong aspect of his comments: It is for his mother to scorn his bad language and for the inquiry and the public to take stock of his insider’s information to hold the then-government accountable. At least we have learnt that you shouldn’t swear if you want your opinion to be taken seriously – thank goodness I didn’t swear in this f***ing article then.
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