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23 September 2017

Why has the once-great Daily Telegraph become Pravda for Boris Johnson?

This was the language of a propagandist, not a newspaper.

By Peter Wilby

Boris Johnson chose the Daily Telegraph to launch what was, in effect, a revived leadership bid. There’s nothing surprising or wrong with that. Johnson is a former columnist, and the Telegraph has long been a Tory paper that has provided a home for many fascinating, important debates about what Conservatism should mean. But allowing Johnson 4,000 words on pages normally reserved for news was a different matter. The Telegraph could once be relied on to use that space for straightforward, almost wholly unbiased reporting.

The extended leader that appeared the same day on the Telegraph’s comment pages was even more extraordinary. In its distinguished heyday, the Telegraph would have weighed Johnson’s words, considered the pros and cons of his approach and, even if endorsing his manifesto, acknowledged the existence of alternative Tory views. No longer. The leader, apparently written by someone who learned his or her trade on Pravda in the 1970s, bordered on idolatry: “a bold, optimistic, unifying vision… a torrent of energetic and coherent thinking… only the determinedly bitter could fail to enthuse… a stirring, positive message”. This was the language of a propagandist, not that of a once-great newspaper.

Classier clown

In the same issue, the Telegraph columnist Charles Moore, who edited the paper from 1995 to 2003 before it entered its long, sad decline, presented a somewhat more sceptical view of the great manifesto. He acknowledged “elements of Borisian tosh”. Tosh – which roughly means flamboyant untruths – is a wonderfully British understatement. Donald Trump also talks tosh. I think Johnson is modelling himself on Trump, calculating that Britons will welcome the chance to give the world a better class of clown.

The Mail and Isis

“Web giants with blood on their hands” was the Daily Mail’s headline the morning after the terror attack on the London Tube at Parsons Green. Not for the first time, the paper claimed that its reporters took “just seconds to find dozens of websites giving childlike, step-by-step guides to making improvised bombs”. A few days later, it detailed at length “some of the chilling material readily available via Google”. Opposite this inventory, Stephen Glover, quoting a new report from the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange, argued that “these amoral, soulless leviathans” – Google, Facebook and YouTube – “must face the full penalty of the law”.

All good, stirring stuff. But wait: what is this? An important section of the Policy Exchange report, which must have somehow escaped Glover, concerned the “findability” of “jihadist content”. Some “news organisations”, it said, “unfortunately” increased the size of the audience that Isis can reach. Among the named offenders, featuring “sections of videos from Isis production houses” and thus making them available to its 240 million monthly users, was Mail Online, the editor-in-chief of which is Paul Dacre, also the Daily Mail editor.

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Lars von Trump

Until recently, Donald Trump held the attention not just of Americans but of the world. Everyone wanted to know what the next twist in the Trump story would be. Now, however, I sense that people are becoming bored. They realise that there’s no narrative progression and therefore no story – just a random succession of events of the sort you’d get in a Lars von Trier film. Trump’s latest move is to make alliances with the Democrats, a development that, if it had involved any other Republican president of the past half-century, would have provoked some amazement. But even the best Washington reporters struggle to make it sound exciting.

All the president’s men

All the same, I hope Trump’s overtures persuade the Democrats to drop any plans for impeachment. We should pray not for the president’s early departure but for his survival until 2020. The American presidential system does not allow for by-elections. Trump’s overthrow would lead to the succession of the vice-president, Mike Pence. If he was also ousted, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, would enter the Oval Office and if he, too, became unavailable, Orrin Hatch, his Senate counterpart, would step forward.

These three men are all hard-line Republicans who want to cut taxes on the rich, scrap much of government regulation, ditch Obamacare, abolish the minimum wage and eliminate funding for green energy projects. Most of them are experienced politicians who would get things done. And, faced with North Korea, they would turn to the Pentagon’s carefully calibrated war games, which I find more chilling and more likely to lead to nuclear exchanges than Trump’s volatile temperament. The president deserves to be impeached. But we should be careful what we wish for.

Capitalist cravings

Ian McEwan has revealed how he became convinced that he had written “an incredibly beautiful novella… perfect in every way” but had misplaced the manuscript during a house move. He had a distinct memory of writing it – “It just flowed out of me” – but a frantic search proved fruitless. He now admits that it never existed.

Though McEwan calls it “a false memory”, I suspect the manuscript lodged in his mind during a persistent dream. My dream was that I had a large sum of money stashed in an account with a bank somewhere off London’s City Road where I used to work for the Independent. The dream was so persistent and so vivid that I found it hard to dismiss and spent hours searching in drawers and filing cabinets for account details. I suppose this signifies that, while McEwan’s subconscious craves authorship of a great work of literature, mine craves ownership of a large fortune, an embarrassing thing for a socialist to discover about himself. 

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