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How the Media Made Boris Johnson

A new book explores how Britain's establishment media provided Boris Johnson with the platform for the lies and provocations that made his political career – only to bemoan his rise to the top when it was too late.

Something in Britain changed during the 2019 General Election. After three years of histrionics about fake news, interference, and populism, parts of the political mainstream became surprisingly tolerant of precisely these methods – just in time for them to be deployed against the Left.

As Justin Schlosberg concludes in a report published this week, ‘the problem was not so much to do with disinformation stemming from foreign interference or the political fringes, but rather the political mainstream.’ While broadcasters and journalists at the time were attracted to the idea that the 2019 election was uniquely marked by disinformation, ‘at no point’, says Schlosberg, did they ‘draw attention to the vastly disproportionate role played by the incumbent Conservative government.’

A new book by Peter Oborne argues that the ‘moral barbarism’ of the circumstances of Boris Johnson’s 2019 victory portends serious consequences for Britain’s institutions, as well as going some way to explaining the failures of the country’s response to Covid-19. (Donald Trump appears in the subtitle, but is really only present to offer a sporadic vision of the maximalist version of Johnson’s style). Unlike the library of self-exculpatory critiques of ‘post-truth politics’ written by political centrists, Oborne has little to say about Russian bots, filter bubbles, or postmodernism.

In Oborne’s telling, the rise of Johnson was a legacy media revolution. Ever since Johnson’s confected stories about EU bans on irregularly-sized coffins and condoms, written as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in the 1990s, the deliberate lies of ‘the most brilliant journalist of his time’ have been tolerated by his media employers and political allies ‘in the deferential manner of a bank manager drawing attention to a bounced cheque from a cherished customer.’

The Tory press that indulged and covered for Johnson (and, in the case of the Telegraph, paid nearly £23,000 per month for his column), guaranteed his installation in Downing Street, and spent both the approach to the 2019 election and much of the pandemic willingly parroting the staggeringly numerous deliberate lies his office spread to them.

Oborne is an apostate of the culture he describes. Elevated to political editor of the Spectator by Johnson himself, his drift away from the Tory press ecosystem began when he resigned from the Telegraph in 2015, exposing the paper for suppressing negative stories about its advertisers.

The central episode in an elegantly anecdotal book comes when Oborne describes pitching the Daily Mail a column about a particularly egregious false briefing from Johnson’s Number 10, which had been uncritically reported in the Mail on Sunday, and repeated in the right-wing Daily Express, The Sun, and The Times, before receiving the validation of the officially impartial BBC Today program.

The Mail, Spectator, and Channel 4 all declined Oborne’s exposé of the supine behaviour of their peers. Oborne was advised not to even bother trying the BBC, who, at the time of the book’s writing, ceased commissioning him altogether after he finally reported on the experience for openDemocracy. The ‘client media’ which can’t quite see Johnson straight—him being one of their own—extends beyond the partisan press that created him, finally enveloping the officially impartial broadcast media, too.

A clubland Tory who speaks warmly of Margaret Thatcher, Oborne has been an unlikely defender of Jeremy Corbyn, both prior to the 2019 election and since. Perhaps reflecting his own earlier falling foul of centrist pieties on Iran and Israel, Oborne’s Middle East Eye and openDemocracy coverage of the leaked report on how the Labour Right politicised antisemitism cases, the party’s foot-scraping enquiry into these findings, and the suspension of Corbyn, have been—if anything—more forthright than that found in much left media.

This makes it curious that, beyond a few pages of corrections of Johnson’s misrepresentations of Labour’s 2019 manifesto, the main references to Corbyn in the book are a couple of nods to how fortunate Johnson was to have such a relatively precarious rival.

Perhaps this quietness is because Corbyn’s name remains toxic to much of the audience Oborne hopes to convince of the extent of Johnson’s mendacity. But Johnson’s victory took place in the context of an abandoning of norms of political honesty by actors well beyond the Johnson-sphere, in the liberal press and Corbyn’s own party.

Sidestepping this context of generalised anti-leftism prevents the book from reaching an even darker conclusion: that the majority of the political and media class went along with Johnson’s uniquely dishonest style for as long as it served to rid them of an even more hated enemy; only to find, with the election won, that they’d created a government which had dispensed with accountability and public trust, on the eve of a unique human crisis requiring huge amounts of both.

Where the Left does appear in the book is suggestive from the point of view of the meaning of Oborne’s considerable generosity and decency towards our project. Like Oborne’s most impressive book, 2007’s The Triumph of the Political Class, this is an essentially conservative story of the decay of the high standards and due process of the British Establishment that reigned from the nineteenth to the later twentieth century. Their replacement was the creature of New Labour, a professionalised political class that obscured processes of accountability and despatched with personal integrity, in a way that Johnson’s ‘new barbarism’ has only escalated.

The idealising portrait of past traditions aside, much of today’s Left would probably have no problem consenting to this portrait of New Labour (although it should be admitted that it takes someone who really despised it at the time—rather than saw it as the compromised lesser evil—to properly skewer the topic). What we would find harder to understand is the conviction Oborne shares with others on the right, that the decadence of Blairism came from consistency with, rather than deviation from, the Left.

In Oborne’s hands, Blair’s combination of mendacity and moral certainty in promulgating the false case for the Iraq War was merely a muscle memory of previous left-wing movements—from the communist propaganda of Willi Münzenberg to the lionising of the Viet Cong in the anti-war New Left—who believed that ‘that in a venal world filled with vicious, unscrupulous right-wing enemies they [were] licensed to use falsehood to secure political ends.’ Oborne’s Johnson has simply continued this, but without the illusion of higher moral purpose.

That the genealogy of Johnsonism leads back to the Left would probably come as a surprise to both, and there are moments in Oborne’s book that seem to flex against the suggestion. Oborne sounds like a Home Counties Christopher Lasch when he attributes to Johnson’s prose ‘a narcissism that mocked the style of straightforward, sober, serious, self-effacing politics of the post-war era.’ The book’s opposite model of political decency, Angela Merkel, however, was ‘raised in a hardline communist state where words and actions had to be measured with intense care.’

DDR communism shaped the book’s stated hero, while, in Corbyn, the British New Left produced its unstated one. For left-wing readers, Oborne’s book is valuable not just as the charge sheet against Johnson by someone who really gets him, but as a surprising glimpse at how our own politics look, through the most sympathetic conservative eyes.