Boris Johnson and the limits of journalism

Photo by Chatham House via Flickr.

Michael Wolff is waiting in Boris Johnson’s house because Johnson isn’t out of the shower yet. The year is 2004. Donald Trump’s presidency—the future subject for Wolff’s book Fire and Fury—remains a ridiculous, distant notion. Already, however, the prospect of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is starting to gain traction, so much so that Vanity Fair has sent Wolff to London to profile him. Eventually, Johnson, in only a dress shirt and boxer shorts, emerges for his appointment with Wolff. He has mislaid his pants.

Johnson, at this point, is climbing the ranks of the right-wing Conservative Party as a junior lawmaker. (Two months after Wolff’s article is published, Johnson will be fired from the party’s leadership team for having an extramarital affair, then lying to his boss about it.)

He is also still a journalist. Following spells at The Times of London and the Telegraph, Johnson was appointed, in 1999, as editor of The Spectator, a conservative magazine. On taking the job, Johnson, not yet a lawmaker, had promised Conrad Black, The Spectator’s then-owner, that he would give the role his undivided attention; two years later, Johnson broke that promise by successfully seeking election to Parliament. With a generous helping hand from his deputy editor, Johnson would serve both The Spectator’s readers and his district’s voters for a further four years.

In 2004, Wolff—who moves in the same New York–London social circles as Johnson, and who has a society reporter’s instinct for flattering the powerful to get what he wants—is enamored of Johnson’s larger-than-life presence. Johnson is “William F. Buckley Jr. with a serious political career… and Hugh Grant’s disheveled charm”; “a free-form narrator” and “raconteur”; “arguably, the English language’s most successful pundit.”

He reminds Wolff of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Johnson’s “overtness and showboating and perilous exposure would now likely be just the type to invite instant backlash and takedown in the US,” Wolff writes. He asks how, “In this virulent age, when all opinions are hateful opinions, does an opinionist have a good time, a really fabulous time, like Boris Johnson obviously is having?”

ICYMI: British TV goes full Fox News

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Wolff seems more interested in Johnson the journalist than Johnson the politician. But—because this is Boris Johnson and this question always comes up—Wolff asks Johnson just how far he might climb on the political ladder. “Yes, well… as far as I possibly can. I suppose. Why not?” Johnson answers. “There aren’t any rules, are there, that writers can’t be politicians?” Johnson asks. “Are there?”

For Johnson, there is vanishingly little difference between the two jobs. 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. (Johnson’s office and leadership campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)

Now, as he is poised to finally actually become prime minister, Britain is once again attempting to make sense of a man who seems to hide in plain sight, bafflingly immune to scandal.

An examination of his 30-plus-year career in journalism—perhaps the only unifying thread of his public life—reveals more of the man than any other. It goes some way to explaining why, according to the polling firm YouGov, nearly half of Britons hate him, a third love him, and almost everyone has heard of him.

 

In Britain, the public chooses a political party to lead the nation. That party is then free to select a new leader to anoint as prime minister. Different parties have different processes for selecting a leader.

Johnson remains a member of the Conservative Party, which has led the government since 2010. The party delivered the Brexit referendum in 2016, but has since become a punchline as it attempts to work out what leaving the European Union will actually look like. The chaos destroyed the premiership of Theresa May, the outgoing prime minister, who will step down once a successor is chosen.  

Conservative members of Parliament just finished culling a shortlist of candidates to replace her to a final two: Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign minister. The party’s membership—a self-selecting, older, disproportionately right-wing electorate of about 125,000 people—has the final say.

Johnson’s problem, in the past, has been a lack of popularity among his fellow lawmakers; many actively dislike him. But this time more than 100 of his colleagues endorsed him. Conservative lawmakers know that a new national election could come at any time—and Johnson polls better than his rivals among the public at large.

Johnson is so well-liked among Conservative Party members that he will almost certainly become leader. His journalism career has played no small part in this popularity: decades of red-meat, right-wing writing have made Johnson a darling of the Conservative grassroots, who guffaw approvingly at his articles over breakfast.

Even now, on the verge of entering Downing Street, he continues to write his long-running weekly column for the Telegraph, the favored newspaper of the party base. “To have that main op-ed slot on the Telegraph means he can talk directly to every Conservative association chairman in the country, because they all look at that,” Quentin Letts, a political columnist who worked with Johnson in his early days at the Telegraph, says.

Often, Johnson’s column resonates far beyond the pages of the Telegraph. The paper promotes it on a Monday morning, rival outlets pick it over for juicy quotes, and soon his words are driving a news cycle that has come to resemble America’s in its mindless frenzy.

