The Media Today

Journalism and the limits of Boris Johnson

July 8, 2022
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to media next to 10 Downing Street in London, Thursday, July 7, 2022. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has agreed to resign, his office said Thursday, ending an unprecedented political crisis over his future that has paralyzed Britain's government. An official in Johnson's Downing Street office confirmed the prime minister would announce his resignation later. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not yet been made. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

“The whole thing is unbelievable. As I write these words, Boris Johnson is still holed up in Downing Street. He is like some illegal settler in the Sinai desert, lashing himself to the radiator, or like David Brent haunting The Office in that excruciating episode when he refuses to acknowledge that he has been sacked. Isn’t there someone—the Queen’s Private Secretary, the nice policeman on the door of No. 10—whose job it is to tell him that the game is up?”

Actually, the words “Boris Johnson” didn’t appear in the above paragraph—it was Boris Johnson who wrote it for the Telegraph, a right-wing newspaper where he had long worked as a journalist, back in 2010, and the subject of his derision was Gordon Brown, then the Labour Party leader and British prime minister. As several observers have pointed out, however, substitute Johnson’s name for Brown’s, as I just did, and you get a pitch-perfect encapsulation of the past few days in British politics: Johnson’s Conservative Party finally, decisively soured on his leadership after months of unrelenting scandal, and Johnson, Brent-like, refused to budge. Whatever Donald Trump did when he was president, there was always an old tweet of his exposing him as a hypocrite. For Johnson, there’s always a newspaper column. Who said print is dead?

Related: Boris Johnson and the limits of journalism

When I last wrote about Johnson in this newsletter, a whole two weeks ago, the scandal that would finally prove one too many was not yet a glint in a tabloid reporter’s eye. Late last Thursday, Noa Hoffman, a young political reporter in her first week on the job at The Sun, a right-wing tabloid that has often defended Johnson, reported that Chris Pincher—who, as a senior whip in Johnson’s administration, was responsible for overseeing the discipline and welfare of his colleagues—had inappropriately touched two men the night before. Pincher quit as a whip but was allowed to stay on as a Conservative lawmaker because, Hoffman reported, his superiors felt he had “done the right thing” by owning up to his misconduct.

But this would not be the end of the matter. Over the weekend, no fewer than six national newspapers collectively reported no fewer than thirteen allegations about Pincher’s conduct going back, in some cases, ten years—and no fewer than four outlets reported that Johnson knew of at least some of the allegations prior to promoting Pincher, with the Mail on Sunday quoting Johnson as calling him “Pincher by name, Pincher by nature” back in 2020. Spokespeople for Johnson told reporters that Johnson had not been aware of “any” allegations against Pincher, then clarified that Johnson had not been aware of any “specific” allegations, then clarified that he had not been aware of any specific allegations that rose to the level of a “formal complaint,” then clarified that Johnson had been aware of a formal complaint but that it hadn’t been dealt with as a “disciplinary matter.” Meanwhile, ministers in Johnson’s government went on TV and radio to sell these shifting lines to skeptical interviewers, and squirmed.

Then, on Tuesday night, the dam burst. Sajid Javid, Johnson’s health minister, and Rishi Sunak, his finance minister, quit in quick succession, sparking a media frenzy and a drip-drip of further resignations among more junior colleagues. On Wednesday, as reports circulated that other senior ministers were headed to Downing Street to tell Johnson that his time was up, Johnson appeared at a surreal televised hearing of a parliamentary committee during which he acted as if everything was normal. As the hearing dragged on, Sky News added a ticker in the corner of the screen tracking resignations from Johnson’s cabinet in real time. Later, on their evening newscasts, different networks deployed imaginative graphics to show who had quit; one BBC show scrolled through all the names against a black background under a haunting acoustic cover of “Bittersweet Symphony,” like an Oscars tribute to the recently departed. Yesterday morning, with Johnson still holed up in Downing Street, a talk show on ITV deputized a psychic pig to predict whether Johnson would resign. The pig indicated that he would.

