Boris Johnson heckled for almost two hours in Lewisham

The mayor was not made to feel welcome.

Boris Johnson faced one of the most hostile audiences of his mayoralty last night at the People's Question Time in Catford, attacked relentlessly over his role in supporting the closure of Lewisham A&E, his money-losing cable car, fire station closures, gun and knife crime, the cross-river tram, and his climate "sceptic" Telegraph column.

The majority of the event, which Boris is legally mandated to attend (explaining why he was to be found in the lion's den), was spent focusing on the closure of the local accident and emergency department and Lewisham hospital. It's a particularly sore point in the area, because, as Rowenna Davis explained, the hospital isn't being closed because it's under performing, but because other local hospitals are under performing. The intention, it seems, is to drive "business" to those hospitals by closing the successful one.

Despite the published schedule, the A&E closure was discussed as part of nearly every topic, from housing:

 

 

To the economy:

 

 

In addition, there was a section at the start dedicated to it. Lewishamites forced the Mayor to confront the fact that, while he is frequently outspoken on areas he has no control over, such as taxation or immigration, he pleads inability when asked to do the same with the A&E. Similarly, a zombie statistic—that "100 lives would be saved" by the move—was repeatedly brought up by Boris and shot down by attendees, including local MP Heidi Alexander.

At one point, a local doctor pointed out that the Mayor's responsibility for tackling health inequalities, and said that by ignoring Lewisham's effect on that, Boris was being cowardly. It's fair to say he lost the plot at that one. Darryl Chamberlain posted a recording of Johnson's reply:

 

 

It's rare for Boris to get this angry publicly, though he has a reputation for a bit of a temper behind closed doors. The recording also makes clear just how hostile the crowd was; he can barely be heard over the heckles and jeers.

The other hefty load of criticism was reserved for the cable-car (officially called the "Emirates Airline", just as frequently referred to as the "dangleway"). Connecting two tourist attractions, the O2 Dome and ExCeL exhibition centre, the link was sold to south-east Londoners as a new river crossing in an area sorely deprived of them. In fact, after a burst of use during the Olympics, the cable-car—which can carry as many passengers per hour as a modestly-frequent bus service, but costs almost three times as much and doesn't accept travelcards—has fallen into such disuse that the European Regional Development Fund has stepped in with an £8m boost to its ailing finances.

Johnson seems to have accepted that, as a public transport project, the dangleway is a busted flush, instead defending it as a tourist attraction to Lewisham:

 

 

Since one of the Mayor's first acts in office was to cancel the cross-river tram, an ambitious proposal from Peckham to Camden crossing the river at Waterloo bridge, the cable car had a high bar to cross. Judging by local response, it hasn't.

The wonderful @bitoclass has storified the entire meeting if you want more Boris schadenfreude than you can handle.

Boris Johnson. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder