In 1985, more than 30 years before the TV series Succession or the play Ink, Howard Brenton and I wrote a comedy called Pravda, in which Anthony Hopkins gave a great stage performance as a newspaper proprietor, Lambert Le Roux. We modelled the character on the worst features of Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. The subject matter was new to the theatre and we were not short of material. The play’s subsequent success was, by their own account, especially disturbing to journalists. One told me that he had known that everyone hated his profession, but until he had sat listening to the laughter in the Olivier Theatre he had not realised how much. Rather than find fault with the proprietors, we chose instead to place the blame where we believed it more properly belonged: among those employees who acquiesced far too easily in Fleet Street’s sell-out.
Looking back, it’s difficult to believe that an editor of Harold Evans’s acumen once sat down at table so willing to be fooled by a host as clearly malign as Murdoch. Anyone reading Evans’s memoir Good Times, Bad Times is shocked first by his naïveté and then by his complicity. Evans was ready to believe that Murdoch was not as bad as his reputation because he didn’t actually eat puppies at their lunch. But the willing suspension of disbelief that benefited both Murdoch and Maxwell in their years of acquisition is nothing compared to the free pass the establishment is now granting Boris Johnson, for reasons that are even more despicable.
If Jeremy Corbyn had twice been sacked for lying – once to his own party leader and, again, for making up quotes for the Times – surely the fury of the ruling class would be visited upon him. If Jo Swinson had a member of her family who explained that it was in her nature to lie, and that there was almost nothing she could do about it – it was simply her governing instinct – then editorial columns would be filled with contempt. But when the Daily Telegraph is willing to defend its own columnist against charges of fabrication to a press standards organisation on the grounds that Johnson’s reputation precludes anyone from the error of believing him, then it is clear – to use the language of Alcoholics Anonymous – that the people who enable liars are more culpable than the liars themselves.
I long ago concluded that villains are villains, and there is nothing that can be done to make them self-aware. As Brecht put it, the fart has no nose. It would be hard to see what possible identity would be left to Johnson if, even for a moment, he stopped lying. He did, after all, repeatedly promise Londoners he would finish two terms as mayor before pursuing personal ambition. It was inevitable that when proroguing parliament Johnson would lie tactically, claiming, for legal reasons, that the suspension had nothing to do with closing down democracy on Brexit. Those people who felt freshly insulted by the obviousness of his lies have simply not been following the story so far. The far more interesting question is why so many people are happy he should get away with it.
In the 1970s when the police lied systematically in court in order to send down villains they believed to be guilty, but for whose conviction they lacked proof, they invented the notion of “noble cause corruption” – which translates as: “Yes, we’re lying, but it’s in a good cause.”
A Conservative Party that has polled as being willing to sacrifice the future of the Union, lasting peace in Ireland and economic stability in the UK, all in the over-riding interests of leaving the EU, is not throwing much away when it also severs its relationship with the truth. And a government that invites back as home secretary a politician, Priti Patel, who left office after failing to disclose and then lying to the Guardian about her improvised Wild West foreign policy in the Middle East has also said goodbye to 20th-century notions of shame. But are we sure that Britain, and Britain’s future political culture, will not suffer from this voluntary gullibility? Is the current behaviour of the press any better than that of the Times supporting appeasement under Geoffrey Dawson in the 1930s?
It is significant that in the days before Johnson became prime minister, No 10 showed solidarity with a previous generation of liars by ruling out the judicial inquiry into UK involvement in torture and extraordinary rendition after 9/11. Johnson did nothing to question this: for obvious reasons, the idea of public accountability holds no attraction for our new prime minister.
Those waiting for a public inquiry into the mismanagement of Brexit will wait a very long time. And yet right-wing journalists continue to mock those who call Johnson out. Nowhere is he more stoutly defended than among the hacks he disgraced. They think it’s hilarious that Britain is run by a journalist. Not even they can try to deny his character – they use the weasel word “flawed” – but they accuse anyone who thinks him dangerous of lacking a sense of humour. The word “synthetic” is always nailed on to the word “outrage”. It is represented as po-faced to take Johnson’s lies any more seriously than he takes them himself.
In a new documentary about Harvey Weinstein, the most chilling moment comes when one of his alleged victims says she was never more scared than when he resorted to saying: “I swear on the life of my wife and of my children.” It was always a sure-fire indication that Weinstein was about to say something untrue. In Johnson’s case, the tell is always when he says, “I promise the country.” That’s when toads will invariably fall out of his mouth.
Right now, the performance of a liar into whose shifty eyes Ruth Davidson tried unsuccessfully to look is being hailed by a lot of people who, deep down, know better. The outcome will be as much their fault as his.
“The battle for parliament”: read the rest of our symposium on Britain’s political crisis here.