Johnson, of course, knows this. May’s resignation has been inevitable for months, during which time Johnson has written himself into serious contention to replace her. Sonia Purnell—author of Just Boris, a comprehensive, critical biography of Johnson—doesn’t know if he’ll win. “But I think it’s almost becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says. “It will be quite hard now for anyone else to topple him, because he’s got the media writing that story.”

 

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York in 1964. (His parents are both British-born; Johnson renounced his dual American citizenship in 2016, possibly for tax purposes.) The blurry line between politics and journalism runs in the family. In the early 1900s, Johnson’s great-grandfather was a polemicist writer as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and modern Turkey was founded; a Turkish nationalist gang killed him because of his loyalty to the ancien régime. More recently, Johnson’s father, sister, and brother—himself a member of Parliament—have trodden on both sides of the line, too. Between them, the members of the Johnson family have released about 50 books.

In 1987—after studying at Eton, an elite private school, and Oxford University—Johnson followed a well-worn path for the privileged of Britain to a position as a trainee at The Times of London. He was sent, in his first few months, to get experience working for a local paper in Wolverhampton, an area in the center of the country that is far removed from the manicured lawns of Eton and Oxford: he later told The New York Times that the poor living conditions he observed on his new beat, which was overseen by the left-wing Labour Party, made him realize that he was a Conservative.

Back in London, Johnson was put to work rewriting wire stories and shadowing David Sapsted, a more experienced Times reporter. Johnson did not enjoy reporting. “Work consisted of placing a call, being told X was in a meeting, waiting half an hour, and then trying again,” Johnson later wrote. “I could not help wondering how long The Times could afford to employ such a heroically unproductive hack.”

While Sapsted did interviews, Johnson would sit in awkward silence. “I don’t honestly think many of us in the office thought he was cut out for a sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll reporting career,” Sapsted says. “I think it was always his ambition to be a media personality—as a thinker, rather than a frontline reporter. Reporting was just a path to a more glittering career.”

Johnson did not last long at The Times. After less than a year on the job, he attributed a quote about an archaeological discovery to a prominent history professor who also happened to be his godfather. But there was a problem: his godfather hadn’t said anything of the sort. Johnson then messed up a second article that was supposed to have corrected the first. He was fired.

As is commonly the case with well-connected young men, Johnson’s disgrace was temporary. He soon landed on his feet, this time at the Telegraph. According to Letts, Johnson’s new colleagues didn’t resent his second chance; if anything, they felt sorry for him. “We weren’t young reporters in the sense of having been to journalism school—we weren’t rigorously serious journalists in the American tradition,” Letts says. “It was seat-of-your-pants stuff, quite a lot of it. And sometimes things went wrong. That’s plainly what happened to Boris.”

In any case, the Telegraph, at least to begin with, hired Johnson to write editorials rather than news stories. The role was a better fit for Johnson, who, contemporaries say, was already an accomplished, stylish writer. Among the paper’s staff, editorial writers “were always thought of as rather more serious figures and more politically attuned. They’d think great thoughts before laying them down on tablets of marble,” Letts says.

 

In 1989, The Telegraph sent Johnson to work as a correspondent in Brussels, the seat of the European Union. The move was an “inspired choice,” Letts says.

Inspired for opponents of the EU, maybe. Over five years in Brussels, Johnson would come to incarnate an aggressive strain of anti-Europe journalism, burnishing his personal legend in the process. He drew on a grand British tabloid tradition of taking one small fact and spinning it into an outrageous headline that is technically correct but very specifically interpreted—and in a real sense absolutely false.

In the cartoon reality Johnson painted for his readers, Britain was powerless in the face of rapacious, unaccountable European bureaucrats and their plans to make a mockery of national laws and customs. Johnson wrote, often inaccurately, about European plots to impose one-size-fits-all condoms; ban shrimp-flavored potato chips from British stores; reclassify snails as fish; remove religious academics from Oxford colleges; regulate lawnmower noise and farmyard smells; and so on. In Johnsonland, Jacques Delors, then the head of the EU’s executive arm, was planning to “rule Europe.” France and Germany, in particular, exploited European institutions for their own selfish ends—and “mushy-minded” British leaders let them.

European bureaucrats found Johnson to be a menace; senior figures feared being on the receiving end of one of his pieces. “He would take something that some minor official had said off-the-cuff and blow it up into something that appeared as the splash in the Telegraph the next day,” Martin Fletcher, who later worked as an EU correspondent for The Times, says. “I know a lot of diplomats simply wouldn’t talk to him—even off-the-record—because they didn’t trust him. They wouldn’t even invite him to social occasions, because nothing was off-the-record with him.”

