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The prime minister and the press

The prime minister and the press

The relationship between the British government and the media during Boris Johnson’s time in Number 10 has left both institutions damaged. His exit is an opportunity to re-establish boundaries

Transcript

When Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street, one thing we have to hope goes with him is the relationship he struck with the press: a scandal in plain sight during the Johnson years has been not just what he asked of the papers, but what he got. 

In the months to come, as the benefits of a cosy relationship with the PM evaporate, I suspect we’re going to hear even more of how the prime minister charmed and cajoled, begged and barked at editors, executives and proprietors – and, here is the story, he did so with such great effect.

I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to flag up questions that the Boris papers ask of the business of journalism – what gets asked, what doesn’t, what’s offered. 

In the last few weeks, much of this has been in the public domain. James O’Brien of LBC has offered a lacerating account of how the Daily Mail put the bellows under the Durham story, insisting on drawing a false and inaccurate equivalence between Johnson’s Downing Street parties and Keir Starmer’s beer with a curry at a Labour constituency visit – a confected case of whataboutery that Downing Street and the Conservatives pushed, but eventually it only embroiled the police and embarrassed the paper.

Then there’s been the New York Times. It reported the mysterious case of the Simon Walters story – a story, in the New York Times‘ words, of “love, ambition and thwarted corruption”. A story about Boris Johnson’s offer to employ his then mistress, Carrie Symonds, at the Foreign Office, and a story that was pulled after it ran in the first edition of the Times, but tthen didn’t see the light of the day in the second. In fact the Mail, similarly, ran it and pulled it without explanation. 

And then Johnson – consider this – the journalist PM, has really been good to his tribe: Charles Moore, his former editor at the Telegraph, was given a peerage and sounded out to be chairman of the BBC; now Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail, is, we’re told, being lined up for a peerage too in the Honours List of the disgraced, departing prime minister. Paul Caruana Galizia’s investigation for Tortoise has revealed how Evgeny Lebedev’s extraordinary appointment to the House of Lords followed a long run of flattering editorials and supportive editorial appointments at Lebedev’s paper, the Evening Standard, not to mention the parties with Evgeny Lebedev and his father, the former KGB officer and now sanctioned oligarch, Alexander Lebedev.

In all of this what’s been less investigated and less well chronicled is quite how much Johnson got in return. And why? How much of the support on the front pages and the leniency – at least, in his case – of the editorials was a result of political alignment or corporate interest and how much was it just personal, even social? The prime minister was used to staying up late drinking with the people who edit, run and own many of the national newspapers. The result, though, is clear to all: proximity had a price. In different ways to Donald Trump, Boris Johnson also changed the terms of trade between government and the news.

One element of this has been a consistent effort to defend the prime minister’s behaviour by denying the legitimacy of the question. The PM and his comms teams have, time and again, prayed in aid his privacy and, as part of that, tried to push back the boundary of the public interest. It’s not something you’d have thought a former journalist would do, nor current journalists would go along with. But here are just three examples of ways that, at Tortoise, we felt it. 

First, when Johnson was running against Jeremy Corbyn – as he’s burnished his mandate, it’s worth remembering quite what a tired and tarnished opponent he was up against in 2019 – Tortoise put a question to his team: how many children does the prime minister have? His office wouldn’t answer, because, they said, this is a private matter. Now and again, it’s worth comparing politics to real life: if someone you met at work or, even socially, refused to answer how many children they had or, perhaps, lied about it, you’d think they weren’t trustworthy. But that’s not the point: what mattered was that the prime minister and his team refused to answer a standard, sensible question in the self-serving and spurious interests of his privacy; it proved to be a harbinger of things to come.

Second, when Tortoise was investigating his use of Chequers in contravention of the lockdown rules that he’d set out for the country, again the prime minister’s team refused to answer, dissembled and misled. The Downing Street press office was not just roped into spinning for the prime minister, but they were engaged in an active and elaborate effort to avoid the truth. This was a case of the PM telling the public to do one thing and personally doing another. It was an example of how he seemed to think the rules didn’t apply to him. But again, Number 10 deceived because Johnson considered it a private matter.

And, third, even last week, when Tortoise asked Downing Street about the details of one of Johnson’s trips to the Lebedev villa in Umbria, the pushback was that this was personal and our questions were prurient, they weren’t a matter for the press – and, again, we had to remind Downing Street that Johnon, at the time, was the foreign secretary. He travelled, without his officials to a house party with a former KGB agent who was seeking to act as a back channel to the Kremlin. In other words, this was in the public interest.

When I started out as editor of the Times, I remember William Rees-Mogg telling me a cautionary tale about editors and the government. Geoffrey Dawson, a pre-war editor of the paper, had got too close to Downing Street, soft-peddled coverage of Germany and the policy of Appeasement, and even a generation later, William said, there were readers who hadn’t forgiven the Times. The lesson, the former editor told me, was that an editor should never walk into Downing Street wanting something from the prime minister.

In the last few years, we’ve had a prime minister who, time and again, has wanted something from the editors – and, too often, he got it. The Conservative leadership contest is in danger of entrenching the habits of the last few years. The papers seem to have favourites and foes. That, surely, is not their job. British journalism, of course, has a robust history of opinion-making, but it still claims its privileged rights because it informs. It’s not there to champion or demonise candidates, but to report on them and hold them to account.

Both Downing Street and Fleet Street have been damaged by these last few years: it’s surely time for journalism to redraw the line with government.