Reviewed: Boris Johnson - the Irresistible Rise

Buller for him.

I slightly mistrust people who purport to despise Boris Johnson. All this shows is how little they know about top politicians, who are mostly quite mad and quite dull. Yes, I know. Strange to be mad and dull at the same time, but there you have it: I’ve interviewed loads, including the last three prime ministers, and this is how they strike me. Even as the alarm rises in your chest, you’re stifling a yawn.

Whatever else he is, Boris isn’t dull. He is also fairly sane, in the way that you do tend to be if you have a little sister like Rachel Johnson, a woman who would no sooner stop taking the piss out of him than she would give up breathing. Thanks to her, he is never going to be allowed to drink his own Kool-Aid. She will always be there, telling the world about his loony childhood ambition – “World King!” the boy Boris would answer, when adults asked him what he wanted to be – from beneath her My Little Pony fringe. No wonder Michael Cockerell made her a star turn of his unnervingly entertaining film about Boris (25 March, 9pm). It was like watching someone who’d ingested too much tartrazine perform The Prince as rewritten by Dr Freud – and I mean that in a good way (I think).

Johnson was the ideal subject for Cockerell: Alan Clark, with added nice bits, a bigger brain and a real chance of becoming prime minister (though perhaps a little less real since Eddie Mair set about him with his scalpel on The Andrew Marr Show). Maybe this was why his film made me feel so nostalgic. As a politician, Johnson seems to belong to a different, more interesting generation. It’s not only that he has a hinterland and a bulging manila folder of a private life; it’s in his attitude, too. After his affair with an art adviser called Helen Macintyre became public – she is supposed to have had his child – Andy Coulson, then David Cameron’s director of communications, advised Boris to hold a mea culpa press conference. What did Boris say? Stuff that for a game of billiards. Like most voters, he knows there are few things more repulsive than the sight of a politician sniffling insincere apologies into a microphone.

Cockerell had so much wonderful material. I loved Boris’s mother’s description of the baby Boris, who emerged from the womb looking “ready for prep school”. Ditto her account of her son’s face as, aged 18 months, he first caught sight of his new sister: “Shock, disbelief . . . fear.” In old cine films, mini Boris was preposterously unselfconscious, beating his bare belly like King Kong. Rachel observed that while her brother got to wear some sort of swanky waistcoat at Eton and was made head boy, David Cameron achieved neither of these things – and that this tells us everything we need to know about their relationship even now. Did I believe her? Yes, especially when Boris, recalling Dave at school, described him as “this tiny chap”. Boris was definitely not tiny – and any bits that might have been mistaken for tiny, he soon dealt with. For his Eton leaver’s photograph, he’d done something creative with his scarf, wrapping it round the tops of his thighs so that it pushed his fly into a codpiece. Being extremely childish, this made me laugh – though if we’re going to be honest, it looked more like a tube of Rolos than a jet plane.

Boris is usually difficult to embarrass: this is his superpower, politically-speaking, which makes Mair’s achievement all the greater. Cockerell had a go, flashing up on three huge screens the notorious Bullingdon Club photograph (the one Dave wishes would disappear forever). “Oh, that is a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness,” said Johnson, shamefacedly. Cockerell mentioned that he’d heard Johnson still greets other members of the club with the cry “Buller, Buller, Buller!” Johnson grinned. “It may be that I do – in a satirical way,” he said. He then allowed himself a titter, a snicker that said: yes, I’m embarrassed, but not half so much as Cameron and Osborne are.

As I watched this masterclass in dealing with Grim Stuff From One’s Past, I thought of the politician I met recently who, when I brought up his membership of a gruesome student dining society, told me all sorts of fibs along the lines of: I never wanted to join, not really. Not classy at all. Better to gild one’s squirming with laughter than with lies, don’t you think?

 

Boris Johnson. Photograph: BBC/Jeff Overs

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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