March 2021Cover-Ups& Inconvenient Truths
Exclusive to print for a month, Peter Oborne shares his observations of the political scene, at home and abroad. Here is his March column
Covering Up a Cover-Up
The British Prime Minister is a habitual and shameless liar. That’s the thesis of my new book, The Assault on Truth. I provide abundant, carefully researched evidence and nobody has yet challenged so much as a dot or comma. Nothing like it has ever been written before about any serving British Prime Minister.
Yet there has not been a single review of it in the Murdoch press, Associated Newspapers or from the Telegraph Group. Since its publication on 4 February, it has also been ignored by mainstream broadcasters.
It’s not hard to guess why. The book demonstrates that the British print and broadcast media have been complicit in Boris Johnson’s serial dishonesty. They don’t just cover up the lies – I show in the book that they collaborate with Downing Street in pumping out Johnson’s smears, deceptions and falsehoods. They have been an essential part of his machinery of deception
I frequently get asked how the Prime Minister gets away with his lies and distortions. The answer lies not just with the media but with Parliament.
Before publication day, I sent a list of false and mislead- ing statements made by Boris Johnson and his Cabinet ministers on the floor of the House of Commons, along with a copy of the book, to parliamentary guardians of the integrity of British public life.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the Commons, professes to be a stickler for integrity and due process. There was nothing back from him.
Johnson is personally responsible for the Ministerial Code, which demands that “ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament”. I wasn’t expecting a letter – and haven’t got one.
Keir Starmer, as Leader of the Opposition, has a constitutional duty to hold the Government to account. From Starmer I received a short, non-committal handwritten acknowledgement.
Chris Bryant, chair of the Committee of Privileges, wrote back that the “Committee on Privileges cannot consider any matter other than one referred to it expressly by the House. This would require the permission of the Speaker – which I don’t think he is minded to give.”
The Speaker said that he looked forward to reading the book, but added: “I can’t comment on the nature of the content as I am required to remain politically impartial in my role of Speaker.” Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, is responsible for upholding the integrity of the Commons. There is nothing partial or impartial about upholding the truth. His failure to confront the falsehoods and misleading statements made by Johnson suggests that he doesn’t understand his job.
Ten years ago, a press officer in then Prime Minister David Cameron’s Downing Street called Gabby Bertin rang me about a film I was presenting for Channel 4 about No 10’s director of communications, Andy Coulson, and phone-hacking.
Our conversation was so startling that I sent a memo to the film’s executive producer, Richard Sanders. It read as follows: “Gabby said that the phone-hacking episode ‘has been investigated by every authority possible’. She said it was a dead story. ‘It is a non- sense’. She then said that she was ‘surprised’ I was presenting the programme. She said that Ben Brogan and Tony Gallagher both liked and get on well with Andy Coulson. Also that ‘Murdoch MacLennan absolutely adores Andy.’ She told me that I ought to ‘bear this in mind’. The clear and unmistakable inference from this was that I would upset my new employers at the Telegraph by making this programme.”
Murdoch MacLennan was then chief executive of the Telegraph, Tony Gallagher the editor, and Ben Brogan his deputy. I was a political columnist. Not long after the film went out, Coulson resigned and, a bit later, he went to prison.
I liked Gabby Bertin, who I think is a decent person. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t her idea to threaten me by citing my Telegraph bosses. But it is an irony that Boris Johnson has put her on the Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel, the remit of which includes the long-term future of Channel 4
Last month, I felt obliged to apologise to Byline Times’ Editor Hardeep Matharu after a last-minute re-write of an item on Boris Johnson and genocide. I had rung the Foreign Office to confirm that Johnson did not summon the Myanmar ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to protest against the Rohingya genocide in September 2017.
A press officer informed me he had. I challenged the department to provide evidence of this meeting. In due course – and too late for last month’s edition – a spokesman said the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had made an “inadvertent mistake” and there had been no summons.
The “inadvertent mistake” was convenient for a Prime Minister under pressure over trade deals with regimes which commit atrocities.
I will be returning to Johnson’s reluctance to confront genocidal regimes in future editions of Byline Times, and treating Foreign Office briefings with extra caution.
You can read Peter Oborne’s April Diary in the latest edition of the Byline Times
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