The right-wing press invested so much in getting Boris Johnson into power that they cannot abandon him easily – despite his obvious failure, says LIZ GERARD. At least, not yet…
Nobody likes being taken for a mug. Some shrug off the initial embarrassment and put it down to experience. Like the cat that wasn’t really interested in the bird that tweaked its nose and flew away. It always intended just to have a quick wash.
Others go into denial and become belligerent if challenged. ‘I knew what I was voting for,’ says the Brexit voter promised that ‘nothing would change’ who now faces having to secure a visa to go on holiday. Or ‘Yes, they lied. They all lie. I saw beyond that. I voted for sovereignty. I never believed the rest.’ What they can’t stand is the loss of face that goes with acknowledging they fell for a con.
As it is with people, so it is with newspapers. And our right-leaning national newspapers – ie, most of them – put a lot of effort into persuading readers to vote for Boris Johnson.
First as Conservative leader and then as sitting prime minister. Some were desperate for Brexit to be ‘delivered’; all were desperate to keep Jeremy Corbyn out.
Johnson, they concluded, was the man to sort Brexit, keep the Tories in power and protect their interests. He had his faults, but the people loved him; he was a winner.
That belief has been sorely tested over the past five months. But like our conman’s mark, the newspapers find it hard to admit they might have been wrong; that their niggling doubts were not mere trifles. They know they should have listened to their inner voices – or looked across the Atlantic.
The Republican party had wanted nothing to do with Trump, but voters seemed to like him, so it backed him as a winner. Now it’s stuck with him, possibly for eight years, and he has proved even more of an embarrassment to the party than it could ever have imagined.
Tory MPs, too, had a distaste for Johnson. But they put on their blinkers and focused on the winning post, blind to the way the race was run and the damage and chaos that might follow victory.
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On both occasions, there was another player in the background. Just as Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News helped to propel Trump into the White House, so his UK newspapers helped Johnson into Downing Street.
The Times, which found Johnson an unacceptable junior reporter, judged him to be the best man for prime minister. A leading article last year noted the ‘turmoil in his personal life’, ‘a predilection not to master a policy brief’, and a ‘widely perceived risk…that he would crack under pressure’.
Yet it still urged Tory MPs to give him their full support because the alternative was not a more able Conservative leader, but a Corbyn administration.
Or, as the Sun put it in a leader headlined ‘Go-go Bo-Jo’: ‘Corbyn’s Stalinist mob are waiting at the door of No.10, desperate to claw their way in.’
The Mail had qualms, but still backed him; the Telegraph and Express were unequivocal.
Having won that leadership campaign, Johnson was straight on to the next. The election wasn’t to come for five months, but he was on the stump from day one, with the Tory press right alongside him. Forty new hospitals? Splash. Fifty thousand new nurses? Splash. Truss ‘seals’ trade deal with US? Splash. Duty-free zones? Splash. Billions for education? Splash. Not a question asked, hardly a detail examined, barely a counter view considered. It was too easy to take dictation from Dominic Cummings.
Rolling acres of editorial space were handed over. In the five weeks from Johnson taking office until he (unlawfully) shut down parliament, our national newspapers ran 21 comment pieces by serving ministers, 16 by Conservative MPs and nine by former Tory leaders. (There were a total of five by Labour luminaries.)
That’s not counting the ‘Boris talks to our readers’ interviews with friendly newspapers – but strangely not the Guardian or Mirror.
With so much invested in our very own Magic Johnson, the papers were bound to stick with him for better, for worse – and worse and worse. From lying to the Queen to presiding over the deaths of tens of thousands of her subjects.
As the virus moved across Europe, there was an acceptance both that it would land here and that the government was well-placed to deal with it. In late February, newspapers reported that eight million might end up in hospital, that two million might need intensive care, that half a million might die – almost without recognising that these were people they were writing about.
It was one thing for authorities to prepare for such horrors – so they should – quite another for the press to treat the prospect of such levels of suffering as either inevitable or tolerable. But at this stage, most papers just trusted the government and printed whatever it said (whether officially or in private briefings).
The Daily Express told readers in early March: ‘Nothing can stop virus sweeping Britain’. But we were ‘ready for the worst’. There was a ‘battle plan’. Boris would ‘stop at nothing’ to beat virus.
Since then, the paper has been almost admirable in its determination to find the positives in a hellish situation.
Of 80 Covid splash stories to last weekend, 52 were upbeat, including 16 offering hope of a cure, vaccine or tests for millions. ‘Boris’, the hero who would see us through, starred in 15 headlines and his photograph appeared on the front page 33 times.
