Seatbeltgate exposes the frivolous nature of the British media

Adam Wildsmith

January 25, 2023

The front pages are dominated by details of government scandal. The Conservative Party Chairman Nadhim Zahawi is under investigation by the Prime Minister’s Ethics Advisor regarding allegations that he breached the ministerial rulebook over his tax affairs. Meanwhile it has emerged BBC Chairman, Richard Sharp, was involved in securing a loan of up to £800,000 for the then-prime minister Boris Johnson, prior to his appointment at the public broadcaster.

Alongside those indignities, the Mirror once again critiqued Rishi Sunak for failing to wear a seatbelt. In a pure act of partisanship, the paper sought to draw a moral equivalence between millions of pounds in unpaid tax and a seatbelt, or lack thereof. Of course, Mr Sunak should have worn a seatbelt, that much is inarguable. Yet the media response to this trivial non-story demonstrates a total lack of proportion, in which frivolous indiscretions are reported as the next big scandal at the heart of government.  

This wasn’t Watergate. Journalists ‘breaking’ these stories do not resemble Woodward and Bernstein, courageously taking on and then brining down a corrupt and unbefitting leader. They’re often fuelled by clickbait and devoid of the talent required to investigate the real issues of our time.

So exaggerated was the media’s reaction, I half-expected Ian Blackford to rise in the Commons and deliver one his characteristic diatribes, somehow linking the failure to wear a seatbelt to a renewed crusade for Scottish independence. If anyone could muster a link between the two, it would be him.

Now it’s often said that in America things are bigger and more extravagant. Political scandals it seems are no exception. Yet when the FBI searched the Delaware home of President Joe Biden this week, discovering more classified documents from his time as Vice President, the media reaction was immeasurably tamer compared with UK coverage of seatbelt-gate. In Britain it seems as though we’ve lost all sense of perspective as to what really matters.

The Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, Daisy Cooper attempted to equate the ‘scandal’ with partygate. In a statement she said, “From partygate to seatbelt gate, these Conservative politicians are just taking the British people for fools.” What a ridiculous thing to say. Partygate exposed a rot at the core of government; a rot that spread its way into the civil service and saw hundreds of covid breaches in Whitehall at the peak of the pandemic.

The public were rightly furious at the rule breaches and the months of deceit and deflection that followed. In no way, shape, or form do Mr Sunak’s actions compare with partygate or constitute a scandal, even in the slightest meaning of the word.

Mr Sunak was fined by Lancashire Police, but what choice did they have? Had the police concluded that Mr Sunak’s conduct did not reach the threshold to warrant a fine, they’d have been subject to all sorts of partiality allegations. It’s time we – the media, the police, the public – recognise that our politicians are human, and at times they will fall short of the angelic conduct we’ve come to demand of our public servants. 


Written by Adam Wildsmith

Adam Wildsmith is Deputy Director at Blue Beyond and a Journalism student at Newcastle University

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