The Media Today

Boris Johnson, Britain’s journalist prime minister

July 23, 2019

It’s official. Sort of. Almost exactly two months after Theresa May announced her intention to step down as Britain’s prime minister, her governing Conservative Party announced that Boris Johnson will replace her. Johnson’s ascension has long been likely; last month, media reports of a blazing late-night row with his partner briefly threatened to knock him off course, but that story died down, and since then his victory has looked all but inevitable. About an hour ago, a Conservative official revealed that two-thirds of party members—who, in Britain, pick the prime minister when their party is in power—voted for Johnson. Finally, he had won. He pumped the hand of his leadership rival, Jeremy Hunt, then took to the stage to deliver a short and—for Boris Johnson, at least—serious speech. He will formally become prime minister tomorrow.

The race to succeed May has not been especially suspenseful, but it has been long. Journalists—in the UK and overseas—have used the time to scour Johnson’s past for clues as to who he is, and how he might govern. The New Yorker’s Sam Knight synthesized existing biographies of Johnson; for The New York Review of Books, Fintan O’Toole combed through Johnson’s own writings, both fictional and (supposedly) not. Writing for CJR last month, I did a little of both, and also spoke with colleagues of Johnson from his days as a journalist for conservative newspapers and magazines in the UK. Because he was a journalist, Johnson left inquisitors a rich thought record to work through. And yet, for all that has been written by and about him, Johnson remains an enigma. His columns often lurch between contradictory views. Those who worked with Johnson have holes in their notions of who he is.

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That might be about to change. “In Downing Street, there is no hiding place,” the BBC’s Norman Smith said on air this morning, ahead of Johnson’s coronation. “We are going to find out, one way or the other, who Boris Johnson really is.” As Tom McTague wrote in an insightful, long essay for The Atlantic, Johnson is about to enter a world “where the cold realities of global power—economic, diplomatic, and military—dominate; where a misjudged joke can spark a diplomatic crisis, and a botched decision made in an ill-prepared rush can cost people their life.” Coverage of Johnson, too, is about to see a shift. The recent rush of profiles and think pieces has been useful, and colorful, in framing the choice facing Britain’s ruling party. Now that the choice has been made, the hard reality of Brexit—and how Johnson responds to it—will come decisively to the fore in the press.

In liberal international media, skepticism of Johnson abounds already. Prior to today’s announcement, Johnson faced tough headlines on American homepages. The New York Times, in its opinion section, splashes the headline, “Boris Johnson Is How Britain Ends”; The Washington Post, in an analysis, reckons that “Boris Johnson’s rise could be a preamble to his fall.” Johnson’s chief talent, “if one can call it that, is to make lies sound amusing,” The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin writes. Neither are Britain’s (probably) soon-to-be-divorced European neighbors impressed. “Britain’s fate may rest on Boris Johnson’s ability to polish poo,” O’Toole writes in The Irish Times, the “poo” being the thrice-scrapped Brexit deal that May secured from the European Union. In Der Spiegel, Jörg Schindler fears that Johnson “stands for the profanation and infantilization of politics.” It’s not just the liberal commentariat Johnson should be worried about. International news stories warn of coming “turbulence”: most immediately, he faces a “divided and weakened” Conservative party, and a currency in decline.

In the UK, where the boundary between news and opinion is more porous, many outlets have already made up their minds about Johnson. Liberal outlets loathe him, and that’s unlikely to change. Publications on the right, by contrast, have thrown in their lot with him. It helps that Johnson used to work for some of them: until this week, the conservative Daily Telegraph paid Johnson handsomely for a weekly column. Even among his cheerleaders, however, Johnson will have to tread carefully going forward. Last week, at a campaign event, Johnson brandished a plastic-wrapped fish to illustrate a claim about unduly onerous packaging rules imposed by Europe. But the rules in question are British. A reporter from the Telegraph was among those to call him out; “Boris got it wrong,” he tweeted. A word beginning with “L” also comes to mind.

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The fish lie conjured Johnson’s days in journalism: in the 1990s, as the Telegraph’s EU correspondent, he routinely wrote sensationalized, inaccurate stories about devilish European bureaucracy. Indeed, in many ways, Johnson never stopped being a journalist. In his final Telegraph column on Sunday, he compared the challenges of Brexit to the moon landing 50 years ago. The comparison made no sense, earthly or otherwise: it was a classically Johnsonian assertion that “can do” spirit is enough to surmount technical difficulty.

Going forward, the press should not tolerate such empty rhetoric: hopefully, Johnson will be judged on the substance of what he does. “As a columnist, he’s always been great. But those are quite similar skills to being a campaigner,” Sonia Purnell, Johnson’s biographer, told me. “He’s a total genius at that… But actually doing the job of being a politician is something different.”

