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‘Boris Johnson Completely Obliterated the Line Between Journalism and Politics’

Julian Petley explores how the outgoing Prime Minister embodies the triumph of the Conservative political-media nexus

Boris Johnson and Times Deputy Editor Tony Gallagher. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

Johnson Completely Obliterated the Line Between Journalism & Politics

Julian Petley explores how the outgoing Prime Minister embodies the triumph of the Conservative political-media nexus

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Even Boris Johnson’s severest critics cannot bring themselves to condemn utterly his particular brand of journalism. For example, in his excoriation of Johnson in The Assault on Truth, Peter Oborne rather surprisingly hails him as “by some margin the most brilliant political journalists of his generation, with a talent that at times crossed over the line to genius”.

Similarly, his former editor at the Telegraph, Max Hastings, in the course of a number of devastating critiques, has also praised him as “a magnificent journalist” in the Daily Mail in October 2012 and “a great journalist and entertainer” four years later. 

It’s also interesting that, according to Sonia Purnell in her book Just Boris, when Johnson was the Telegraph’s Brussels bureau chief in the early 1990s and churning out the ‘Euromyths’ that would launch his journalistic career, Hastings would regularly send him ‘herograms’ – congratulatory notes that Johnson would then paste up as a triumphal arch over his office doorway.

The Rat Pack

Oborne has even credited, albeit not in a remotely positive sense, Johnson’s Brussels myth-making as the invention of “a new form of journalism” and “a new school of reporting”, arguing that he “reinvented political language and discourse”. Given the rat pack quality of much of the British press, these myths soon came to dominate all Tory papers.

However, given their anti-EU stance – which became far more pronounced during and after Jacques Delors’ presidency of the European Commission – if Johnson had not invented the template, then other journalists would most certainly have done so. Indeed, many people still (wrongly) credit the Sun as their progenitor.

Oborne also claims that “at the heart of his reporting work was a repudiation of the ethics that until then had defined journalist values at Westminster: fairness, accuracy, scruple, scepticism, fact-checking”.

He is certainly correct that Johnson’s Brussels journalism abandoned normal journalistic ethics, but these had been long absent from significant sections of Fleet Street (even if practised by certain honourable individual journalists on right-wing papers, notably including Oborne himself). 

The Myth Makers

Johnson’s stories were simply the latest iteration of a kind of journalism that has a long and dishonourable history in sections of the UK national press – namely myth-making.

For example, in the previous decade, these self-same papers had concocted vast numbers of equally lurid myths about ‘loony left’ London councils banning numerous practices – such as schoolchildren singing ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ – on the grounds that they were allegedly racist. All of these turned out, on investigation, to be either wildly distorted or indeed wholly false – as I demonstrate in my chapter on such myths in Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left

Long before this assault on the urban left, which can now clearly be seen as prefiguring the current press war on ‘woke’ and the ‘liberal elite’, such papers had used this weapon against striking workers, immigrants, ‘scroungers’, travellers and all the other targets on their long list of hate groups.  

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It’s the Way He Tells ‘Em

As far as Boris Johnson’s journalistic style is concerned, he had begun to hone this on the Telegraph even before he went to Brussels.

Purnell notes his use of “gloriously old-fashioned phrases, words and humour” and his seasoning of his copy with “the odd Wodehousian “crumbs” or “cripes” tailored nicely to go with the bumbling persona he was busy perfecting for public consumption”.

As Matthew Flinders points out in his contribution to the Hansard Society volume ‘Britain Votes: the 2019 General Election’, Johnson’s words resonate not because of their content but because his “carefully contrived appearance” was “endearing” to large sections of the public. The critics who “dismiss him as a buffoon” only “heighten his visibility and populist appeal”.

And, of course, crucial to this populist appeal was the whole pantomime of the carefully crafted ‘Boris’ schtick which he confected whilst at Eton and performed with aplomb at Oxford and ever afterwards.  

This isn’t the watchdog that didn’t bark – this is the watchdog that let the burglar in, helped him ransack the house, and held the owner at bay whilst he did so

Given the benefits of a classical education in which Johnson would certainly have studied rhetoric, none of the stylistic tricks which he employs in his journalism is that difficult to master – especially as he has an entirely cavalier attitude to the truth and will say anything that sounds good and helps to establish a rapport with his readers.  