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The pig was right. While it was snuffling around, Nadhim Zahawi—whom Johnson had named as finance minister less than two days earlier, after Sunak quit—publicly called on Johnson to go, while Michelle Donelan, who had replaced Zahawi as education minister at the same time, resigned, becoming (I think) the fifty-fourth member of Johnson’s team to have done so since Tuesday. Various outlets reported that Johnson now knew he couldn’t continue; a few hours later, he appeared at a lectern in Downing Street and confirmed as much. He offered no contrition, suggesting instead that his colleagues should have stayed loyal and defended him against the media’s “relentless sledging.” The journalists massed before him apparently struggled to hear what he was saying over the baying of a crowd outside the gates, and so watched his speech on their phones. Incredibly, the Will he go? news cycle still wasn’t over. Johnson said that he intends to stay on as prime minister in an interim capacity while his party picks a successor. Many of his colleagues want him gone now.

In 2019, with Johnson on the cusp of entering Downing Street, I profiled him for CJR in a piece, headlined “Boris Johnson and the limits of journalism,” that focused on his long career in media and how it had—and hadn’t—set him up well for the prime ministership. Johnson was fired from his first job in journalism, at The Times of London, after he falsely quoted his godfather, a prominent history professor, as having placed a historical figure in a palace that had been built long after the figure had been beheaded. (There’s always a metaphor.) Johnson nonetheless landed quickly at the Telegraph—“We weren’t rigorously serious journalists in the American tradition,” a then-colleague of Johnson’s told me—where he wrote editorials before being sent to cover the European Union in Brussels, from where he filed legendarily exaggerated stories about dictatorial regulations on everything from lawnmower noise to condoms. He also worked for the conservative magazine The Spectator, rising to editor and writing a car column that contained gross sexual innuendo. Seemingly, he did not actually drive many of the cars he reviewed.

Despite—or, likely, because of—his economical relationship with the truth, Johnson has always failed upward, in politics as in journalism. In the end, though, it was this lack of integrity, more than any single scandal, that would cause his downfall. (Or, as The Economist put it yesterday, “clownfall.”) “Partygate,” the moniker given to a recent series of stories about Johnson and his staff carousing in their offices while the rest of the country observed strict covid lockdowns, cut through with news consumers because it stank of hypocrisy at a time of grave national sacrifice—but the scandal ended up running longer and cutting deeper than it might have done due to Johnson’s initial insistence that nothing untoward had happened. In the end, the resignations that finally forced Johnson out were triggered, in no small part, by his ministers’ anger at being made to look foolish on TV on Johnson’s behalf; speaking in Parliament, Javid said that he’d repeatedly given Johnson “the benefit of the doubt” and carried the media can on his behalf, but that, at some point, “enough is enough.” When you reach the top, ultimately, you can no longer fail upward. We will soon, it seems likely, be subjected again to Johnson’s columns.

Returning to a question I posed in 2019, was journalism too limited a springboard for Johnson to be a successful prime minister? I’ve argued more recently that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with journalists going into politics—and Johnson’s faults in office have, in the end, more closely mirrored his personal limitations as a journalist than anything inherent to the craft. As a media personality, Johnson seemed to relish the fickle, often highly personal cut and thrust of the British newspaper scene; recently, his erstwhile peers (if not all of them) decided it was his turn to be cut, and thrust out. (“The herd instinct is powerful,” Johnson said yesterday, referring primarily, though perhaps not exclusively, to his colleagues. “When the herd moves, it moves.”) As a columnist, Johnson often put the world to rights in broad strokes, without ever betraying the sense that he had mastered the mass of detail beneath the tip of the iceberg. In recent weeks, he has insisted that he should be left alone to get on with the serious business of governing. But his words smacked of slogans in search of a project.

