Stuffed with Turkish Delight: How The Atlantic fell for the liar Boris Johnson's White Witch grift

... and why so many high profile journalists drooled over a partial profile.

If Edmund from The Chronicles of Narnia were a British journalist, his colleagues would praise him to the hilt for his profile of the White Witch, ignoring the bit where he briefly talked about her plying him with cursed Turkish Delight and the obvious fact that she was responsible for plunging the land into eternal winter.

Yesterday1, The Atlantic published a profile of Boris Johnson by Tom McTague that immediately received plaudits from huge swathes of the British media class. It was “full of fascinating stuff”, “brilliantly written”, “very, very good” and, most of all, “very revealing”.

But when I read it I discovered a piece that teetered on the cusp of hagiography, plastered over with ‘colour’, barely concealing the writer’s joy at getting so much access, and mistaking neat connections and semi-polished lines for truths.

So why did my experience of McTague’s work differ so drastically from others in my industry? I think it’s because so many of them fetishist the American ‘long-read style of feature writing, which uses buckets of ‘colour’ — little incidents and details included to flesh out the reader’s sense of the subject — and embedding the writer in the subject’s world, but can mistake the artificial light of fireworks for truly explosive revelations.

While I’m going to return to the beginning of the piece, let’s start deep into it with a section that finds McTague with Johnson while the European Super League story was raging. He writes:

I wondered why he cared so much. He doesn’t know anything about soccer, and in fact delights in his ignorance.

But Johnson intuited something important about English anxiety, and he turned the issue into a parable for a sense of powerlessness and dislocation felt by many in Britain, precisely the sort of feelings that had energized the Brexit movement and carried him to 10 Downing Street. In one of our conversations, Johnson had said that people need to feel part of something bigger than themselves. He told me that he doesn’t think of himself as a nationalist, but he argued that individuals need to feel that they belong, and they shouldn’t be patronized for worrying that their traditions and connections are being eroded. Was this why he opposed the European Super League?

“Absolutely,” he said. “This is about the deracination of the community fan base.” Soccer clubs, he continued, had turned into global brands and were leaving their supporters behind, “taking off like a great mother ship and orbiting the planet.”

I was struck by his use of the word deracinated to describe the peculiar dynamics of English soccer partisanship. To be deracinated is to be uprooted from your customs, your culture, your home—in this instance, from England. Here, Johnson was offering himself as the people’s tribune, defender of the national game from the threat of alien imposition. He was channelling a cry of anger and turning it against globalization.

This is over-analysis that borders on pretension and gives Johnson credit for using a $5-word when a 50c2 one would have done the job. Using a surprising word — usually archaic or overly formal — to discuss a simple situation is one of Johnson’s favourite tricks. It’s a kind of verbal chaff that distracts interviewers from the content of his words, leaving them to radar in one the sound and style of them, just as McTague does.

What’s especially galling about this recounting of Johnson’s response to the ESL row is that The Sunday Times revealed that the Prime Minister had met then-Chief Executive of Manchester United, Ed Woodward, in Number 10, days before the announcement. Sources claimed that Johnson had given the football executive the impression that he supported the proposal.

Amongst all the ‘colour’ of McTague’s story, that aspect of the ESL tale is ignored and the obvious explanation that Johnson saw an opportunity in fan anger and the uproar of tabloid frontpages to cynically and astutely position himself as the champion of the English game against the foreign interlopers. Instead, spurred on by the use of an interesting word, McTague presents us Johnson as “people’s tribune… channelling a cry of anger”.

I think it’s very likely that Johnson did give the impression that he supported the ESL proposal while, in fact, thinking quite the opposite. It’s a well-known aspect of the Prime Minister’s character that he likes to be liked and tends to say whatever the person in front of him at any given moment wants to hear. Reading McTague’s profile, I think he’s been bamboozled by the same tricks.

The story, headlined The Minister of Chaos: Boris Johnson knows exactly what he’s doing, begins with a familiar but effective long-read trick — the anecdote that metamorphoses into an analogy and then ultimately into the article’s theme. In this case, we begin with Boris Johnson on a tram, his exaggerated confidence later echoed back to us in McTague’s conclusions:

Nothing can go wrong!” Boris Johnson said, jumping into the driver’s seat of a tram he was about to take for a test ride. “Nothing. Can. Go. Wrong.”

From that opening line, which drops the reader into the middle of a scene in progress, McTague whips up an initial pen portrait of the Prime Minister, written to explain him to the American segment of The Atlantic’s audience:

Johnson was, as usual, unkempt and amused, a tornado of bonhomie in a country where politicians tend to be phlegmatic and self-serious, if not dour and awkward. Walking in, he had launched into a limerick about a man named Dan who likes to ride trams. The mayor, Andy Street, looked horrified, tomorrow’s disastrous headlines seeming to flash before his eyes. (The limerick, I’m sorry to say, was not at all filthy.)