Furthermore, he would have been perfectly well aware that his Brussels stories were highly marketable, and thus career-enhancing and financially rewarding. This is because, for reasons both ideological and economic, they would be catnip to the kind of newspapers whose idea of journalism, and particularly op-ed pieces, is simply to tell their readers what their editors and proprietors think that they want to hear and to confirm them in their prejudices. 

‘Only the Winning’

The available evidence suggests that, in his Brussels days, Johnson’s ambitions, vaulting though they were, did not actually extend much beyond the journalistic sphere. He does not appear to have been an EU hater in the Bruges Group mould, and, if anything, his sympathies seem to have leaned in the opposite direction.

But as Sonia Purnell, who worked with Johnson in Brussels (an experience she describes as “joyless’ and a “trial of endurance”), recalled in the Guardian in July 2019 that was the only the “winning, the exercising of supremacy over others, that really mattered”.

Purnell points out that “Johnson never seemed really to believe what he was writing or saying. His motivation seemed solely to boost his own fame and fortune, having identified a lucrative ‘gap in the market’”.

As anti-EU sentiment intensified in the Tory party, Johnson’s reporting of EU matters, now from London rather than Brussels, and for the Spectator as well as the Telegraph, came to focus less on trivia such as alleged threats to the ‘British banger’ and more on the apparent peril to national sovereignty posed by EU membership. 

By 2011, the year of the Euro crisis brought on by the indebtedness of countries such as Greece, Spain, and Italy, by which time he was mayor of London, Johnson was, as Purnell puts it, “swiftly launching himself as [the Eurosceptics’] obvious chief, the natural-born king of the Conservative Party’s Right-wing, once again in the ascendant”. 

The question of whether his journalism on this subject reflected a principled position or was simply the result of political opportunism and overweening ambition remains an open one – particularly in light of the two pieces that he wrote for the Telegraph during the Referendum campaign in 2016, one urging readers to vote Remain, the other Leave. 

In the end, the latter was published, but such is Johnson’s hollowness that it is quite possible that each represented his views equally accurately, that is, at the moment of writing.

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The Nexus of the Conservative Political-Media Class

But then this glaring example of all that is worst in British journalism eventually went on to become Prime Minister in 2019, coming to exemplify all that is worst in British, and especially English, politics. Johnson’s approaches to journalism and politics are identical, and equally contemptuous and destructive of decent standards in each.

As Nick Cohen pointed out in the Observer in July 2022, his modus operandi in both fields was to “show with a dramatic pose that strokes the prejudices of your readers”. It doesn’t matter if lies abound and promises are impractical, “when the complaints come in, shift the blame by branding your critics as bores at best and the mouthpieces of special interests at worst”.

Even whilst serving as MP for Henley, followed by London mayor and then MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Johnson carried on writing for Tory newspapers and the Spectator. He completely obliterated the conventional line between journalism and politics in a manner which would be unthinkable in most Western press cultures. 

Once he became Prime Minister, the symbiotic relationship between the Tory press and the right-wing of the Tory Party became so inextricably intertwined as to constitute an entirely self-contained, self-reinforcing nexus.

The term ‘client press’ doesn’t even begin to describe the support that Johnson has received from the Telegraph, Sun, Mail, and Express, and the reciprocal favours that he has bestowed on them, both en route to Number Ten and during his occupancy of it. As Cohen claims “they were an active and willing arm of the Johnsonian state… a privatised propaganda service complete with cheerleaders, excuse-makers, bullies and spies”.

It is already abundantly clear that they were key players in propagating the ‘betrayal’ and ‘stab in the back’ narrative that Johnson so assiduously concocted after his resignation in July.

When a politician who cares little or nothing for the truth becomes Prime Minister there is a particularly urgent need for a press that is prepared, at every turn, to expose his lies and evasions, as well as those of his Government.

Tragically for our democracy, however, significant sections of our press have played an absolutely crucial role in paving this charlatan’s path to power and then doing their utmost to try to keep him there in the face of all the evidence that he is utterly unfit for the job. 

This isn’t the watchdog that didn’t bark – this is the watchdog that let the burglar in, helped him ransack the house, and held the owner at bay whilst he did so.   

This is an extract from Boris Johnson: ‘Media Creation, Media Clown, Media Casualty’, edited by John Mair, and published by Mair Golden Moments

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