Private Eye's 'Boris and the BJ' story and the response to it says about more Britain than you might think.
Carrie Symonds’ first Private Eye appearance occurred while she was still in utero. Her mother, Josephine McAfee, was a lawyer at The Independent. Her father, Matthew Symonds, was one of the paper’s co-founders and its deputy editor. Both were married to other people and the news that McAfee was pregnant was irresistible to the Eye with its disdain for “Cuban-heeled lothario” Symonds.
In issue 676, from November 1987, it wrote:
In the last Eye, we promised that this issue would include Twenty Things You Never Knew About Matthew Symonds, the bouffant-haired deputy editor of the Indescribablyboring.
So without further ado, here are Twenty Things You Never Knew About Matthew Symonds:
1. Symonds has got himself embroiled in a Parkinson-type situation. Jo McAfee, his former mistress, is now five months pregnant. Since Symonds promised Whittam-Strobes1 that he had split up with her well over five months ago, obviously he cannot be the father.
2. Ms McAfee seems to think that he is.
3. Symonds’s Oxford contemporaries recall him as “a twerp who could never get girls to go out with him”.
4. Symonds himself, however, claims he always carried a loaded revolver in his car because of threats from various Oxford husbands he had cuckolded…2
The difference between her first Private Eye story and the latest involving the now Carrie Johnson is the question of public interest. Revealing the deputy editor of a newspaper had an affair was Fleet Street gossip but laying out in detail a theory about why The Times killed a story about the then-Foreign Secretary, now Prime Minister, attempting to give his then-mistress, now wife, a £100k job is legitimate.
While we’re still waiting for The Times to explain itself (see the June 20th 2022 edition of this newsletter) and will likely be waiting forever, the Eye suggested:
What made the difference, says one of those involved, was a late-night call from ‘Carrie’s people’ to ‘Rebekah Brooks’s people’ at the Times’s publisher, News UK. [Tony] Gallagher [The Times’ deputy editor] was then advised from on high to pull the story the story.
However, the significant point in the Times piece was not Boris’s desire to employ his lover. It was a brief reference to staff learning of the extra-marital affair “after an MP allegedly walked in on the pair in a ‘compromising situation’ in Johnson’s office in early 2018…
… the Friday-night attack of the ab-dads at No 10 was caused by a baseless fear that the Times might be more specific about the compromising situation [those of a timid disposition should look away now — Ed.] by adding that the MP walked in while Carrie was giving Boris oral sex on the office sofa.
The problem with Private Eye’s BJ and the BJ story is that the prurient detail and Britain’s tittering Victorian postcard attitude to sex are already drowning out the important stuff. The specific ‘sex act’, as the tabloids would insist on calling it if they were actually reporting the story, is not what matters; it’s the abuse of power by a senior politician and the allegations that he wanted to reward his mistress with a job.
The claim that an MP caught Johnson and Symonds in “a compromising situation” originally appeared in Lord Ashcroft’s biography First Lady. It was published in the Mail on Sunday’s serialisation of the book and repeated in the censored Times story. What Private Eye did was to go beyond euphemism.
It’s hard to resist revelling in the claim but it is still just that a claim. The source is anonymous — I’m told it’s not Gavin Williamson despite the fevered social media speculation that his knighthood was a payoff for keeping schtum — and the story first became public thanks to Ashcroft, whose Cameron biography (written with Isabel Oakeshott) produced the hilarious but singled-source “pleasuring a pig’s head” claim.
You can argue — and I do — that was the story about a Labour politician, there is no chance that the newspapers wouldn’t be having a field day with it. Aside from nudge-nudge-wink-wink references in Politico’s London Playbook newsletter and a mention in Tom Peck’s Independent column, there’s silence. But an anonymous and single-sourced claim does not suddenly become true through repetition nor because it fits with what we already know about a person.
The evidence that Johnson tried to install Symonds as his chief-of-staff is clear, as is the fact that The Times killed its story about the affair. But the blowjob story tickles the most moralistic and misogynistic tendencies of our tabloid nation. It’s possible to hate both Johnsons and what they represent in public life without hooting at images of Carrie mocked up to look like a blowup doll or degenerating into sub-Sid James sniggering.
It was Boris Johnson’s first appearance as a guest on [Have I Got News For You], and Ian Hislop was tormenting him on the subject of his notorious phone call with Darius Guppy, when they are alleged to have discussed the possibility of beating up an unfriendly journalist. Hislop was doing what he does best, remaining genial but suddenly toning down the humour and confronting the guest with chapter and verse for a past misdemeanour.
As the exchange develops, Johnson looks distinctly uncomfortable, describing Hislop’s intervention as ‘richly comic’ and protesting: ‘I don’t want to be totally stitched up here.’ He calls Guppy a ‘great chap’, to which Hislop answers: ‘And a convicted fraudster.’ Johnson concedes this, and admits that Guppy made a ‘major goof’, and then begins to ramble and bumble in his characteristic way, groping for a way out of the corner; sensing, visibly, that Hislop has got him on the ropes, he mentions some of the other things that he and Guppy discussed during that conversation, including their military heroes. And suddenly, Paul Merton interjects with the line: ‘Hence Major Goof that you mentioned just now.’
… it was laughter, more than anything else, that let Johnson off the hook. Hislop had been doing his job – bringing Private Eye’s brand of sceptical journalism to bear on a politician – and Merton had been doing his: making brilliant jokes. But that moment showed that the two approaches don’t necessarily meld. In fact, more often than not, they work against each other.
The Private Eye blowjob story is a Merton moment. The detail of that “compromising position” draws all the attention and the things that really suck — the corruption, the cruelty, the connivance of the press — are lost in the snickering and performative moral indignation.
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The Eye’s name for another Independent co-founder Andreas Whittam Smith.
When the Eye tweeted the story in June 2019, Tim Minogue, who edits its Rotten Boroughs column, replied: “He may have claimed it was a revolver but it was actually an air pistol. He showed it to me when he gave me a lift from Plymouth to London. Claimed it was to deter carjackers.”