All this from the paper whose ageing readers are the most vulnerable to the disease; most likely to need social care; most likely to be shut away at home, suffering from loneliness and separation from their families. It’s understandable that the Express doesn’t want to upset them with scare stories, but shouldn’t it have asked a few pointed questions on their behalf?
Markets went into freefall, but Rishi Sunak (aka ‘Dr Feelgood’ – Daily Mail) was there with a ‘lifeline’ (Telegraph) that would put us on the ‘road to riches’ (Times).
As the epidemic took hold, the Daily Mail was the first of the loyal camp followers to waken, challenging the government on testing, PPE and care homes. The Times was scathing the morning before lockdown, saying the prime minister was behind the curve and in danger of being likened more to Chamberlain than Churchill. But it was back on board by the time Dominic Cummings had been to Durham and back, declaring that the adviser should stay in post and that Johnson should be allowed to get on with the job.
Others concentrated on the inconvenience to everyday life rather than on the loss of it. Lockdown, when it finally came, was presented as ‘House arrest’ by the Sun, which wanted to get back to bonking, boozing and betting, and ‘End of freedom’ by the Telegraph, which wanted to get back to business.
Even the really big numbers lost impact. When the ONS and ‘official’ death tolls passed 50,000 and 40,000 respectively, only three newspapers recorded the figures anywhere on their front pages.
Some Tory papers are now reporting more vigorously, their columnists more critical. The Telegraph has sought from the word go to minimise the danger of the virus and emphasise the danger of lockdown. Now it is openly attacking the government, if not the prime minister himself. Jeremy Warner, the paper’s assistant editor, described the government as a ship of fools, lacking judgment and leadership. Allison Pearson, a huge Johnson fan who wrote in April ‘The health of Boris is the health of the nation’, has been incandescent over social distancing and school closures.
Over at the Times, Matthew Parris, never a Johnson fan, tore the prime minister apart, saying he was ‘only ever a shallow opportunist with a minor talent to amuse’, while Caitlin Moran tweeted ‘He is the worst prime minister we’ve ever had this century, isn’t he?’
But, for now, the pack are mostly standing by their man, with the Express and Sun always looking on the bright side. Last week the Sun hailed a ‘triple boost for Covid Britain’: pubs were ordering beer, EasyJet was planning flights and there would be ‘zero deaths soon’.
The latter based on ‘experts’ saying there would be no coronavirus deaths at all by July. Well, let’s hope they’re right. In the 10 days after that edition appeared, there were 2,112.
Such loyalty does not, of course, have anything to do with the pandemic. It stems from those twin objectives from last year, before anyone gave a thought to pangolins and Chinese wet markets: keeping the Tories in power and Brexit.
We’re out of Europe and time has run out for stopping an absolute break at the end of the year. With an economy that shrank by 20% in April and the OECD predicting that we’ll be the nation worst-affected financially by the virus, we need to cut some trade deals fast – at the very moment everyone has more pressing concerns than selling stuff to a small island in the North Sea.
As Francis Beckett wrote in these pages, we are being fattened up for a one-way trade deal with Trump. We are busy watering down our standards on animal welfare, pesticides and country-of-origin labelling. Yet there has been precious little coverage of a U-turn that could bring chlorinated chicken to supermarket shelves in direct contradiction to promises made (and video-recorded) by assorted cabinet ministers.
And when it was reported, look at how! This from the ultra-Brexity Mail on Sunday: ‘The prime minister vowed to stem a feared flood of sub-standard American products by insisting [on]…high import tariffs.’ Was this reverse from an outright ban to letting stuff in for a price perhaps a humiliating climbdown? No. It was ‘a significant victory in the battle to protect British farming’.
The race is on to seal a deal by November 3, in case the Americans kick Trump out, leaving Biden to send us to the back of the queue, as Obama warned us four years ago. That might at least have the knock-on effect of injecting some realism into our last-minute negotiations with the EU.
Excuses are being lined up for the economic and social catastrophe looming next year; obviously it won’t be Brexit, but the EU bullies and Covid that are to blame.
But Johnson had better beware. Prime ministers come and go. Newspapers mostly survive from generation to generation, as – even with their shrinking circulations – does their influence. The Telegraph may stay loyal to its protégé, the Express will go with the flow, but the Mail, the Murdoch papers – and eventually his party – will turn against him.
Like the cat that returns to the blue tit nest hours after failing to hold on to its catch, the press will exact revenge for being made to look foolish. It won’t be their fault for foisting an indolent, incoherent, incompetent charlatan on the nation; it will be the charlatan’s fault for being exactly the flawed man we all knew he was.
Rupert Murdoch is even now almost certainly tossing up between old favourite Govey and new favourite Rishi. He likes winners. Johnson is a loser.