In the eyes of the press, Johnson has existed, above all, as an avatar, reliably larger than real life. This hasn’t just been the case in the UK, but internationally; not least in the US, where the comparison to Donald Trump—aesthetically, but also in terms of their hard-edged right-wing agendas—has often been too tempting for journalists and pundits to resist. Yesterday was no exception. Breezily conflating the political climates of three very different countries, Mika Brzezinski declared, on Morning Joe, that “with Johnson’s collapse, Trump’s post-election woes are accelerating by the day—and, with Marine Le Pen’s crushing defeat in France, the rise of right-wing populism in the West may soon be limited to the confines of cable-news hosts and a dwindling number of dimwitted representatives in Congress.” Joe Scarborough, Brzezinski’s cohost, then questioned whether Johnson really intends to leave office at all; might he not channel a Trumpian refusal to accept reality? Various British pundits asked the same question, even though prime ministers staying on until a successor has been picked is a routine tradition.

We have, of course, been burned before by Johnson, and there are some legitimate parallels between his and Trump’s respective politics and political styles. Both are thoroughly shameless. But media comparisons between the two have often been lazy and overblown. Johnson, as I see it, is not liable—or even able—to conjure an armed mob to the gates of Parliament to save his hide, and, even if he were to try more peaceably to un-resign, the institutional incentives of the British system make his party all but certain to laugh him out of the room. As well as a journalist, Johnson has long been a (limited, again) historian, peppering his rhetoric with references to figures of antiquity and writing books about ancient Rome and Churchill, his hero. Trump’s role in the sacking of a modern Capitol will, I suspect, echo through the ages. Johnson’s role in securing Brexit might, too, as might his personal rascalry. It seems unlikely to me, though, that much else that Johnson substantively did with high office—that none of his peers could or would have done—will stand the test of long-term memory. Unlike President Trump, Prime Minister Boris Johnson might go down, in the annals of history, in the way that would surely wound him most: as a relative nonentity.

Yesterday, as suspicion started to spread as to Johnson’s true motives for staying in office for a few more weeks, the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar, the journalist who cracked open the Partygate scandal late last year, reported that Johnson is hanging around, in part, so that he can throw a lavish delayed wedding party at the prime minister’s official country mansion later this month. A spokesperson for Johnson denied the story, but this morning, James Cleverly, Britain’s third education minister in as many days, said that the wedding event should be allowed to go ahead, as it would be “churlish” to make Johnson change his plans. Shortly afterward, Downing Street sources briefed the press that the party would be moved to another location.

Below, more on Boris Johnson:

  • The runners and riders: The race to succeed Johnson is now on among Conservative lawmakers. There’s no clear front-runner, though Ben Wallace, Johnson’s defense minister; Liz Truss, the foreign minister; and Javid all seem likely to be strong candidates. The field, this time, is relatively light on former reporters, though Tom Tugendhat, a backbench lawmaker and parliamentary committee chair who has already thrown his hat into the ring, once worked as a journalist in the Middle East. The contenders’ colleagues will whittle the field down to a final two, with Conservative Party members having the final say (unless one of the final two drops out and the other is crowned without a membership vote).
  • Mail privilege: While most newspaper front pages this morning were scathing of Johnson—even the Telegraph led with the risk of his “long goodbye” causing “paralysis”—the Mail, a right-wing tabloid that has strongly backed Johnson in recent weeks, decried his departure, asking, of Johnson’s colleagues, “WHAT THE HELL HAVE THEY DONE?” According to The Guardian’s Jane Martinson, even Mail insiders have questioned the paper’s steadfast support for Johnson given its traditional embrace of conservative moral values. Earlier this year, after Johnson was accused of breaking covid rules, the Mail ran seven front pages in a row claiming that Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, had done the same. Starmer was subsequently investigated by the police over the story. This morning, he was exonerated.
  • Meanwhile, Stateside: After Johnson said yesterday that he will resign, President Biden put out a statement that did not mention him at all, stating only that he looked forward to “continuing our close cooperation” with the British government. Elsewhere in the US, Ben Wallace, the former NBA star, responded to the news that Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense minister, could succeed Johnson by tweeting an image of himself standing in front of Parliament. And NY1 went for the local angle, writing in a chyron, “NEW YORKER STEPPING DOWN AS UK PM.” (Johnson was born in New York.)

