Holding Bojo to account
Raymond Snoddy highlights Boris Johnson's latest loose acquaintance with the truth, at long last challenged by the right-wing press
We probably now know all there is to know about the circumstances surrounding the departure of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock – except for the pictures.
Who obtained and leaked the pictures, their precise motive and how exactly did The Sun get its hands on them?
There is however a fascinating coda, which could be important in the evolving story of how the media – and broadcasters in particular- handle the phenomenon that is the Government of Boris Johnson.
It is the tale of how, in the course of three days, Hancock was backed to the hilt by Prime Minister Johnson, then had his resignation accepted, to be followed by suggestions that in fact tough guy Johnson had actually forced him out.
It is hardly the most egregious example of Johnson’s loose acquaintance with the truth.
Compared with the often repeated claims that there would be no border between Britain and Northern Ireland down the North Sea or anywhere else, it amounts to a piece of typical Johnsonian political slipperiness.
He was criticised for being weak by giving his full support to Hancock and declaring “the matter closed,” as he had done so many times before over his own “indiscretions” and breeches of various governmental codes by multiple ministers.
Days later, he wanted to appear strong and decisive and so heavy hints were dropped that he was the one who had put the bite on his Health Secretary.
Except that this time, the media was having none of it, most noticeably the Tory supporting Daily Mail.
The Mail went for Johnson with the accusation that: “Now PM tries to rewrite history over Hancock’s exit.”
In coverage that would have embarrassed any normal human being, even normal politician, the Daily Mail set out the rapidly metamorphosing facts.
Monday 12.30 pm Johnson, campaigning in the Batley and Spens bye-election, was asked whether Hancock’s conduct risked undermining confidence in lockdown rules?
Johnson said: “That’s right. And that’s why, when I saw the story on Friday we had a new secretary of state for health in on Saturday.”
Unfortunately for Johnson, an hour later the PM’s official spokesman confirmed that, despite Johnson’s comments, Hancock had indeed resigned and had not been sacked.
In an editorial the Daily Mail did not mince its words.
By initially declaring the matter closed “like a tinpot dictator” Johnson had catastrophically misjudged the mood of the British people.
“His shameless attempt to rewrite history by suggesting he actually forced out his Health Secretary reeked,” The Mail said, before adding that the melodrama gave fresh impetus to claims the Government “is tainted by cronyism, double standards and sleeze.”
The Times gave a page lead to Dominic Cummings mocking the Hancock “sacking story.”
There are also signs that broadcasters are starting to toughen up their act in the face of Justice Secretary Robert Buckland touring the broadcasting studios, implying that ultimately, because of his popularity the scandal did not really matter.
Local election results showed that the public didn’t really care about breeches of ministerial codes Buckland said, comments that the Mail described as “an extraordinary contention from the country’s top law officer.”
Broadcasters have still got to do a better job in holding this extraordinary Government to account. This is not a party political point but one that can be held by anyone of any political persuasion who believes that Prime Ministers and ministers should not be able to get away with falsehoods, in or out of the House of Commons.
There really has to be renewed vigour in holding politicians to account by tackling untruths, repeated evasions and unwillingness to even attempt to answer questions.
It’s becoming a matter of public trust and whether the media can be believed if things that are simply wrong are allowed to pass unchallenged.
In this campaign, the media must stand together and move together to avoid the danger of politicians picking-off particular programmes and broadcasters and only turning-up where a soft ride is guaranteed.
There is one person, although he is not alone, who has been running a single-handed campaign against the untruths of Boris Johnson.
Lawyer, journalist and film-maker Peter Stefanovic has produced a film portraying the falsehoods of Boris Johnson in the Prime Minister’s own words and challenging broadcasters to run it.
So far they have not done so. It’s difficult for them as it’s not “news” and therefore it does not fit into a conventional news cycle but surely some way should be found to broadcast its content.
If they do not ever do so, broadcasters should beware.
Stefanovic’s little effort has been retweeted nearly 25 million times, and although that figure must include multiple retweets, rather than unique users, it has been seen by one hell of a lot of people. Just not on mainstream television.
Many of the threats to democracy from the populist wave in both the UK and the US are examined in a new book out next month: Populism, the Pandemic and the Media.
The contributors include Robert Moore of ITV, Matt Frei of Channel 4 News, political expert Sir John Curtice on how this is all playing out with the public, and Observer columnist Will Hutton. ( To declare an interest I am a co-editor and contributor.)
Hutton in particular, writing in the context of Brexit, believes British society is facing a “slow-burn calamity” because a section of the media now doubling on the initial lies of the Brexit campaign. As a result the reading, the listening and watching public is left disarmed and helpless.
“The political process is polluted,” argues Hutton.
For the former Observer editor, the only way forward is bringing together coalitions of like-minded people prepared to push for both media and electoral reform.
They might include people who do not believe Prime Ministers of this country should ever be allowed to try to rewrite history on the hoof.
Populism, the Pandemic and the Media – Journalism in the age of Covid, Trump, Brexit and Johnson edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait is published by Abramis.