President Trump may have invented the term ‘fake news’, but it was Boris Johnson who created the commodity.
From 1989 to 1994, as Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, he produced a stream of stories that enjoyed only the most tangential relationship to the truth: stories that invariably portrayed ‘Brussels’ as a den of conspirators determined to create a European superstate which would destroy Britain’s sovereignty, traditions and way of life.
They read like a collection of April Fools’ Day hoaxes, but their consequences were far from funny. They helped ignite the simmering euroscepticism of the Conservative right. They also set the tone for much of the rest of British journalism, which found Johnson’s cartoon caricature of Brussels much more appealing than the real thing. I know this because I later became the Brussels correspondent for a rival paper, and it had become almost impossible to write serious stories about the EU even for my more discerning readers.
Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs a decade later, Johnson told Sue Lawley: “I was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power.”
Put another way, the EU referendum of 2016 was not lost during the few short weeks of the campaign that June. It was lost during the quarter century of relentless British euroscepticism that Johnson did so much to inspire with his largely fictitious reports from Brussels. Here are a few examples from his cuttings file. The headlines are the Telegraph’s originals. The comments reflect my experience of watching these stories collide with reality after Johnson’s departure.
EC’s greyhound grants anger welfare groups
Opening paragraph: A European plan to persuade farmers not to use their land for producing surplus food by subsidising greyhound breeding as an ‘alternative farming enterprise’ has outraged animal welfare groups in Britain who foresee a boom in puppy farms and thousands of unwanted greyhounds.
Comment: Johnson failed to set this particular hare running.
Italy fails to measure up on condoms
Opening paragraph: The Italian rubber industry is failing to follow EC rules by making undersized condoms.
Comment: EU member states are free to produce whatever condom sizes happen to fit the national characteristics of the male organ.
Euro headquarters to be blown up
Opening paragraph: The Berlaymont building – Brussels headquarters of the European Community, is to be blown up and controlled explosions are regarded as the best way to demolish the 13-storey building which is to be replaced because of the danger from asbestos used in its construction.
Comment: Twenty-eight years later the Berlaymont, minus its asbestos, stills serves as the headquarters of the European Commission.
‘Domesday Book’ of Europe’s Farms
Opening Paragraph: The European Commission wants to count every field and farm animal under a Domesday Book-style survey aimed at preventing fraud following fundamental reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.
Comment: This sequel to the Domesday Book has yet to appear.
Cash hurdle stops EU Olympic hopes
Opening paragraphs: Hopes of seeing the EC flag on the vests of British and other European athletes at Barcelona this summer have been dashed in a row between Brussels and European Olympic Committees.
[The EC’s] original plan, in which EC athletes would pile up a European tally of medals and mount the victory podium to the strains of Beethoven’s 9th symphony as well as their national anthems, has been scotched.
Comment: This plan, if it existed at all, never reached the first hurdle.
Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same
Opening paragraph: A smelly farmyard could become an offence under Brussels plans to quantify ‘maximum permissible odours’ from manure heaps.
Delors plan to rule Europe
Opening paragraph: European foreign ministers were stunned yesterday to learn of a plan by Jacques Delors to transform the Brussels Commission into a ‘European government’ with himself, or his successor, becoming a fully-fledged ‘President of the European Community.
Comment: This has never come to pass, but the story helped persuade Denmark to reject the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum a few days later.
Threat to British pink sausages
Opening paragraph: The pinkness of the British breakfast sausage was once again imperilled yesterday after a row between British and Danish MEPs over artificial colourants.
Comment: The pink sausage remains a staple of the British diet.
Euro-coffin rises from the dead
Opening paragraph: A directive on a standardised Euro-coffin and common rules for moving corpses has risen from the grave two months after it was thought to have died at the Edinburgh summit.
Comment: A story that was swiftly re-interred. There is no EU regulation governing coffin sizes.
Kilometre-high ‘Tower of Babel’ plan for EC
Opening paragraphs: A proposed new headquarters for the European Community would be easily the tallest structure in the world – at 3,800 feet more than twice as high as the 1,450 foot Sears tower in Chicago.
Critics of the plan for the kilometre-high skyscraper topped by a communications mast call it ‘Project Babel’, the most grandiose scheme ever to cross the desk of an EC official.
Comment: It must have crossed the desk en route to the rubbish bin. No such tower has ever been built.
How they are winning the battle on the playing fields of Waterloo
Opening paragraphs: It hides behind great green gates on the road that Wellington took to Waterloo, the least known and perhaps the most ideologically far-flung of all the European Community institutions. Bluff your way past the guard in his yachting cap, wander up the winding red brick path through the woods, and, amid the intensifying aroma of spilt milk and carbolic, you will start to hear the din, the crashing polyphonous roar of the 12 tribes of Europe at play.
If it is true, as Margaret Thatcher once warned, that Brussels is hell bent on producing an ‘identikit European’ then this, if anywhere is the melting pot in which that person is being forged. You have perhaps heard of the European Parliament, the European Court, even the European Council of Ministers: now meet the European School.
Comment: Johnson briefly attended the European School in Brussels, and met his future wife, Marina Wheeler, there. If its purpose was to turn him into an ‘identikit European’, it failed miserably.
Coming soon… the day Herr Speaker rules Westminster
Opening paragraphs: Achtung! British domestic politicians! Your lives are set to change: your wards, town halls, your seats are targets for the Maastricht Euro-carpetbaggers. The Treaty’s new electoral law could even allow Germans, French, Italians and other EEC nationals to stand as Westminster MPs or, indeed, to be raised to the peerage…As the EEC commission and the European Court prepare to make up their minds what Maastricht actually means the babel rises in the imagination. ‘Ordnung! OrdNUNG!,’ said the Speaker, gazing furiously at the EEC benches.
Comment: You need to be a British, Irish or Commonwealth citizen to stand as an MP.
Britain balks at German plans for a Brussels FBI
Opening paragraph: The government faces a renewed struggle with Germany today over Chancellor Kohl’s plans to create a fully fledged EC police force able to mount operations anywhere in Britain and the rest of the Community.
Comment: Yet to happen.
Euro ID card on Brussels Agenda
Opening paragraph: Britons may be issued compulsory European ID cards as part of the new Maastricht programme of police and judicial cooperation.
Comment: Still waiting.
All photographs Getty Images