Other notable stories:

  • Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister of Japan, has died after being shot during a campaign event in Nara, a city in the western part of the country. A reporter for NHK World-Japan “​​was covering the campaign event where Abe had just begun speaking,” according to a story posted to the site. “Shortly before noon, she heard two gunshots before Abe fell to the ground.” Several people, including reporters, have noted the comparative rarity of gun violence in Japan compared to America. “You never hear about gun violence here,” one person told the New York Times. “On TV, you hear about it all the time in the U.S. but not here.” A suspect is in custody; the story is still developing.
  • On June 23, the day before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the White House emailed the office of Andy Beshear, the Democratic governor of Kentucky, to confirm President Biden’s intention to appoint Chad Meredith, who opposes abortion, to a lifetime position as a federal judge in the state. The Louisville Courier-Journal quickly tried to obtain the email under a state open-records law; officials refused, describing the requested document as “preliminary” and therefore exempted from disclosure, but this week reversed course, handing over the email while Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, was deflecting questions about Meredith at a briefing. Beshear has not explained the records U-turn, but has criticized Meredith’s planned nomination.
  • Semafor, the soon-to-launch news startup from Ben Smith and Justin Smith, held its first event yesterday, focused on polarization and trust in news. The event featured some “interesting stuff said about trust, objectivity, profit models, and social media policies,” Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire writes, but was somewhat overshadowed by criticism of Ben Smith’s decision to interview Tucker Carlson, who beamed in from his closet to deny that he’s a racist. “To those who said the invite was to build pre-launch buzz for Semafor…well, I’m writing about the fiasco now, so congratulations,” Scire wrote. If discussing the future of news was “the actual benchmark, Carlson’s presence was a miserable failure.”
  • Neal Rothschild, of Axios, is joining Semafor as head of audience. In other media-jobs news, Bloomberg’s David Shipley will be editorial page editor at the Post, succeeding Fred Hiatt, who died last year. CNN’s Kaitlan Collins was elected to lead the White House Correspondents’ Association in its 2024–25 term. Justin Ray, formerly of CJR, is joining Grid from the LA Times. Katherine Miller, formerly of BuzzFeed, is joining the Times opinion section. And Samantha Henig, who has been serving as BuzzFeed’s interim top editor, is moving into the ice cream business. Gawker had the, erm, scoop.
  • The Center for Investigative Reporting, which makes the popular public radio show Reveal, is laying off ten staffers, Current’s Tyler Falk reports. Kevin Sullivan, Reveal’s executive producer, has also left the organization. Kaizar Campwala, the CEO of the Center for Investigative Reporting, told staff that the organization is grappling with a projected shortfall in revenue, and has had to look for new sources of funding after leaning on loans from federal coronavirus relief funds over the past two years.
  • The Grade’s Alexander Russo profiled Anya Kamenetz, an education reporter at NPR whose work during the pandemic, Russo writes, “regularly focused on kids and families” and was “always cognizant of in-person school’s many functions beyond academics or potential covid transmission.” Education reporters, Kamenetz said, generally didn’t “talk loudly enough and in enough detail” about the harm school shutdowns did to kids.
  • Apple said that it will introduce a “Lockdown Mode” for its devices aimed at combating sophisticated hacking tools such as Pegasus, which have been used to target journalists, politicians, and activists in various countries and have been known to infiltrate phones without targets having to click or download anything. Reuters has more.
  • And Maureen Dowd, of the Times, spoke with Ken Auletta, of The New Yorker, about his new biography of Harvey Weinstein. Auletta said that while he “wants to punch” Weinstein, he is not “the worst human being I’ve ever met.” That would be Roy Cohn.

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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.