Johnson’s aide told me the prime minister had been excited about his tram ride all morning. He loves infrastructure, mobile infrastructure especially—planes, trains, bicycles, trams, even bridges to Ireland and airports floating in the sea. And he loves photo ops. There would be no point in displaying action and intent and momentum if no one were present to document it.

Just as hollow as the idea of American exceptionalism, hacks often introduce analysis of the Prime Minister with a concept that could be called Johnsonian exceptionalism — suggesting that Boris Johnson alone is the one characterful person in British politics, a Technicolor tosser in a sea of grey ghouls. It’s not true, of course, but it’s the Boris ‘brand’ and has been so successfully marketed that the idea of any other politician being more interesting than Johnson is as distasteful as a bar trying to persuade you Pepsi is just as good as Coke.

When McTague writes that Johnson “loves infrastructure”, making him sound more like a 5-year-old enthused by trains and big bridges than a 56-year-old man in charge of trillions of pounds of investment policy, he once again skims over a deep well of deception on the Prime Minister’s part.

There is no mention of the failed Garden Bridge project under Johnson’s watch as Mayor of London, which, for £53 million, produced… no bridge. Or just how ludicrous the bridge to Ireland/undersea tunnel idea actually is. Or how the ‘Boris Island’ dream became synonymous with Johnson’s laughable infrastructure daydreaming replacing real thinking about huge transport problems.

And while McTague writes that…

Johnson’s sense of humor regularly gets him into trouble. In 2017, as foreign secretary, he joked about the Libyan city of Sirte having a bright future, as soon as its residents “clear the dead bodies away.”

Announcing further COVID-19 restrictions in October 2020, he reportedly told lawmakers that at least they wouldn’t have to spend Christmas with their in-laws. He has likened Hillary Clinton to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” and the Conservative Party’s infighting to “Papua New Guinea–style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing.”

… he trips quickly over the Prime Minister’s luxurious history of lying and the most egregiously racist, sexist, homophobic, and Islamophobic lines he has spouted over the years:

Johnson has written about Africans with “watermelon smiles” and described gay men as “tank-topped bumboys.” As foreign secretary, he put a fellow citizen at risk when he mistakenly claimed that she was in Iran to teach journalism, giving Tehran an excuse to charge her with spreading propaganda. 

To reference the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in such a glancing manner is a dereliction of duty. Boris Johnson did not simply “put a fellow citizen at risk”, he, while Foreign Secretary, stood up in parliament without a proper understanding of the case in which Zagari-Ratcliffe was falsely accused and convicted of spying in Iran.

Johnson said while giving evidence to a parliamentary committee, that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “simply teaching people journalism”, a claim that both her family and her employer immediately said was untrue.

Three days after Johnson’s lazy and ignorant statement, the Iranian authorities summoned Zaghari-Ratcliffe to an unscheduled court hearing where Boris Johnson’s words were cited as proof that she had been engaged in “propaganda against the regime.” She remains imprisoned and Johnson was recently accused by her family of failing to take steps that could lead to her release.

But having decided that Boris Johnson is “a storyteller”, McTague insists that those who attack the Prime Minister — a proven and pathological liar — are being defeated by a master of strategy:

Part of his electoral genius lies in his ability to stop his opponents from thinking straight: In their hatred for him, they cannot see why he is popular, nor what to do about it.

Journalists frequently do this, especially when high on the fumes of access to famous people — whether they’re rockstars or politicians — which lead them to believe that they can see “the real person” who the emotional critics are too angry to understand.

Later in the article, during a canter through Johnson’s lie-strewn life as a journalist, McTague writes:

He made a name for himself with outlandish, not-always-accurate stories about European regulations ostensibly being imposed on Britons—rules governing the flavors of potato chips, the bendiness of bananas, the size of condoms. 

I can only imagine that McTague’s thesaurus is falling apart after he flipped through it so frequently while writing the Boris profile, searching for ever-more painful ways of avoiding calling him a liar. Describing Johnson’s Telegraph output during his time as Brussels correspondent (and since, actually) as “outlandish and not-always-accurate” is outrageous soft soaping. Those stories were lies written by an unrepentantly mendacious shit.

There follows a moment that illustrates why McTague was bamboozled by Boris Johnson’s tricks even as he thought he was dissecting them:

I asked Johnson about his change of mind [on Europe]. He famously wrote two drafts of a column—one in favor of “Leave,” the other for “Remain”—before announcing which side he supported in the 2016 referendum. Critics allege that he only backed Brexit because it provided him with a path to power. Johnson rejects that characterization—his aides say he often plays devil’s advocate to pressure-test his arguments and ideas. And Johnson told me Britain had never been able to lead the EU in any case, because it was too hamstrung by division and doubt over the project to be anything but a brake. This seemed anathema to him: better momentum, whatever the direction, than playing the role of spoiler.

