Even the sycophancy of an amoral Tory press couldn’t save Boris Johnson
The departure of Boris Johnson is a humiliation for three right-wing media giants who collectively control approximately three quarters of the British newspaper market.
News UK (owned by Rupert Murdoch), the Telegraph Media Group (Frederick Barclay) and DMG Media (Lord Rothermere) swung behind Johnson when he ran to be Tory leader in the summer of 2019, and supported him in the general election later that year. Several of their newspapers—especially the Mail—backed him through June’s vote of confidence by Conservative MPs and remained loyal right to the bitter end. By that time, evidence of Johnson’s venality and systematic lying was overwhelming.
There are two main exceptions to this picture of media sycophancy. The Times finally called on Johnson to go on 6th July, one day before he actually announced his departure. This scarcely counts.
The second exception is more telling. Rothermere sacked Geordie Greig as editor of the Daily Mail in late 2021, after the paper published a series of well-researched and damaging stories about the role of a Tory donor, Lord Brownlow, in funding the redecoration of Johnson’s Downing Street flat. The ace reporter responsible, Simon Walters, left his staff post shortly afterwards.
The Daily Mail once again flung its weight fully behind Johnson. As for Walters, he was obliged to tout his stories round Fleet Street. He managed to get one of them into the Times. It only lasted for the first edition. Downing Street complained and, in a shaming moment, the Times removed it.
Historians will be baffled by the readiness of Britain’s largest media organisations to lick Johnson’s boots for so long, and will surely look for an explanation. Part of the reason is ideology. Murdoch and the Barclay brothers personally supported the Brexit movement which propelled Johnson to power.
Another is that Johnson cleverly ensured the major newspaper groups had a vested interest in maintaining him in office. Though lazy and incompetent, Johnson understands the press exceptionally well, and as prime minister managed it skilfully, giving the newspapers everything they wanted in exchange for their support.
This meant allowing media barons to set his agenda. The BBC has long been a target of the press—Murdoch in particular—because it occupies public space which corporate media craves for itself. Johnson’s attacks on the licence fee—and the briefing by allies of his culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, that on her watch “it’s over for the BBC” as we know it—look like gifts to his media backers. So was the appointment of an unqualified Tory donor, former banker Richard Sharp, as chairman of the national broadcaster. The same applies to the proposed Channel 4 sell-off.
Even more important than this overarching assault on the public sphere is that the prime minister helped dismantle the legacy of the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics of the press in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. Johnson pledged to repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, thus meeting one core objective of the press—eliminating the threat of exemplary damages paid out by newspapers in libel cases. This is more important than it might seem because it was the one tool available to Leveson to incentivise publishers to join up to the recognised press regulator to meet the standards Leveson demanded. Some liberal champions of press freedom would welcome this change. Nonetheless, it shows in whose interests the prime minister has been governing.
The Queen’s Speech in May spoke to another longstanding press objective—forcing tech giants like Facebook to pay newspapers for using their content. Johnson has also ringfenced British newspapers against the Online Safety Bill—despite the fact that some titles have a record of spreading hate speech across social media. (It is an open question how much of this legislation survives through to the new administration.) The prime minister especially loves to hand out favours to individual proprietors. A notable recent example concerns the government removing legal barriers to Murdoch interfering with the editorial line taken by Times newspapers, which had been in place since 1981.
Johnson used patronage to reward press cronies. He handed his host on an Italian holiday, the Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev, a peerage. Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of DMG Media, will reportedly soon follow Lebedev into the Lords. Since the departure of Greig, the Mail has taken its Johnson sycophancy to farcical lengths. Since the prime minister’s defenestration, it has assiduously built up the stab-in-the-back myth of Johnson the lost leader while supporting Liz Truss, the continuity Johnson candidate.
Most important of all has been subsidy. Thanks to investigative work by Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University, we know that the Johnson government provided financial help to mainstream titles during the Covid pandemic—while denying similar help to smaller independent publications.
Details of this subsidy, worth £35m over the first three months alone, remain obscure, but Cathcart estimates it amounts to over £100m in total. The great majority of the financial help is likely, he says, to have gone to titles which have generally delivered fawning coverage—the Sun, Mail, Times and Express. The Mirror and Guardian have also received government funds, which may explain why they have hardly reported on an arrangement which could appear borderline corrupt.
The benefits Johnson has received in return are obvious—scandals hushed up, his many lies overlooked, opponents smeared, a pattern of grovelling support sustained right up to the final days of his morally bankrupt premiership. A free press is supposed to hold governments to account. That model was abandoned and replaced by complicity with power, with newspapers acting as loudspeakers for a venal government and the BBC too cowed to challenge it.
Under Johnson, government and the press merged and became interchangeable. Johnson and cabinet minister Michael Gove had enjoyed successful careers as journalists and will probably return to newspapers (in the case of Gove I would not be surprised if he was soon offered editorship of the Times).
Ultimately individual reporters—most notably Pippa Crerar of the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror, responsible for the early Partygate revelations—challenged this system and helped bring Johnson down. Small websites and titles, such as openDemocracy and Byline Times (for which I write a column) played their part.
Eventually it became too humiliating for Tory MPs to go out and defend Johnson in the face of his constant lies and corruption, and they rebelled. But three big newspaper groups backed him to the end. They will support whoever replaces him, and the conspiracy between large sections of the British press and the Tory government against the British people will continue.
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