The Media Today

What Boris Johnson did next

July 11, 2023
Photo by Chatham House via Flickr.

Last week, Boris Johnson, the former British prime minister, appeared on One Decision, a podcast hosted by Julia Macfarlane, a journalist, and Richard Dearlove, the former head of the British intelligence service MI6. It was, the title claimed, Johnson’s first ever podcast interview. But Joe Rogan, this was not. Johnson and his hosts talked principally, and with a sobriety that runs counter to his reputation, about the war in Ukraine and Johnson’s work—both in and since leaving office—to bolster the Ukrainian cause, including in a recent meeting with Donald Trump.

Perhaps the most telling exchange of the interview, however, didn’t make the final cut of One Decision but instead aired on The News Agents, a popular new podcast hosted by three high-profile former BBC journalists. As their interview drew to a close, Macfarlane pressed Johnson on his downfall as prime minister, which was sealed a year ago last Friday after his ministers resigned en masse following a series of scandals. When Macfarlane asked Johnson whether he wished that he’d listened more to his colleagues, he rolled his eyes, looked over at Dearlove, smirked, then pretended to fall asleep. Macfarlane told The News Agents that Johnson subsequently grew defensive, then left the studio.

If this was a rare on-the-record interview in which a reporter was able to press Johnson on his legacy, that’s not because he’s otherwise departed the political and media stage. He formally left office last September, following a lame-duck period while his successor was anointed, and he has rarely been out of the news since. Last month, a committee in Britain’s Parliament ruled that he had repeatedly misled the chamber about lockdown-busting parties during the pandemic and recommended that he be suspended from Parliament; in response, Johnson, who had remained a lawmaker to that point, decided to quit, but not before calling himself the victim of a “witch hunt.” His departure also came at an inflection point in a long-running controversy around honors that he awarded (or tried to award) to political allies and others—including his father and a parliamentary hairdresser—on his way out as prime minister. Last week, a court ruled that the government must hand over a cache of Johnson’s unredacted documents and texts to the nascent official inquiry established to investigate Britain’s handling of the pandemic—a step that, perhaps surprisingly given that he was in charge at the time, Johnson supported.

Journalists have often compared Johnson to Trump, and his outsize visibility since leaving office would seem to reinforce the parallel. But the pair have always been quite different, and the same is true of their post-power media trajectories. Johnson, like Trump, does appear to nurture hopes of a political comeback. But as the One Decision interview—the foreign-affairs part of it, at least—showed, he is styling himself, too, as an elder statesman. And he is also returning to his journalistic roots, positioning himself, once again, as a media personality in his own right. (Among other things, Semafor reported over the weekend that Johnson, long one to sprinkle his speech with references to antiquity, is pitching “a new podcast on the classics.”)

I say “returning,” but Johnson’s dual role as media subject and practitioner was ever thus. In 2019, with Johnson on the cusp of becoming prime minister, I wrote for CJR about his past life as a reporter and columnist and concluded that “Boris Johnson the writer is Boris Johnson the public figure: a spinner of irresistible but often flimsy stories that have but one aim—the furtherment of Boris Johnson.” That hasn’t changed. Whether the same can be said of his target audience, however, is a different story.

No sooner had Johnson quit as prime minister than
speculation swelled about his return to a media perch. The Telegraph—the right-wing newspaper for which Johnson wrote a weekly column right up to the moment he became prime minister (for a lavish salary he once dismissed as “chicken feed”)—seemed an obvious destination, but the paper seemed to have soured somewhat on its former staffer and has more recently endured a period of ownership tumult. After Johnson met with Chris Licht, the then chief executive of CNN, on a trip to the US, one rumor held that they may have discussed a possible hosting gig, but the idea always seemed outlandish and Licht has since been ousted.

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Then, last month, the Mail—a different right-wing newspaper whose coverage of Johnson has at times bordered on the obsequioussplashed a teaser at the top of its front page trailing an “erudite new columnist who’ll be required reading in Westminster—and across the world!” The teaser was illustrated with a photo of Johnson; it was silhouetted, but instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever seen Johnson’s hair. Only after reports of his new gig circulated did Johnson approach the independent official body that regulates former ministers’ outside jobs, timing that the body said constituted a “clear and unambiguous” breach of its rules. Half an hour later, Johnson’s move to the Mail was confirmed. “It’s gonna be completely unexpurgated stuff,” he said in a launch video, between action shots showing him running and (literally) bulldozing through a wall, though he added that he would only cover politics if “I absolutely have to.” 

Initially, Johnson kept his word (sort of): in his first two columns, he wrote about the weight-loss drug Ozempic and the Titan submersible disaster, whose passengers, Johnson wrote, “died in a cause—pushing out the frontiers of human knowledge and experience—that is typically British, and that fills me with pride.” By column three, however, Johnson was back squarely to talking shop, with a defense of his administration’s policy of sending some asylum-seekers to Rwanda after a court struck it down. Most recently, Johnson blasted the mayor of London for extending a low-emissions vehicles charge. I’m sure you can guess which London mayor introduced the charge in the first place. 

Having consumed an unhealthy number of Johnson’s old Telegraph columns for my 2019 profile, I’ve been struck, reading his new work, by how similar it has been. The classical references are still there—“Let me have men about me that are fat,” he quotes Julius Caesar as saying, in the Ozempic column, “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look”—as is the florid vocabulary (“dewlap,” “satiety,” “akrasia,” “mulct”). The first two columns, at least, were typically Johnsonian paeans to scientific and technological progress with the occasional lashing of free-market libertarianism—picking up where he left off in 2019, when he invoked the “‘can do’ spirit” of the moon landing as a Brexit call to arms in his final column before taking office. 

