Downing Street bullies and a contempt for the truth
What happened to journalists at Number 10 this week raises the hairs on the back of the neck - and has echoes of something far more serious from the past
What single word of the many available best encapsulates the phenomenon that is Prime Minister Boris Johnson?
Amoral, unscrupulous, untrustworthy, unprincipled, charlatan, unprecedented or shorter, more pithy, descriptions too rude to mention?
No, despite being spoiled for choice and the obvious merit in all the others, the most useful term to sum up the behaviour of Johnson is “unprecedented” – as in something that has never been done or known before.
No British Prime Minister has ever walked deliberately into an industrial freezer before to escape having to answer questions live on TV.
It is almost certain that no Prime Minister anywhere in the world has ever done such a thing.
It is equally clear that no British Prime Minister has ever snatched away a reporter’s phone and put it his pocket to avoid looking at the photograph of a sick four-year covered in coats and lying for hours on the floor of a Leeds hospital.
Our expectations for appropriate behaviour in a Prime Minister have been so reduced in the case of Johnson that, after an initial intake of breath, most people shrugged or laughed.
Boris is just being Boris.
There are, however, many unprecedented things about Johnson, and those advising him, that are far from funny and are starting to verge on the sinister.
Many a Prime Minister has fallen out of love with the BBC but none has ever adopted the rather pathetic, shabby tactic of banning ministers from appearing on The Today programme on Radio 4 – a programme that still sets the news and political agenda for the day.
No ministers, no vigorous interrogation of government policy and its makers, in a period that will shape not just relations with Europe but the state of the country for years to come.
It is equally unlikely that such a ban has ever been extended to Newsnight before, just because the Government apparently doesn’t like the politics of a journalist appointed to the programme staff.
Pardon? Are governments now claiming the right to vet the appointment of journalists to current affairs programmes or ministers will not turn up to be interviewed?
The most unprecedented behaviour of all is this week’s disgraceful attempt to decide which journalists were, or were not, acceptable to attend a Downing Street briefing on the Government’s Brexit plans.
A description of what happened should raise the hairs on the back of the neck with its echoes of something far more serious from the past.
Inside the foyer of Number 10 “unacceptable” journalists from the Daily Mirror, the i newspaper, the Huff Post, The Independent and others were told to stand on one side of a rug, while those who were to be admitted had to stand on the other.
There was a list prepared by Lee Cain, Johnson’s most senior communications adviser.
Political sheep and goats and something that is probably unprecedented, although the Daily Mirror was excluded from the Conservative bus during the election campaign.
There was a similar incident last week when attempts were made to exclude certain journalists from a briefing on Huawei’s involvement in the 5G network.
This time the journalists stood up to the Downing Street bullies in the only language they would understand and walked out from the briefing.
Plaudits go to ITV’s Robert Peston, Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC and the political editors of the national newspapers who walked out collectively in the face of such an abuse.
They should keep on doing so until this squalid administration is brought to its senses - ironically one run by a former journalist, although a journalist of a very particular nature.
It was his old boss at the Daily Telegraph, Sir Max Hastings who said of Johnson: “There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for the truth.”
If there is any precedent for a former editor of a Conservative newspaper saying such a thing about a former colleague, columnist and now Conservative Prime Minister, it is difficult to find.
Yet however praiseworthy the political lobby’s decision to stand firm something much more - far much more is required.
Journalists must somehow, to the extent their proprietors allow, deal with the unprecedented stream of daily examples of Boris Johnson’s contempt for the truth.
Take just two examples from this week alone. Johnson accused the EU of reneging on its agreements, a claim given great prominence in the Daily Telegraph.
This was untrue, something pointed out by the EU which insisted it was adhering to everything in what was simply the divorce bill with the start of trade negotiations still two months away.
Then Johnson denounced the “mumbo jumbo” about American food standards.
A pity he never had time to watch the Channel 4 Dispatches programme: The Truth About Chlorinated Chicken.
The problem was not so much washing chicken in chlorine as the fact the chemical was used to cover up poor, and sometimes dangerous, hygiene standards in US agriculture - and that's before we get to liberal use of hormones and antibiotics in livestock.
Mumbo Jumbo indeed.
Worse is very likely to come from Johnson with attacks on the BBC, its licence fee and funding.
This time the attacks are not entirely unprecedented.
Margaret Thatcher did not like the BBC and wanted to replace the licence fee with advertising and decriminalise licence fee evasion.
A free market economist Sir Alan Peacock was given the task of doing the deed in 1985. The late Sir Alan came up with the “wrong” answer that such a plan would devastate ITV without being able to replace the licence.
Mrs Thatcher listened and was also persuaded that de-criminalisation was overall a bad idea, as have her successors until now.
Today, Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan announced the Government is to launch a public consultation on whether failure to pay the TV licence fee should no longer be a criminal offence.
Yet Boris Johnson, very much like Donald J. Trump, has little taste for detail or willingness to do the work necessary to understand complex situations or indeed listening.
When he is not actually consciously telling untruths, he is winging it, making things up as he goes along or saying the first thing that comes into his head.
Those are unprecedented characteristics in a Prime Minister and ones that are dangerous.