Boris Johnson was a terrible journalist, but he’s the politician the media deserves

Like Trump, Johnson was built for the attention economy.

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For a man making £275,000-a-year for a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph (“chicken feed” in his words), Boris Johnson has a rather ignominious career as a journalist.

The first truly notable event in the Conservative leadership frontrunner’s journalistic career was his 1988 firing from the Times. Johnson had joined the newspaper only the previous year as a graduate trainee.

He was caught inventing a quotation by his own godfather, an Oxford Don, which in Johnson's own words, suggested that "Edward II and Piers Gaveston would have been cavorting together at the Rose Palace".

He continued: "Unfortunately, some linkside don at a provincial university spotted that by the time the Rose Palace was built, Piers Gaveston would long have been murdered." 

Despite breaking one of the cardinal rules of journalism, he was swiftly recruited by the Daily Telegraph, where in 1989 he became the paper’s Brussels correspondent.

There he pioneered a popular form of Europhobic journalism, filing stories on ludicrous bureaucracy and fun-sponge regulation with headlines such as “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. The stories were often so overspun that you could barely glimpse their foundations, but they successfully fuelled a narrative of meddling Eurocrats seeking to tighten a straitjacket around buccaneering Albion.

Upon returning to the UK, Johnson became the Telegraph’s chief political columnist. There he pumped out columns that intellectually stimulated Conservatives while simultaneously appealing to their more retrograde instincts. This period delivered some of his most distastefully memorable remarks, such as his references to “flag-waving piccaninnies” in the Commonwealth, “tribal warriors… [who] all break out in watermelon smiles” and “tank-topped bum boys”.

Then there was his tenure as editor of the Spectator (1999 to 2005). There he published a piece by long-serving columnist Taki which claimed that “Orientals ... have larger brains and higher IQ scores. Blacks are at the other pole”. Johnson also had to apologise for a 2004 editorial on the Hillsborough tragedy, which accused Liverpudlians of wallowing in their “victim status” and alleged that “drunken fans“ had ”mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground”.

The recurring theme of Johnson’s journalism career has been a lax approach to facts and language. Even in his current, obscenely remunerated role, he has continued to make what can only charitably be called mistakes. In January, the Telegraph had to print a correction and apology over a Johnson column that claimed a no-deal Brexit was the most popular option among the British public. The newspaper’s defence included the claim that his column “could not be reasonably read as a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters”.

Within the Telegraph newsroom there is annoyance at Johnson’s predictably late copy and a belief that he contributes too much to other outlets (including his free Facebook page) despite being on the paper’s payroll. This hasn’t, of course, prevented the Telegraph splashing on Johnson’s latest pronouncements so regularly that it sometimes resembles a daily newsletter promoting him.

Few journalists with such an impressive track record of misspeaking, misleading and simply messing up, would expect to retain a cushy writing job and enjoy an easy ride from their colleagues. Johnson may have a way with words, and a talent for entertaining the reader, but he lacks the other qualities necessary for good journalism — accuracy and restraint. And yet Johnson remains irresistible to much of the press.

His buffoonery, sexual incontinence, gaffes, deliberately tousled hair and dishevelled appearance make “Boris” a compelling character, one that can be deployed to sell newspapers or attract viewers. In many ways he was an early adopter of the tactics that much of the media has learned to use in pursuit of its audience. Outrage, outrageousness and impropriety make an impression, and in the attention economy it doesn’t much matter whether the impression is a good one.

And so the media directs eyeballs towards Johnson, powering his political career. Indeed, part of the reason he was once viewed as “the Heineken Tory” — who could reach parts of the electorate that others couldn’t — was the simple fact that, unlike many of his colleagues, a large majority of the electorate actually knew who he was.

The obvious parallel, of course, is with Donald Trump, another entertainer driven to the highest office by the same business he made his name in. Like Trump, Johnson has virtually no shame. He is not afraid of lying, or of contradicting himself just days later. He has no problem apologising for something that he fully intends to do again.

And like Trump, broadcasters and the press can’t help but amplify Johnson’s personal brand. And so the media has helped create the politician it deserves, and may soon get the prime minister it deserves, too.

This piece is taken from the Johnson audit series

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.