I’ve also been struck, now as then, by the winking ambiguity of his work. At least, I was initially. His first two Mail columns appeared to offer Greek-tragedy style metaphors for his own political shortcomings: Ozempic was going to make him “an ex-glutton, a person of moderation and grace and restraint” until it failed to work for him; the Titan passengers were heroes, but also, in a sense, victims of their own hubris. Reading on, though—through the dull defense of his prime-ministerial record and shameless break with his mayoral one—I wondered if perhaps Johnson wasn’t that deep. Maybe his copy—which, I wrote in 2019, could induce political whiplash—isn’t designed to keep his readers on their toes while only hinting at his true priorities. Maybe it’s just guff, filed on deadline. 

This, at least, is how many critics of Johnson have received his new column. According to the New European, a liberal newspaper, even one Mail executive expressed buyer’s remorse after the first installment came out. “The mistake we made was in giving Johnson the right to choose his subject,” they said. “His inaugural column made an embarrassing nonsense of how we’d built him up as a columnist who would be ‘required reading in Westminster and across the world.’ He ended up giving dietary advice.”

A long-standing British media cliché holds that Johnson always lands on his feet, be it in journalism or politics, no matter how finished his career may seem to be. Sometimes, this can feel like a feedback loop. Last fall—following the swift ouster of his successor, Liz Truss—he seemed close to a comeback, though it was hard to tell, as
I wrote at the time, whether this reflected a genuine desire to see him back among his Conservative colleagues or whether they themselves were responding to what the media was saying. 

Since long before he became prime minister, Johnson has been portrayed as a prince across the water. Sections of the right-wing media, incredibly, are still portraying him in such terms. But the public and his colleagues seem finally to be done with him, as does much of the press; as a Politico headline put it recently, “Britain’s so over Boris Johnson.” His column may be back, but it’s not setting the news agenda like it once did. Pundits have speculated that when the damning parliamentary report about him dropped recently, he was already looking for an excuse to step down, or at least move, from his seat because he feared losing it at the next election. When the report went to a parliamentary vote last month, 118 of Johnson’s fellow Conservative lawmakers voted to approve its findings. Just seven of them voted to reject it. 

In a sense, Johnson has landed on his feet again just by scoring his Mail column, a gig for which, per Politico, he is being paid a “very high six-figure sum.” As he tries to write himself into continued political relevance, the press should remember that if he still merits attention, it’s as a subject of scrutiny, not a sometime colleague. The COVID inquiry is gathering pace. The headlines about Johnson’s legacy haven’t stopped yet. It won’t just be him who gets to write them. 

Macfarlane told The News Agents that in her recent interview with Johnson, she thought that he might offer some self-reflection, particularly given the reports that he wants a comeback. Instead, he mock-snored. “It shows, one year on from the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Macfarlane said, that “his attitude to all of that is boring—boring, boring, boring, boring.”

Other notable stories:

  • In yesterday’s newsletter, I noted that sports journalists at the New York Times recently expressed concern about the future of their section following the paper’s acquisition of the sports site The Athletic last year. Yesterday morning, the Times confirmed that it is abolishing the section in favor of further integrating content from The Athletic on its website and, for the first time, in print. Management said that sports staffers will be given new roles elsewhere within the paper, some of them at the intersection of sports and other beats—but the staffers reportedly challenged the execution of the move in a contentious meeting with bosses, while the union that represents Times journalists accused the paper of attempted “union busting.” (The Athletic is not currently unionized.) 
  • Also yesterday, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the LA Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, reached a surprise deal to sell the latter paper to a publisher owned by Alden Global Capital, the cost-slashing hedge fund that already owns a bevy of newspapers in California. The new owners already warned staffers at the Union-Tribune to expect staffing reductions. Online, various media-watchers were scathing of Soon-Shiong’s decision to sell to Alden, particularly in light of the optimism that accompanied his takeover of the paper and the LA Times back in 2018. “PSS to San Diego,” Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton wrote on Twitter: “Drop Dead.”
  • In more optimistic local-news news, a national nonprofit organization announced that it is acquiring five of the six daily newspapers in Maine, including the Portland Press Herald, as well as seventeen of the state’s weeklies. The new owner, the National Trust for Local News, indicated that it would honor existing agreements with the papers’ unions, which welcomed the takeover. So, too, did Reade Brower, the papers’ current owner. “I believe they want to continue to run this as a sustainable business, which I like,” Brower told the Press Herald, “and I don’t believe they will try and drain resources, which I like.”
  • Over the weekend, the British tabloid The Sun reported that an unnamed top anchor at the BBC solicited explicit images from a young person, starting when that person was seventeen—a possible crime. The anchor was suspended—but yesterday, the story took a turn when the young person involved issued a statement, through their lawyer, claiming that The Sun’s claims were “rubbish” and that nothing untoward had occurred. The Sun’s story was based on testimony from the person’s parents, who stand by it.
  • And the US and the European Union reached a deal to settle a long-running dispute over the transfer of personal data from the latter region to the former. EU leaders said that the deal contains “robust” privacy safeguards, but campaigners were not convinced. “Just announcing that something is ‘new,’ ‘robust,’ or ‘effective,’” one argued, will not cut it with European courts. (CJR’s Mathew Ingram wrote about the privacy dispute recently.)  

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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.