“Anyway,” he said, “do we have to talk about Brexit? We’ve sucked that lemon dry.”

So we turned instead to Horace.

Shouting “look over there!” is still shouting “look over there!” even if you do it with references to Roman poets and lashings of Latin.

Though he stretches throughout to present himself as a quizzical outsider in the court of King Boris, McTague cannot help but include sections that highlight how the Prime Minister flattered and manipulated him:

In 2005, Johnson gave a lecture about the Roman poet, in which he reflected on the lasting influence that poets and historians and journalists have over how people are remembered. “Horace writes all these bum-sucking poems about his [patrons] saying how great they are,” Johnson told me, “but the point he always makes to them is ‘You’re going to die and the poem is going to live, and who wrote the poem?’ ”

I told him that sounded like a cynical view of the world.

“It’s a defense of journalism!” he said.

“So you’re saying I’m more powerful than you?” I asked.

“Exactly, exactly,” he replied, laughing.

I said I didn’t buy it. But Johnson very clearly appreciates the importance of shaping perceptions. To him, the point of politics—and life—is not to squabble over facts; it’s to offer people a story they can believe in.

I don’t buy that McTague didn’t buy Boris Johnson’s line; the whole premise of his piece is that the Prime Minister is not simply a liar, but a ‘storyteller’ who wants to help a nation of naysayers believe in itself.

When McTague does get to the issue of the Prime Minister’s frequent racism — documented in black and white in his newspaper columns and his blatantly antisemitic novel — he’s once again knocked off course by the most obvious and empty defence possible:

As for Johnson himself, his past language about members of minority groups is, to some, evidence of a kinship with Trump. Johnson has compared Muslim women in burkas to mailboxes, written of “flag-waving piccaninnies,” and recited a nostalgic colonial-era poem while in Myanmar. His partisans note, defensively, that his first finance minister was the son of a Pakistani bus driver; his second is a British Indian. The business secretary is a fellow Eton alum whose parents came to Britain from Ghana, and Britain’s president of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is being held in Glasgow, Scotland, this year, was born in India. The man Johnson charged with overseeing Britain’s vaccine rollout is an Iraqi-born British Kurd, and the home secretary, responsible for policing, is the daughter of Ugandan Indians.

He ignores questions of caste, class, and wealth in his discussion of Johnson’s cabinet and when tripping over Priti Patel doesn’t mention that her key policies include immigration ‘reform’ which would have prevented her own parents from coming to the UK.

McTague speaks again and again to advisors, supporters, ministers and friends. When critics are mentioned they don’t appear by name but as amorphous and anonymous groups. There is no space for people like Johnson’s former colleague Rory Stewart (who called him an “amoral character” and “the most accomplished liar in public life”) or his former boss Max Hastings (who said he was a “bully and a coward” who was “not fit to be Prime Minister”).

During McTague’s months seeking Boris Johnson’s motivations, he doesn’t seem to have watched Peter Stefanovic’s video detailing the numerous times Boris Johnson has lied in the House of Commons or picked up any biography beyond Sonia Purnell’s Just Boris, which spends a great deal of time excusing his perma-fuckboy philandering because his daddy did the same thing. It’s odd when there are more recent tomes to consult like Peter Oborne’s The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.

Reading McTague’s work, my mind drifted back to a section in Oborne’s 2019 Open Democracy piece British journalists have become part of Johnson’s fake news machine:

Of course, political journalists have always entered into behind-the-scenes deals with politicians, but this kind of arrangement has gained a new dimension since Boris Johnson entered Downing Street with the support of a client press and media. As a former lobby correspondent (on the Evening Standard, the Sunday Express and The Spectator) I understand the need for access. The job of lobby journalists is to produce information.

But there is now clear evidence that the prime minister has debauched Downing Street by using the power of his office to spread propaganda and fake news. British political journalists have got chillingly close to providing the same service to Boris Johnson that Fox News delivers for Donald Trump.

The big compliment thrown around by other hacks who read and drooled over McTague’s profile is that it was “revealing”. But it actually amounts to a string of assertions by Johnson that are not particularly probed or tested by the writer. We ‘learn’ the story that Boris Johnson is telling right now and are reminded that he is ludicrously relaxed about saying whatever he thinks people want to hear.

Access is a very intoxicating thing for journalists. Being allowed to speak to the most powerful people often makes them pull punches for fear of not getting that access again. That McTague chooses to write about the behind-the-scenes mechanics of getting that access is interesting…

What am i doing this for?” Johnson asked his aides, looking at his schedule for the day and seeing a slot carved out to talk to me.

