The Boris Show: what happens next?

A spot of travel and picking fights with Osborne will keep the London mayor amused once the Olympics are over.

Boris Johnson was hardly going to let the Olympics slip past him unexploited. As I noted in my column last week, the opportunity to use the games as a festival of self-promotion constitutes the Mayor of London's special reward for being the most electable Tory around. It is hard to imagine David Cameron basking in chants of "Dave! Dave! Dave!" at a vast Hyde Park rally. There is something about Johnson that zoinks -  so to speak - where other Conservatives don't.

Boris's Olympian hogging of the limelight has, I gather, been a source of some irritation to other politicians who are rarely sated with publicity. Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has been raising hackles on Team Boris with his attempts to get in on the act. Olympics = sport = Jeremy, says the DCMS; London = Boris so back off, comes the City Hall rejoinder.

Meanwhile, provoking chatter about Boris's chances of succeeding Cameron was a poll for ConservativeHome naming him the activists' favourite. I stand by my column analysis that this is more a proxy expression of dismay and disappointment with the current leader than serious contemplation of Boris as Prime Minister. There are many obstacles to Johnson actually becoming leader (some of which I explore here; Steve Richards also picks up the theme in his Independent column today). 

Aside from the technical impediments - such as Boris not actually being an MP - there is the much more serious question of irresponsibility and pathological unseriousness. As one former Boris staffer said to me recently in a tone of weary incredulity aiming to kill off the idea of Prime Minister Johnson: "Just imagine him for a second in charge of defence."

Labour are certainly not taking the Johnson threat too seriously. The view at the top of the party is that Boris has reached his natural political altitude. One senior shadow cabinet minister told me at the time of the London mayoral election that Boris's success was an expression of the executive weakness of the post he was applying for. Voters could be relaxed about hiring a semi-comic figurehead because they fully understood that doing so had few real consequences. That would not be true in a general election where a crucial element in deciding how people vote (this shadow cabinet minister said) is "the fear factor" - what happens if this mildly ridiculous person actually wins?

Meanwhile, Boris is clearly determined to raise his candidacy beyond the novelty level. That aspiration is hardly helped by his hope, expressed to aides (as I revealed last week), of overseeing the city on a part time basis after the Olympics. But presumably he will use his free time to burnish his credentials as a serious national figure - and even an international one - capable of holding more august office. One way City Hall folk expect Boris to liven up  his job once the Olympic excitement has worn off is more foreign travel. It was felt in the first term that too much gallivanting around the globe as an "ambassador for London" would not have been received very well. One too many junkets and it might have looked as if Boris was neglecting his manor. But in the wake of the games, and the higher profile that has afforded the mayor, Boris now apparently feels liberated to go out and about drumming up investment from foreign companies and businesses. The idea is that the Magnetic Mayor's Roadshow will attract capital to the capital. He can then turn to the nation with a pitch along the lines: "Behold! London growing and replete with jobs. Witness how it has outperformed the rest of the country."

Another pursuit to pass the time productively will be picking fights with the Chancellor over funding for the capital. London as a region is a net contributor to the Exchequer and Boris intends to haggle noisily to secure, as he sees it, a bigger share of his constituents' cash. That also creates ample opportunities for the sport described by one source as "jabbing George in the ribs". It is only once the Olympics are gone that the games really begin.

Boris's Olympian hogging of the limelight has been a source of some irritation to other politicians. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Show Hide image

What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.