When Tortoise journalists set out to find a photograph of one of the most influential figures in British politics, they were astounded to find that just one existed
The door to Number 10 Downing Street is one of the most photographed in the world. Anyone who approaches it can expect to be captured through the lens of a camera held by a photographer whose job it is to document the comings and goings of government.
Yet one man with a pivotal role in Boris Johnson’s government and a gravitational influence within the Conservative party has pulled off a remarkable feat.
When our picture desk set out to find a picture of Dougie Smith to accompany this week’s Tortoise Story – The second couple, by Matthew d’Ancona – they could find just one: a headshot of a smiling Smith, provenance unknown. His hair is brown but tinged with grey, and it looks as though he might be clad in a suit, perhaps at a function.
As this week’s Story explains, Smith is a powerful figure at Conservative Party HQ who makes decisions about who can stand as a Tory MP and, increasingly, all kinds of other public appointmentments. He is also half of a power-couple – husband to Munira Mirza, an ally of the prime minister who followed him from City Hall and is now putting together a post-pandemic policy plan for the government.
To find an image that would illustrate the reporting, the journalists on Tortoise’s picture desk set about their usual routine. They began, as they often would with political figures like Smith, by searching through the databases of the main photo agencies like Getty, Reuters or AP.
“Normally, that’s where you get your first results. If they’re in government, or they’re in the public eye you would expect them to appear in those searches,” says Jon Jones, head of photography at Tortoise, award-winning photojournalist and former director of photography at the Sunday Times Magazine.
Smith is not just in government – he has played a role in multiple governments. Even before he became a key player of the Johnson administration, Smith was part of David Cameron’s 2005 Conservative leadership campaign, remained his speechwriter in government and worked at Tory HQ during Theresa May’s tenure.
In this case, lots of photos of Mirza came up, but just one – a classic approach-to-Number-10 picture of Mirza and a man labelled as her husband – purported to show Smith. Yet it turned out to be a false lead: the same photo, when it appeared in databases of other agencies, did not name the man and, when asked, the photographer who took the picture said he no longer thought it was Smith, after all.
Next, the picture desk turned to smaller, specialised agencies. Nothing. They tried the Number 10 photographer. Nothing. They trawled the captions and peered at figures lurking behind Cameron, May or Johnson, in the background of thousands of images on the government’s Flickr, an online photo site. Again, nothing.
A hunt through social media rendered a single low-res, pixelated wedding photograph that likely – but not definitely – showed Mirza and Smith. And that was it.
“There are people that you will never find, because they are not in the public eye and they’re not part of a story. That’s not unusual,” says Jones. “It is unusual if you can’t find a picture of someone in that position in government. To me, that’s quite rare.”
Of course, Smith is completely entitled to privacy – and is known to favour it. It is quite simply remarkable that there is neither any photographic evidence of this man’s regular footsteps down the corridors of power nor any digital record of his social life online.
It may be that political photographers don’t know what he looks like, or let him pass by when they are focussed instead on whichever newsworthy minister is their target for the day. Because he is definitely there. “He’s been around, he is around. He’s not hiding,” says Jones. But Dougie Smith, somehow, remains unseen.