It can be deeply inspiring to watch another man deliberately place his own head on the block over a matter of principle, especially when that principle is of vital importance to our national identity.
Two years ago, Peter Oborne, a conservative journalist who had consistently advocated support for Brexit in his regular space in the Daily Mail, declared that he now believed he had made a mistake. It was an act of rare journalistic courage. Although the piece he’d written was turned down by the Daily Mail, The Spectator and Channel 4’s Dispatches, he was able to air these views on the stereophonic political website, openDemocracy.
Although known as a committed commentator of the right, he had fallen out some years earlier with the management of the Daily Telegraph over their readiness to allow editorial to be dictated by advertisers’ interests; now he was performing his spectacular volte face while still under the roof of the principal media cheerleader for Boris Johnson’s hara-kiri Brexit proposals. In doing this, he had publicly, with a flourish and no doubt blowing a simultaneous raspberry, pulled down his baggy wale cord trousers and engaged in a defiant act of doorstep defecation. As he himself must have known they would, all his former mainstream media employers, dropped him (to stretch the metaphor) like a red-hot stool and he found himself outside the tent, wandering the unnourishing tundra of a journalistic wasteland. It takes a brave man to deliberately put himself in that position.
However, it also released him from the handcuffs of direct editorial constraint; allowed him to turn around, face the tent, unzip his fly and piss right back in. This he did with great accuracy and vigour in October 2019, in a piece about the way in which journalists and much of the media were being used by Downing Street. “British journalists have become part of Boris Johnson’s fake news machine”, he wrote in openDemocracy. “It’s chilling; from The Mail, The Times to the BBC and ITN, everyone is peddling Downing Street’s lies and smears. They’re turning their readers into dupes.” He identified both Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston as having been manipulated by Johnson’s press gang.
These pieces and others like them were all precursors of the time-bomb he was quietly constructing in his West London attic room, and which was finally detonated early this February with admirable audacity by Simon & Schuster, on their release of his most recent book, The Assault on Truth.
The book is an exhaustively provenanced, incontrovertible catalogue of misleading hyperbole, economy with the actualité and downright porky-pies that have emanated from the Prime Minister’s lips, both since he assumed that office and, Oborne shows, throughout his single-minded scramble to the top. Oborne sees the fact that he has been able to do this so flagrantly in the House, as MP, Foreign Secretary and PM, apparently with impunity and without the Speaker’s censure, as a clear indicator of an alarming fall in standards of probity in public office in Britain. As a traditional (in a good way) conservative, Oborne puts a lot of store by integrity and honourable practice in national government, as defined by the system of checks and balances put in place by public-minded Victorian parliamentarians.
However, a trawl through Google reveals that the only national newspaper to review the book has been the Guardian, which in itself is an indication of the hold which Johnson’s government has on the mainstream right-leaning press. It was the same paper in which, just before the Tory leadership election in 2019, journalist Max Hastings (not generally regarded as a figure of the Left) wrote an excoriating piece on Boris Johnson and his potential leadership. Hastings, as editor of the Telegraph had employed Johnson early in his career, and knows his weaknesses well. On the matter of Johnson’s sleazy, duplicitous private life, he quotes the C18th philosopher, Bishop Berkeley: “It is impossible that a man who is false to his friends and neighbours should be true to the public.” Hastings adds, “Almost the only people who think Johnson a nice guy are those who do not know him”, and concludes that the Conservative party were about to foist a tasteless joke upon the British people, who would not find it funny for long.
That was before Johnson, voted in by the cynical self-serving barrow boys (and girls) who make up a large proportion of the Parliamentary Tory party, so miserably failed to achieve a Brexit that satisfied anyone at all, and went on to fall at the next fence through his utter incompetence in controlling the early stages of Covid. He failed to cancel the Cheltenham Festival because he didn’t want to be unpopular with his sporting chums, thereby killing several hundred of them who had attended the always overcrowded gathering. As our new relationship with Europe unfolds, the panoply of lies he and his co-conspirators told the public before the referendum and since becomes more glaringly obvious.
All of us have known or come across pathological, recidivist liars, some so incorrigible that they will utter a lie even when the truth would clearly have served them better, suffering from a condition known as mythomania. On the evidence presented by Oborne, our Prime Minister is such a case. But what makes this even worse for the British public is that, whereas in the past anyone who has lied in the chamber of the House of Commons has been ordered by the Speaker to explain or correct their falsehoods, or else resign, Johnson has consistently got away with it.
This intolerable state of affairs is compounded by the fact that it isn’t even necessary for me to list the untruths he has uttered; anyone reading this piece will already be familiar with dozens of examples. Just as alarming is the fact that a large proportion of the public, those who elected him in 2019, seem simply not to care, as long as his lies match their own aspirations.
The fact that a significant proportion of British voters are so malleable, so tolerant of being lied to suggests that they have, as it were, been trained to accept fiction as truth for many years, more so in the last thirty, by the abysmal standards of most of the British press and other sections of the media.
The News of the World, for instance, spent decades printing lies, initially trivial ones: smutty little stories of rustic sex-romps or rent boys at the YMCA, with photos faked by journalists to make a nice little splash on the inner pages. But later, once Rupert Murdoch had identified celebrity gossip as an internationally traded commodity, where hard fact was a secondary consideration to sensationalism, far more serious fictions appeared: entirely concocted, elaborate stories invented by journalists like Mazher Mahmood, the ‘Fake Sheikh’, and his imitators, as front page splashes based on barely a scintilla of fact, or no fact at all. The story of a plot to have the Beckham children kidnapped was a complete and utter fabrication, but it filled front pages, and Mazher Mahmood was given awards by the rest of the rubbish press for his powers of invention. “The Screws”, and its sister rag The Sun sold millions of papers off the back of this nonsense, while its readers became increasingly indifferent to the culture of lying that lay behind it. When Big Brother and other reality shows were able to provide a non-stop supply of entirely disposable ‘celebrities’ that could be built up in the public’s mind only to be destroyed as required, the public became more inured to the whole fantasy world these papers were creating. This imperviousness to untruth has been bolstered by the ‘scripted reality’ of TV shows like TOWIE and Made in Chelsea.
The young journalist Johnson, albeit working in what was perceived as a different level of journalism, was nevertheless taking a lead from his tabloid colleagues, and creating facts to fit his stories. He was regularly caught lying in the Telegraph, and was sacked by the Times for fabrication. He was then sacked from his position as vice-chairman of the Tory party for claiming that reports of his affair with Petronella Wyatt were an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. They turned out to be a crock of truth. He has consistently lied about his affairs and issues emanating from them, and currently continues to do so over Miss Arcuri, for whom he also arranged loans of public money. It is vital that responsible press and media pursue relentlessly this shocking flaw in the prevailing style of government, as well as hold them to account for the disastrous volume of disinformation deployed about the advantages of Brexit. If they do not, the dignity of our national identity, the sense of honour and probity which were once at the heart of British democracy will be lost forever; we will sink unto a quasi-democracy in which those who shout loudest and lie most convincingly will win, and a distinguished journalist will have been a martyr to the truth for nothing.