Below, more on Boris Johnson and British politics:

  • Only the beginning: The fallout from Johnson’s victory is just getting started. Some government ministers have already quit in anticipation of Johnson taking the reins; more departures are expected today and early tomorrow. The BBC live blog has updates here. For a US perspective on Johnson, listen to yesterday’s episode of The New York Times’s Daily podcast.
  • A murky leak: Two weeks ago, Johnson was accused of cowardice after he refused to publicly support Sir Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador to the US whose searing cables about the Trump administration had just been leaked to The Mail on Sunday. Darroch resigned his post. Over the weekend, the story of how the Mail came by the cables—already weird—got even weirder: Steven Edginton, a 19-year-old staffer for Trump pal Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, wrote that he had obtained the cables, but left his name off the resulting story to avoid “possible controversy.” Confused? The Guardian has an explainer.
  • Scruton scrutiny: In April, May’s government sacked Roger Scruton, a conservative philosopher, as an adviser following an interview in The New Statesman, a progressive magazine, in which Scruton was quoted denigrating George Soros and undermining the concept of Islamophobia. Scruton claimed his words had been taken out of context. Now May, in one of her final acts as prime minister, has given Scruton his job back.

Other notable stories:

  • Two weeks after it began, the political crisis in Puerto Rico is finally a huge story across US media. Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of protesters shut down San Juan to demand the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló, whose derogatory messages in a private chat group were published by the island’s leading investigative newsroom. Yesterday, Rosselló granted an interview to Fox News. If he hoped for an easy ride, then he did not get one. Shep Smith grilled Rosselló about corruption in Puerto Rico; at one point, Smith asked, “Who’s left to support you?” Rosselló named the San Sebastián mayor, Javier Jiménez. Afterward, Jiménez told CBS that he does not support Rosselló.
  • For The New Yorker, Jane Mayer reassessed the sexual-harassment allegations that led to Al Franken’s resignation from the US Senate in 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement; “Almost NOTHING His Main Accuser Said checks out,” Mayer tweeted. The article sparked (or re-sparked) a debate: some praised its reflections on due process; others complained that Mayer downplayed seven other claims against Franken. “No matter what you think of Franken… the depth of reporting here underscores how uniquely ill-equipped the daily political news cycle is to litigate complicated or sensitive matters/anything requiring nuance,” the Post’s Wesley Lowery tweeted.
  • Recently, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion for user-privacy breaches; the settlement was an FTC record, but critics still called it inadequate given Facebook’s huge turnover. Now the Post’s Tony Romm reports that the agency backed away from a much bigger fine and dropped its demand that Mark Zuckerberg be personally penalized after Facebook pushed back. The episode highlights the gulf in resources between the FTC and the tech giants it regulates; per Politico’s Nancy Scola and Margaret Harding McGill, politicians in both parties want to reassign parts of its mandate.
  • As a correspondent for One America News Network, a Trump-loving news organization that Trump loves back, Kristian Brunovich Rouz has pushed conspiratorial claims about Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and the purported war crimes of aid workers in Syria. Unbeknownst to OANN viewers, Rouz holds down a second job: he’s also a paid writer for Sputnik, a Kremlin–funded outlet. The Daily Beast’s Kevin Poulsen has more.
  • Motherboard’s Caroline Haskins obtained internal New York Police Department guidelines instructing the officers in charge of its social-media presence to “be funny” online. “Maximizing shares and engagement is recommended per NYPD policy,” Haskins writes. “Examples of funny tweets… include using a lot of emojis, making jokes about recent raids and arrests, and making joke-infused warnings about possible crimes.”
  • Newsletters tend to be readable in one sitting. That’s not the case with Air Mail, the new offering from Graydon Carter, which launched over the weekend, and which included more than 20 separate articles as well as art in its first installment. That, Slate’s Ruth Graham writes, is “a lot. This is not a breezy note from an erstwhile editor loosed from the constrictions of the print magazine world. It’s a fat glossy magazine folded awkwardly and crammed into your inbox.”
  • The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which broke open the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers, is out with “Mauritius Leaks”—a new project, based on data mailed anonymously to the organization, that details how businesses and investors, including Bob Geldof, route money through the tiny Indian Ocean country to avoid taxes.
  • And Marty Baron, editor of the Post, spoke publicly about his future yesterday amid speculation among his staff that he plans to quit after the 2020 election. Baron told Politico’s Michael Calderone that he’s “definitely staying” through 2020, but has “made no decision beyond that.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.