In the early 1990s, the Telegraph sent Purnell, Johnson’s future biographer, to work with him in Brussels. Johnson already knew Brussels well and Purnell expected that he would show her the ropes, especially since it was just the two of them in the office. “But it couldn’t have been less like that,” she recalls. “He went out of his way to obstruct me from day one, and to make my life difficult.”

Purnell swiftly concluded that Johnson hated working in a team. And his behavior in the newsroom could be erratic. Before filing stories, Purnell says, Johnson would work himself into a rage, screaming abuse at a yucca plant near his desk. “He can be quite frightening,” Purnell says. After a year of working with Johnson, Purnell had had enough, and returned to London. “There were so many great things about working in Brussels,” she says. “Working with Boris Johnson wasn’t one of them.”

Purnell was also alarmed by Johnson’s reporting; his stories often grew from a seed of truth but bore little relation to reality by the time they were published, she says. Years later, when Johnson was mayor of London (a position he held from 2008 to 2016), Purnell decided to write her book about him, in large part to expose the devious figure behind Johnson’s jovial public persona. Concerns about Johnson’s truthfulness, she found, were widespread among his former colleagues.

Today, many observers say Johnson’s Brussels reporting in the 1990s set the narrative that led, in 2016, to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. (Johnson was a figurehead of the official Brexit campaign.) Few believe Johnson invented the “Euromyth” genre. But he was undoubtedly a skilled exponent of it.

Because he wrote for the Telegraph—a broadsheet newspaper—Johnson expanded skepticism of the EU beyond Britain’s tabloids, which lent it a more respectable veneer. The malign picture he painted, critics say, was so popular that more neutral outlets—including the BBC—hesitated to challenge it, despite its clear distortions. “By the time I arrived in Brussels—even for The Times, a relatively respectable paper—it was almost impossible to get a positive story about Europe into the paper,” Fletcher recalls.

In the build-up to Brexit, many of those who campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU felt they were fighting a losing battle: negative attitudes toward Europe, hardened by decades of repetition in right-wing newspapers, could not be softened during the short referendum campaign. (Full disclosure: I worked on the campaign to keep Britain in Europe in 2016, before I went into journalism.)

It is, of course, impossible to quantify the extent to which Johnson’s journalism led to Brexit—it’s a matter of opinion, not science, and observers I spoke to draw very different conclusions about Johnson’s personal influence. Letts, for instance, says Brexit was a deeper phenomenon, and that Johnson’s reporting had little measurable impact on the result. Fletcher disagrees. “I think there’s a very direct line,” he says. “As much as anyone, I think he was responsible.”

Since serious people think Johnson’s words in the 1990s did tumble down the decades and contribute to Brexit, it is worth asking a secondary question: did Johnson himself really believe what he was writing about Europe? Purnell doesn’t think so: Johnson, she says, spied a “market opportunity” for skeptical reporting in what was, back then, a more Euro-positive press.

It is also impossible to see inside Johnson’s head. But a note appended to a 2004 compilation of his articles does betray his entrepreneurial view of journalism. News organizations, Johnson writes, are “traders in news and views,” constantly looking to “buck the conventional opinion” and find “hidden gaps” in the market. “If someone spots that gap, and starts to offer another stock,” he writes, “there will be one of those tipping points.”

 

In 1995, Johnson returned from Europe a known journalistic personality. In the following years, he became a bona fide celebrity. He initially aimed to parlay his Brussels experience into a new role as a war correspondent, but his editors turned down his requests. Johnson lacked the discipline for the job: his expenses were prodigious, and he was notorious for missing deadlines. According to Purnell, when Johnson was given an assignment in Kosovo he decided he was too busy to file his story—so he gave it to a total stranger (on a USB drive) and asked the stranger to email the story to the Telegraph newsroom. (Luckily for Johnson, the stranger came through.)

Instead of sending him back overseas, the Telegraph named Johnson assistant editor and chief political columnist in London. He also took on columns at The Spectator, the Telegraph’s sister magazine, and at GQ, where he wrote car reviews containing lascivious sexual metaphors. In 1999, he became The Spectator’s editor. The role demanded Johnson’s full-time attention, but it did not get it. In the years to come, side-hustle book deals (fiction and nonfiction) and TV appearances—including, to great public acclaim, on a popular satirical panel show—distracted him, as did his political career. Johnson entered Parliament in 2001.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson did not reinvent The Spectator. He did, however, commission writers and cartoonists who did not share his conservative views, winning praise in the process. Generally, Johnson was an emollient, tolerant editor, Stephen Glover—then a media writer for the The Spectator, now a columnist for the conservative Daily Mail—recalls. “Boris would be very categoric to start with, and then back down,” Glover says. One week, Glover told Stuart Reid, Johnson’s deputy editor, that he wanted to write about a critical biography of PG Wodehouse, one of Johnson’s favorite writers. “I got a call back from Stuart saying, ‘Boris says that you will criticize PG Wodehouse over his dead body, because PG Wodehouse is a great hero,’” Glover recalls. But Johnson soon capitulated.

