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Can Boris really blame the press for his defeat?

18 December 2021

2:17 AM

18 December 2021

2:17 AM

When asked what went wrong in North Shropshire, Boris Johnson gave a fascinating answer: journalists. Apparently, they have been reporting the wrong kind of stuff. He told Sam Coates of Sky News:

Basically,what’s been going wrong, Sam, is that in the last few weeks some things have been going well. But what the people have been hearing is just a constant litany of stuff about politics and politicians. Stuff that isn’t about them. And isn’t about the things that we can do to make life better. The job of the government is to make people like you, Sam, interested in the booster rollout. And in skills. And in housing. And in everything else that we’re doing. And unfortunately we haven’t been able to get the focus on thoseissues.

Ithink it would be fair to say that we have heard some self-serving twaddle from him of late and yet this ‘I blame the media’ line was not only hypocritical and sinister: it was downright insulting to the intelligence of the British public. Politicians can sometimes be so consumed with vanity that their very existence — their self-definition, their self-esteem — depends on how they think they are portrayed in the media.

Therewas no Christmas party in No. 10? Really? It is government deceit that is resented — at least by most people — and not the media who uncovered it. That is why Johnson’s comment was so hypocritical. It was insulting to the intelligence of the public because heseems to believe that everybody reads the press in the way that politicians read the press.

Boris Johnson promises to “fix” his government but says it’s not his top priority

Full interview – hear the PM accuse me of “breaking the golden rule” – answers on a postcard…. pic.twitter.com/pHOpfLRNl5

— Sam Coates Sky (@SamCoatesSky) December 17, 2021

Anyway,social media has greatly eroded the power of the media to change what people think. Journalists do not dictate anyone’s opinion. I have now been writing columns for almost 20 years and the game has completely changed. We fat-cat columnists face a newand terrifying threat. It is called consumerism. It is called democracy. For the first time we must come face to face with our readers — hordes of lynx-eyed brainboxes out there in cyberspace — and no sooner do our words appear on the website than they canbe abusively peer-reviewed and fact-checked.


Ourjudgments are mocked, our non sequiturs are skewered. Journalists — these characters that Johnson claims to have problem with — are increasingly accountable, increasingly vulnerable to the pithy rejoinders of the men and women on the net. And this is the keypoint: it is not so much that politics and journalism are increasingly tawdry or despised. It is the growing media literacy of the public — the understanding of soundbites and vox pops and two-ways and blogs — that allows everyone to participate in activitiesonce reserved for the journalistico-political complex.

Welive in an amazingly media-literate age, and in my experience people can almost always see behind the hysteria and the hyperbole, and work out what is really going on. What they want is for their politicians to be hard-working and true to their consciences,and they have by now read so much rubbish that they find it relatively easy to blow the froth off a story and get to the nub.

Socome on, Carrie, Jack, Michael, Dan (or whoever still composes the depleted Praetorian Guard): just tell the old boy to put a sock in it before he does himself a serious embarrassment.

Oh,and as you might have guessed by now, none of the above is written by me. It’s a tweaked version of what Boris Johnson himself wrote when Tony Blairtried to blame the press in 2007: more mean to Blair than most journalists would, even now, be about him.

That’s why, as James Forsyth argues today, it’s Johnson’s friends – not his enemies – that are most taken aback by his illiberal turn. Those of us who have admired him long enough to actually remember his writing, on all manner of things. We saw a political coherence – as well as a magical effervescence – in his work. We remember him being so brilliantly scathing about the ID cards that, as PM. he now foists upon us using Labour votes. Under his editorship, The Spectator was a great defender of liberty and opposed every power-grabbing scam contemplated by the governments.

It is Johnson’s supporters who find his 20-years worth of columns hard to reconcile with the Prime Minister Johnson who decides to criminalise lockdown (it should always have been guidance-based). We can’t understand why, for example, he found it necessary to send the police after us if we break his ever-changing, often-ridiculous lockdown rules.

The moment he decided to criminalise women meeting up outside for coffee  was the moment he lost the right to complain if the press take an interest in No10’s own rule-breaking. And yes, such stories may distract attention from his skills agenda, his vaccine booster data or tractor production figures. But in our place, what would he be writing about? Would he have led The Spectator on drugs policy, as we did last week? Or would he have gone all-out on the hypocrisy and partying No10?

Since his spirited defence of the press, newspapers sales have plunged – haemorrhaging power and influence. If voters give him a bloody nose, can he really blame journalists? As Enoch Powell said: for a politician to blame the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea. Ultimately, as Prime Minister, he makes the weather. His bungling triggered this by-election. If he does not like the result, he really does have no one else to blame.

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