Anatomy of a Cover-UpHow Number 10 Killed the Times Story About Boris and Carrie Johnson
The Prime Minister succeeded in making The Times remove its story without a single legal threat, reports Adam Bienkov
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There’s an old saying, widely attributed to Otto von Bismark, which suggests that you should “never believe anything until it has been officially denied.”
Never has this advice been more worth following than during the Boris Johnson era.
For months, the Prime Minister and his official spokespeople repeatedly lied to journalists, by insisting that there were no parties in Downing Street during lockdown and that all rules were followed at all times.
These denials continued despite it later emerging that such events not only took place inside Downing Street, but among members of Johnson’s press office itself.
For this reason, it was particularly striking that the Prime Minister’s spokesman on Monday was unable to issue a similar denial about this weekend’s Times story, suggesting that Johnson had attempted to install Carrie as his chief of staff while he was Foreign Secretary and married to his second wife, Marina Wheeler.
Asked repeatedly by Byline Times to deny the story, Johnson’s spokesman refused to do so, saying only that “I don’t comment on what the Prime Minister did before he was Prime Minister.”
Of all the non-responses I’ve heard from Downing Street over the years, this is among the strangest. If the Prime Minister’s own official spokesman isn’t able to speak on behalf of the Prime Minister, then who is?
Posed with this question, Johnson’s spokesman insisted that the story had already been denied by a spokesperson for Carrie Johnson as well as “political” sources speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister.
Yet, whatever value we might place on anonymous Downing Street sources, or a statement by a privately-employed spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s wife, it does not carry anything like the weight of an on-the-record statement by his official spokesman.
Without that denial, and with multiple other publications now also independently verifying the central allegations made by The Times, it is overwhelmingly clear that the story is likely to be true.
Crucially, however, Johnson’s spokesman today admitted that Number 10 had contacted The Times about the story both before and after publication.
Despite seemingly not denying the story prior to publication, nor issuing any legal threats, Downing Street succeeded in getting The Times to pull it anyway.
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This fact has mystified some journalists at the paper, who believe there was a “high-level” intervention to quash the story, with some pointing the finger at the deputy editor Tony Gallagher.
Gallagher is close to Johnson – the latter working for the former when he was editor of the Telegraph. Gallagher was also famously pictured jogging with Johnson at the Conservative Party conference in 2017, while he was editor of the The Sun.
At the time, this photo call was seen as an endorsement of Johnson’s leadership prospects by Rupert Murdoch – who owns both The Times and The Sun – at the height of Theresa May’s difficulties as Prime Minister.
The question therefore hangs over this weekend’s developments: did Johnson leverage this relationship in order to get the story killed off?
We cannot know for sure. However, after the piece vanished from The Times, there was a lot of speculation online that the paper may have been scared into censoring the story by legal threats, or even a super-injunction.
Yet, after talking to sources inside Government, it is clear that this is not the case.
In some respects, the reality is actually far worse than the conspiracy theory. Rather than being scared-off by lawyers, or shadowy court orders, The Times seems to have merely folded to political pressure from Downing Street, without even putting up a fight.
Writing in 1944, George Orwell said that “the most extraordinary things about England is that there is almost no official censorship, and yet nothing that is actually offensive to the governing class gets into print,” before quoting the following epigram by Humbert Woolfe:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God! the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
Sadly, some 80 years later, this appears to be the best explanation for The Times agreeing to kill off their own story.