As time wore on, the editor’s job increasingly caused Johnson problems in his political life. Columns in the magazine were criticized for containing racist or otherwise insensitive language that was also a feature of his own writing. (One of Johnson’s Telegraph columns from the time referred to black Africans as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”.) In 2005, he stepped down from The Spectator following a promotion within the Conservative Party.

Johnson continued to write his Telegraph column, and continued to get in trouble because of it. One week, he suggested that Iran should develop nuclear weapons, a clear contravention of his party’s position; another week, he referred to Conservative Party leadership tussles as “Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing.” The country’s representative in Britain was livid. Johnson apologized, but he did not learn his lesson. Years later, he would use his column to praise Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, for “saving” the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS—“Bravo for Assad.” Writing for The Sun ahead of the Brexit referendum, Johnson suggested that Barack Obama resents Britain because of his Kenyan heritage.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a prolific provocateur, Johnson often reacts poorly to criticism and scrutiny. And as the editor and author Max Hastings—who hired Johnson at the Telegraph but has since become a high-profile detractor—wrote in 2012, Johnson has a pronounced nasty and vindictive streak.

Purnell knows this better than most. After she published her biography of Johnson in 2011, while Johnson was still mayor of London, his team worked to discredit her, including applying pressure to the BBC not to interview her.

“There was really nothing he could dispute factually, so what else can you do?” Purnell says. “Well, you can undermine the author. How do you undermine a woman? Well, what you do is you go round saying to everyone that she had an affair with you, and that you wouldn’t marry her, and that she’d written the book as a woman scorned.”

Purnell says senior journalists asked her about her supposed affair with Johnson as if it were a matter of fact—it was nonsense, she says. That chimes with a broader argument, put forward by many Johnson-watchers, that the media as a whole has treated him credulously. As a journalist himself, Johnson enjoys friendly relations with many senior editors, commentators, and reporters.

It would be wrong to say Johnson has had a totally easy ride. Tabloids have frequently splashed his scurrilous love life. Purnell’s book is highly critical in many places, and attracted a great deal of attention. A legion of liberal commentators hates Johnson’s guts.

Nor does he always come out well from interviews. In an infamous 2013 segment, Eddie Mair, a then-BBC journalist with a scalpel-sharp interviewing style, brought up a recording of a phone call in which Johnson promised to give a journalist’s contact details to a friend so the friend could beat the journalist up. (Johnson has said he was simply humoring his friend.) “You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?” Mair asked. Johnson, who is adept at deflecting angry interviewers but struggles with quiet precision like Mair’s, squirmed.

Now that he is hoping to be prime minister,  Johnson has ducked interviews—and a TV debate—that might include similarly difficult questions about his conduct. Last week, Beth Rigby, a Sky News reporter, was able to ask Johnson about some of his past remarks at Johnson’s official launch event. Lawmakers supporting Johnson jeered her.

Too often, however, newspapers, in particular, have indulged Johnson. Embarrassing stories seem to slide off of him. And many outlets have been quick to have fun with the eccentric, familiar face Johnson presents to the world, without trying hard enough to look behind the mask.

“The most serious journalists in the country keep calling him ‘Boris,’ which is obviously exactly what he wants,” Charlie Beckett, a media professor at the London School of Economics, says. “It gives him a kind of privileged status, a bit like Prince in the pop world.”



In 2016, David Cameron, then the prime minister, resigned after the public voted for Brexit. (Cameron had campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU.) As a leading “Brexiteer,” Johnson looked well-placed to succeed Cameron, but his campaign fell apart when Michael Gove, his top backer—also a former journalist—betrayed him, and ran himself.

With Johnson out of the race, Theresa May became prime minister. She appointed Johnson as foreign minister—a position that finally forced him to surrender his Telegraph column. Johnson’s stint in the job was widely seen as undistinguished. In a defining blunder, he told a Parliamentary committee, in 2017, that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national, had been jailed in Iran because she was “teaching people journalism.” Her family and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, where she worked as a project manager, said this was untrue and that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had simply been visiting family in the country; nonetheless, Iran cited Johnson’s words as proof that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been spreading propaganda. She remains in jail despite Johnson’s promises to rectify his “mistake.” During a BBC leadership debate this week, Johnson seemed to recant his regret: his words “didn’t make any difference,” he said.

