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Lying for fun and profit: Boris Johnson’s advice about journalism was predictably disgusting
The Prime Minister's history as a hack is as discreditable as his parliamentary record...
Boris Johnson is a liar. It’s the one skill he’s excelled in across every job he’s ever had. He is neither a brilliant writer nor an incredible orator, despite what his fans might tell you, but he’s a spectacular liar. He is the Mikhail Baryshnikov of Bullshit, dancing across the media and public life with moves of almost dazzling deceit. He lies like no one is watching.
In 1988, he was sacked from his first job in journalism at The Times after he fabricated a quote from his own godfather, the historian Colin Lucas, to make a spurious claim about Edward II and Piers Gaveston. 25 years later, now the MP for Henley, he finally offered a chuntered explanation for the incident, writing in The Independent:
I was desperate to get hold of a historian who could help me, but the only one I knew was my godfather Colin Lucas, a very distinguished man who is now vice-chancellor of Oxford University… I rang him and he obligingly gave me some quotes about Edward II. The trouble was that somewhere in my copy I managed to attribute to Colin the view that Edward II and Piers Gaveston would have been cavorting together in the Rose Palace.
Unfortunately, some linkside don at a provincial university spotted that by the time the Rose Palace was built, Piers Gaveston would long have been murdered. It was very nasty. Colin hadn't quite said that, and now his academic reputation was on the line.
It was extremely difficult, and I had absolutely no idea what to do. I was 23, overcome with guilt and shame that this error – this howler of mine attributed to Colin – had crept on to the front page of The Times, which was holy territory for me. So I made matters worse. I wrote a further story saying that the mystery had deepened about the date of the castle.
Even all those years later, Johnson was lying both to himself and the readers, shifting the blame from himself to some unnamed “don at a provincial university”, a sneer which in that case means “someone in command of the facts and not pulling them from his substantial arse”.
For most journalists being exposed as an incompetent fabricator in their first job — let’s not pretend liars aren’t comfortably employed across the British media — would have been the end of their career in the profession. But Boris Johnson is a well-connected Old Etonian who, as I’ve mentioned, lies at an elite level. If the hurling half-truths were an Olympic sport, Johnson would have represented Great Britain numerous times and bagged handfuls of gold medals.
Johnson was swiftly hired by The Daily Telegraph as a leader writer, having met the then-editor Max Hastings at a party. In 1990, two years into his long stint there, Johnson was called by Darius Guppy, a friend from Eton and Oxford, who wanted his help tracking down a journalist. Eddie Mair pressed him on the incident in the 2013 ‘nasty piece of work’ interview after a tape of the conversation was broadcast in a TV documentary:
MAIR: ‘The programme includes your reaction as you listen to a phone call in which your friend Darius Guppy asks you to supply the address of a journalist ... so that he can have him physically assaulted. Having heard that, you tell your friend, Darius Guppy, you will supply the address. What does that say about you Boris Johnson?’
JOHNSON: ‘It was certainly true that he was in a bit of a state and I did humour him in a long phone conversation, from which absolutely nothing eventuated and ... you know, there you go…people say all sorts of fantastical things whilst they’re talking to their friends.’
As you might expect, the truth was quite different. Guppy had contrived with his business partner in a gemstones firm to make it look like they had been robbed of jewels worth £1.8m. The scheme later unravelled and he was jailed for five years, but at the time he called Johnson, Guppy had heard that a News of the World reporter Stuart Collier was looking into the affair and decided he needed to put the frighteners on him. He wanted Johnson, then The Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, to get him Collier’s address.
In a 21-minute conversation, secretly taped by Guppy’s accomplice Peter Risdon, who had turned against him, Guppy tells Johnson, “There is nothing I won’t do to get my revenge.” It prompts Johnson to ask: “Uh, how badly are you going to hurt this guy?” Guppy assures Johnson that Collier will not have his arms broken but “will probably get a couple of black eyes and a cracked rib… but he will get scared.” Johnson goes on to say he’s got four people tracking down Collier and ends the conversation by reassuring his friend, “Ok, Darry, I said I’ll do it and I’ll do it. Don’t worry.”
The tape was released in 1995 and Boris Johnson suffered no professional or political consequences for attempting to aid his pal in getting a fellow journalist beaten up. His lies for The Daily Telegraph about Europe were proving just too popular. It was Johnson who pushed fake stories about the EU planning to ban bendy bananas, instituting one-size-fits-all ‘eurocoffins’, and insisting on smaller minimum condom sizes because of ‘Italian concerns’.
We were not interested by sizes. We had had requests from medical institutions across Europe to check on the safety of condoms. That has nothing to do with the size of dicks. All the journalists went on about comparing the size of penises in Germany and France. It’s about safety because so many doctors were interested to know about the risks for Aids patients. He was the paramount of exaggeration and distortion and lies. He was a clown – a successful clown.
In 1999, the successful clown was offered the editorship of The Spectator by the yet-to-be-disgraced newspaper baron Conrad Black. The job offer was conditional on Johnson dropping his plans to become an MP. Johnson said he would but… it was a lie. Two years later, following the retirement of Michael Heseltine, Johnson was selected as the candidate for his seat in Henley. Boosted by his increased public profile following successful appearances on Have I Got News for You, he won the seat in the 2001 election.
