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Robin Lees: Mail on Sunday Takes the Hatchet to First Witness Who Saw Dominic Cummings at Barnard Castle

Staying with yesterday’s Mail on Sunday, here’s the front-page splash:

The “witness who alerted police”, and who we are told “broke lockdown rules HIMSELF” was Robin Lees, a retired teacher who was the first person who came forward to say he had seen Dominic Cummings flouting lockdown rules by visiting Barnard Castle in early April. Yesterday’s Sunday Times notes two more witnesses who say they saw Cummings in other parts of the town, and at least one other credible person (an archaeologist named Lisa Westcott Wilkins) previously stated in a Tweet to the Guardian‘s Marina Hyde that “the whole town knows it”. The witness who “admits he INVENTED story”, meanwhile, relates to an alleged second visit by Cummings to Durham later in April, although of course it serves the purposes of the Mail on Sunday not to be too clear on this point, in order to generate fog and distrust around the whole business of Cummings’s movements. The implication of the juxtaposition is “look, these witnesses are all discreditable in some way“.

The paper lays out the case against Lees thus:

Robin Lees drove from his home in Barnard Castle, County Durham, to pick up his student daughter, Elizabeth, who had been self-isolating at her boyfriend’s home in Ascot, Berkshire, after returning from an extended study trip to Canada.

…Measures announced by Boris Johnson on May 11 included an easing of travel restrictions to allow people to drive as far as they wanted. But this was only if they were going to an outdoors location and as long as the social distancing protocol was observed.

There wasn’t any change in the guidelines for allowing relatives who are not normally resident in the family home to move in.

…Mr Lees refused to say exactly when he made the journey to collect his daughter, but insisted that it was after May 11.

Is this really a “gotcha”? Perhaps Lees ought to have gone for a short walk around Ascot before picking up his daughter – absurdist legalism, but that would have fulfilled the “outdoor location” requirement for travel. However, the Mirror journalist Pippa Crerar notes that “If a student is opting to change their primary residence for the purpose of the emergency period to live back at their family home, this is permitted.” Thus it appears that Rees’s trip was in fact within the letter of the rules, and either way no reasonable case can be made that he acted irresponsibly or selfishly – and it is difficult to see why this is a matter of wider public interest, let alone front-page news.

In contrast, Dominic Cummings and his wife Mary Wakefield by their own (revised) account travelled from London to a second home outside Durham while they suspected they were infected, used local health services and took a trip to Barnard Castle (“He parked on our street and was seen at leisure right where we walk our dogs. Infected, he touched the gates we all have to touch to move through that area”, according to Westcott Wilkins). They also initially lied about it, via a piece for the Spectator that was designed to give the false impression that they had spent the whole time in London.

The Mail on Sunday‘s focus on Lees and his mundane task of picking up his daughter (“seen at the family home last week”, we’re gratuitously told) is a good example of the tabloid strategy of appealing to readers’ sense of resentment by supposedly exposing hypocrisy: If you are angry at Cummings because of this man’s testimony, you are being played for a fool even though it’s true. You are invited to demonstrate your superior discernment by disregarding what Cummings did and instead expressing censure at Lees. (1)

On Twitter, of course, this disapproval has taken vicious form, including Tweets that conflate Lees with the false “second trip” witness (a man named Tim Matthews [2]). Some of this was inflamed by the health minister Nadine Dorries, who posted a screenshot of the story alongside the commentary “I’m stunned to see how little any of this… [is] mentioned by mainstream broadcasters”. Thus we see someone whose priority ought to be on health messaging instead focusing on how the letter of the rules might be weaponised at the expense both of a private individual and the public interest for the benefit of her boss’s apparently indispensable adviser. (3)

Indeed, much of the discussion about whether Cummings and Wakefield’s decision to travel was covered by Section 6 of the relevant legislation has been at the expense of a primary messaging imperative, which is that people who know or suspect they are infected have a special responsibility to stay home so as not to risk spreading the virus. The government’s decision to instead emphasise the apparent great leeway afforded by the “reasonable excuse” provision may yet prove catastrophic.

Notes

1. Another example of this kind of thing is to accuse progressive-minded public figures of hypocrisy due to having some personal wealth. Two recent Mail on Sunday articles have deployed this strategy against the Labour leader Keir Starmer, although both articles were dishonest. One article falsely implied that Starmer’s late father was a factory owner, based on a reference he had made to “my factory” in the sense of “my workplace”, while the other infamously extrapolated a hypothetical value for a field owned by Starmer should greenbelt  legislation change, to suggest he has a £10 million asset.

2. Cummings has denied the second trip, and no decisive evidence either way has emerged. According to the MoS:

The claim that Mr Cummings made a second trip north, which he denied, was reported from an unnamed source in The Observer newspaper last week.

On Monday, its sister paper, The Guardian gave details of a second witness making the same claim, reporting that: ‘Tim Matthews, a runner, has since come forward to claim he saw Cummings later that day [April 19].’

The Guardian erred in reporting Matthews’s claim as fact, referring to an app that “marks the area where he saw Cummings at 3.45pm on 19 April”. The separate “unnamed source”, meanwhile, also featured in the Mirror.

3. Conservative MPs were reportedly asked by whips to Tweet in support of Cummings last week. Dorries avoided doing so by staying off Twitter due to an eye injury, but later declared the matter was “case closed” when Durham police said Cummings had not broken the rules by residing at the property in Durham (a statement which doesn’t quite pronounce definitively on his journey there).