“It’s for the profile I advised you not to do,” James Slack, Johnson’s then–director of communications, said.

In the year since I’d first asked Johnson’s team for time with the prime minister, his director of communications had changed twice, and much of the rest of Johnson’s early team had been replaced, partly over interoffice rivalries that had spun out of control. In the end, Johnson himself gave the green light. When I finally got to see him, it was March 2021 and the country was just starting to come out of its most stringent lockdown.

… because it is all at once a kind of boasting (“Look! They didn’t want me to be here but the Prime Minister agreed!”) and an attempt at faux-transparency.

But the cosiness that pervades this (and many other examples of British political journalism) means McTague accepts the premise of arguments put by Boris Johnson and his advisors over and over again without any real rebuttal. Take this section on foreign policy:

Beijing and Moscow have shown us the limits of the rules-based order. Britain can no longer afford to be a “status quo power” naively trying to resurrect a defunct system. “The world is moving faster,” the adviser said, “and therefore we have got to get our shit together and move faster with it.”

To do so, Johnson insists, Britain must be independent, united, and nimble. (His foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told me that instead of “some big cumbersome whale,” the country needed to be “a more agile dolphin.”) The prime minister has already indicated what this might look like, imposing human-rights sanctions on Russia, using the presidency of the G7 to turn the group into a wider alliance of democracies, and trying to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The whale/dolphin analogy from Raab — a man who was famously baffled by the relationship between Dover and Calais — is so idiotic that it would have been too unbelievable for inclusion in a Thick Of It script.

You can pinpoint the moment that grifter Johnson turned McTague from a visiting hack into his latest mark. It comes about halfway through the piece when Johnson raises one of McTague’s previous articles:

In his office, Johnson steered the conversation to a subject he raised nearly every time I saw him. He’d read an article I’d written, a kind of eulogy for the late British novelist John le Carré. I’d praised le Carré’s observations about England and its failing ruling class—privately educated charlatans whom the author mocked as the greatest dissemblers on Earth. And I’d listed Johnson as an example.

He told me he’d taken a completely different lesson from the novelist. To Johnson, le Carré had exposed not the fakery of the British ruling class, but its endemic passivity, and acceptance of decline. “I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at school,” he said. “It presented to me this miserable picture of these Foreign Office bureaucrats … For me, they were the problem,” Johnson told me this was exactly what he was determined to fight.

“You lump me together with various other people—and you say we are all products of these decadent institutions and this culture, an inadequate and despairing establishment. That’s not me!” He said he was trying “to recapture some of the energy and optimism that this country used to have.”

This is a classic bit of flattery (“I know your work”) designed precisely to tickle the sensitive ego of a journalist, something Johnson knows very well. By making McTague aware that he has seen his previous articles and has thoughts about them — just as he did earlier in the piece by implying that the hack has the power — he was steering the conversation in the direction he wanted to go in.

After that first le Carré section, McTague returns to the idea several more times, finally coming back to it as he’s wrapping up the piece:

As ever with Johnson, it’s hard to discern true belief from narrative skill. I kept coming back to something he’d told me earlier, in our discussion of le Carré: “All romantics need the mortar of cynicism to hold themselves up.” The duality of his character continued to fascinate me. There is the light and the color he wants the world to see—his jokes and unclouded optimism. But there is a shadow, too, the darker side that most people who know him acknowledge, the moments of introspection and calculation.

Hoping for another glimpse of the more reflective Johnson, I repeated the quote to him and began to ask him what he’d meant.

“I wondered—” was all I was able to get out before Johnson cut in.

“Did I say that?” he asked. “How pompous of me.”

The “mortar of cynicism” line has been quoted by many of the journalists in raptures over McTague’s work, but to me, it’s as empty as any other Boris bon mot; when you pull at the threads of the argument it falls apart.

British hacks cannot admit that Boris Johnson is a liar who is good at lying and whose lies have persuaded the public for now. That would be too simple and suggest that they are as gullible as anyone else. So instead we must be sold the “storyteller”, the “tactician”, the “man of light and shadow”.

McTague set out with his Boris Johnson profile to pick through the layers of the public persona and find the ‘real’ thing inside. But Boris Johnson is like a Russian doll: You delve deeper and deeper through the layers until finally, you end up at the middle — a void.

Boris Johnson is a liar who wants to be loved, a charlatan that has not yet run out of road. But filled up on the sweet Turkish delight of quips and compliments, McTague was never going to be able to come out and say that.

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1

Monday 7 June 2021, should you be reading this at some unknown point in the future

2

Mark Twain: “Don't use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”