Lying to Black about the Spectator job didn’t cause him any problems. He remained editor of the magazine, enabled by his laissez-faire approach to Parliament (in his first term as an MP he only made it to just over half of Commons votes; in his second that dipped to under 45%). Black called him “ineffably duplicitous” but couldn’t resist the promotional power of the preposterous editor and part-time parliamentarian.
When Michael Howard became Tory leader, he made Johnson shadow arts minister and vice-chair of the party, hoping to harness some of his popularity. Six months later, Howard had to sack Johnson after he lied to his face about a long-running affair with his Spectator subordinate Petronella Wyatt, during which she had terminated two pregnancies. Johnson called the claims “an inverted pyramid of piffle”. They weren’t.
Still, he thrived: Remaining Spectator editor, chuckling along as Spectator writers Toby Young and Lloyd Evans made the Wyatt affair into a terrible play (Who’s the Daddy?), and getting reelected with an increased majority in 2005.
After The Spectator’s new chief executive, Andrew Neil, dismissed him as editor, Johnson just asked The Daily Telegraph to bump up his annual fee by £50,000 to make up for the lost. Paid £250,000 a year — an amount he dismissed as “chicken feed” in an interview with Andrew Marr — he was averaging about £5,000 per column, making him arguably the best-paid journalist in the country. In 2007, earnings from his Telegraph column, book publishing, and appearance fees came to £540,000, making him the third highest-earning MP.
In 2008, Johnson stood for London Mayor and won. It was a whole new arena for his lies. He promised to end street homelessness in London by 2012; it doubled during his time as mayor. He promised manned ticket offices at all tube stations and then… agreed to widespread closures. He picked up the bike hire scheme developed by his predecessor Ken Livingstone’s administration and made sure to take the credit and push the idea that they were “Boris bikes”. The list is long. Throughout his two terms, he continued to lie to himself, to the public, and to his wife, conducting more affairs and fathering at least one more child.
Of course, the bus lie during the Brexit referendum is infamous, but falsely suggesting that Britain could save £350 million a week by leaving the EU was just the start. As Prime Minister, he promised to recruit 20,000 police officers despite leaked documents revealing that thousands were, in fact, likely to be taken away from frontline roles.
During his leadership campaign, he assured his colleague Andrew Mitchell that he wouldn’t abolish the Department for International Development (“He looked me in the eye and told me DFID would be safe.”) In June 2020, DFID was absorbed into the Foreign Office. And it goes on and on and on…
Johnson lies to protect himself, but he also seems to lie for fun, to fill a gap in conversation, or just to provide a distraction from something he’d rather not confront (remember that weird interview about his ‘box bus making hobby).
And so we come to the Prime Minister’s journalism advice to students at Sedgehill Academy in Lewisham earlier this week. He said:
When you’re a journalist it’s a great, great job, it’s a great profession. But the trouble is, sometimes you find youself always abusing people or attacking people. Not that you want to abuse or attack them, but you are being critical when maybe you feel sometimes a bit guilty about that, because you haven’t put yourself in the place of the person you’re criticising.
Of course, Allegra Stratton, the former journalist who now serves as Boris Johnson’s press secretary and was herself not averse to journalism that attacked people, defended his comments:
That is the Prime Minister talking about the fact that all of you, as journalists, your job is to challenge and that makes us in government better. I think that’s what he meant.
She needs to get better at blatantly lying. She should ask her boss for tips.
Sky News’ chief political correspondent, Jon Craig, thinks Johnson’s comments reflect his anger about recent press reports on Number 10 drama:
Almost certainly, he will have had in mind lurid reports at the weekend about his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, and their dog - yes, really - their dog, Dilyn.
These reports were essentially about a vicious power struggle inside the prime minister's inner circle, but the embarrassing details veered between excruciating soap opera and farce.
First, it was revealed that Dilyn relieved himself all over the handbag of a former No. 10 staffer in the Downing Street garden.
Next came the disclosure that at Chequers the pesky pooch chewed the furniture, soiled the carpets and once darted under the PM's feet with an antique book in his mouth.
At that point, Mr Johnson is said to have shouted: "For God's sake, I'm going to get another £1,000 repair bill! Someone, please shoot that fucking dog!"
I agree. While he and his administration constantly use the press to float policies and fight culture war battles the Prime Minister cannot cope when the media is even mildly critical of him. When journalists of the kind that Johnson never was — fact-seeking and fact-checking — try to discover things about his government they are attacked by his ministers and stymied by Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office Clearing House, which appears to exist only to frustrated Freedom of Information requests from hacks the Tories particularly hate.
As a columnist whose back catalogue is littered with racist, sexist, homophobic drivel, wrapped up in lies and half-truths, Boris Johnson is a past master of abusing people in print. But as usual, he’s not feeling any guilt about his actions. Guilt is for other people, not for the Prime Minister, a liar whose life has taught him that he will always get away with it.
The journalist who conducted that interview, Ross Kempsel, now works in Number 10.