In July 2018, Johnson quit as foreign minister in protest of May’s Brexit plan. He immediately returned to his Telegraph column—in breach of the rules that govern ex-ministers’ private business interests—on a yearly salary of roughly $350,000. “He gets paid for writing his own manifesto,” Fletcher says.

Johnson’s recent columns read much the same as his older work. They are stuffed with exotic words (avoirdupois; caduque; protoplasmic), arcane cultural references (Sophocles; Scylla and Charybdis; “the great Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldūn”), and other, similar flourishes of Johnsonian rhetoric. Sometimes, his claims are offensive: last August, he compared burka-wearing Muslim women to “bank robbers.” Sometimes, they’re just untrue. In January, Johnson wrote, wrongly, that Britain leaving the EU without an exit deal—a hardline conservative position—was at that time the most popular Brexit option among the public. Britain’s press watchdog ordered the Telegraph to issue a correction.

Johnson’s characterization of malign European intentions has hardly changed since the 1990s. Under May’s proposed exit deal, Britain would be reduced to a “vassal state”; an “economic colony”; a “laughable political eunuch.” Johnson hammers this point in column after column. He repeats his strategy for delivering Brexit similarly often; some weeks, it feels like he has simply rearranged the previous week’s paragraphs. And yet his plan lacks any meaningful depth. For the many thousands of words he expends on it, Johnson’s answer to the Brexit conundrum is simple: Britain is a great country, and it should believe in itself.

Some critics see a broader problem here: that columnists, in general, make lousy leaders. “Somebody said to me the other day that column-writing was not a good preparation for being a serious politician, because the nature of a column is that a columnist writes to put the world straight, and makes an argument which is bound to be superficial to a large degree,” Glover says, summarizing the argument.

“I suppose you could say that accusation against Boris… more than some columnists, inasmuch as Boris’s columns tend to be quite policy-light and quite entertainment-heavy,” Glover says. “He wants to entertain his readers.”

 

In 2012, Michael Wolff is in London to profile Johnson again, this time for GQ. Eight years after  their first encounter, Wolff is convinced that Johnson—freshly re-elected as London mayor—is now the “prime minister in waiting.” Far from counting it against him, Wolff argues that Johnson’s journalistic background actually makes him a perfect fit for higher office. “Boris is keenly recognisable, to me, as a modern writer at the top of his game (necessarily a performer and entrepreneur as well as scribe): humorous, hyperbolic, garrulous, seductive,” Wolff writes. “Politics, which really is about the art of expression, ought to be a logical profession for writers,” not “a refuge for lawyers and apparatchiks.”

Wolff, we are told, knows Johnson and his family now: Johnson commissioned Wolff to write for The Spectator; Wolff blurbed Johnson’s book. And yet, amid the effusive praise, Wolff sounds a note of doubt. How much, he asks, can anyone really know Boris Johnson? Interactions with the man are always “an attempt to unlock the secret of who he is,” Wolff says.

In 2012, this seems an odd thought. It’s even odder now. Thanks to Johnson’s decades in the media—as writer, subject, and (often) both—British voters know him better than they have known any other figure on the cusp of high office. Before she took power in 2016, “May had avoided the press, she’d been very private, and very little was known about her,” Glover says. “Boris is in completely the opposite situation. All his vices—which are not inconsiderable—as well as his virtues have been examined in minute detail by the press.”

But Britain’s knowledge of Boris Johnson is much like a Boris Johnson column: ultimately superficial. Johnson’s writing can make you feel seasick. He lurches back and forth between contradictory arguments, dangling inflammatory views you suspect he probably believes then whipping them away again because of course he wouldn’t *say* something like that. Often, it’s hard to tell if Johnson is staking out a bold new position or playing devil’s advocate. Sometimes, you get the sense he’s playing devil’s advocate with himself.   

People who have worked with Johnson certainly have holes in their understanding of who he really is, and what he really believes. As Purnell writes in her biography, Johnson can be a very guarded person. In many ways, he remains a mystery.

“Lord knows what he stands for apart from the greater advancement of Boris Johnson,” Sapsted, Johnson’s first journalistic mentor, says. “It’s just a great shame he didn’t stick to writing.”

“If I met him today, he would call me ‘Sappers,’ I would call him Boris, we’d have a nice little chat for 10 minutes, and then we’d go off into our own separate worlds. I do like him, on a purely personal level. But please, not as prime minister. Oh God.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.