Six years ago, Nick Cohen penned the best analysis not of Brexit, but rather the public reaction of the ‘reformed’ journalists, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove who fronted its clinching arguments:
…they gazed at the press with coffin-lid faces and wept over the prime minister they had destroyed. David Cameron was “brave and principled”, intoned Johnson. “A great prime minister”, muttered Gove. Like Goneril and Regan competing to offer false compliments to Lear, they covered the leader they had doomed with hypocritical praise. No one whoops at a funeral, especially not mourners who are glad to see the back of the deceased. But I saw something beyond hypocrisy in those frozen faces: the fear of journalists who have been found out.
The media do not damn themselves, so I am speaking out of turn when I say that if you think rule by professional politicians is bad wait until journalist politicians take over. Johnson and Gove are the worst journalist politicians you can imagine: pundits who have prospered by treating public life as a game. Here is how they play it. They grab media attention by blaring out a big, dramatic thought. An institution is failing? Close it. A public figure blunders? Sack him. They move from journalism to politics, but carry on as before. When presented with a bureaucratic EU that sends us too many immigrants, they say the answer is simple, as media answers must be. Leave. Now. Then all will be well. [Emphasis added]
Given what’s happened since, it’s a theory that’s now hard to refute. Not least because some of Johnson’s earlier declamatory journalism is not being used against him. This on Blair in September 2006:
Ouch. And here is a few years later on another predecessor of his, Gordon Brown:
Who indeed? Brown was hanging in what turned out to be a vain (but legitimate) hope of a coalition with the Lib Dems. If Johnson seems to be foretelling his own future demise, the wider verdict is harsher.
This week’s Bagehot column on British politics in The Economist:
The fact that Boris Johnson is a serial liar and lacks the self-discipline to apply himself to hard problems is well-known. One of those grey-faced cabinet ministers, Michael Gove, said that Mr Johnson was not up to the task of leadership back in 2016, and his verdict then was spot-on. But the extent to which he poisons the reputations of those he comes into contact with is striking. This toxicity is not just a personal characteristic. It also says something important about the political system he sits atop.
Johnson and Gove carried with them a second feature of unscrupulous journalism: the contempt for practical questions. Never has a revolution in Britain’s position in the world been advocated with such carelessness. The Leave campaign has no plan. And that is not just because there was a shamefully under-explored division between the bulk of Brexit voters who wanted the strong welfare state and solid communities of their youth and the leaders of the campaign who wanted Britain to become an offshore tax haven. Vote Leave did not know how to resolve difficulties with Scotland, Ireland, the refugee camp at Calais, and a thousand other problems, and did not want to know either.
It responded to all who predicted the chaos now engulfing us like an unscrupulous pundit who knows that his living depends on shutting up the experts who gainsay him. For why put the pundit on air, why pay him a penny, if experts can show that everything he says is windy nonsense? The worst journalists, editors and broadcasters know their audiences want entertainment, not expertise. If you doubt me, ask when you last saw panellists on Question Time who knew what they were talking about. [Emphasis added throughout]
Second last word to gifted Scottish columnist Alex Massie (do read the whole thing)…
Johnson’s government did not end with a melancholy sense of squandered promise. It was, typically, all style and no substance. No surprise, really, since this has been Johnson’s operational default his entire career. The heavy lifting has been done by other people. At The Spectator, for instance, almost all the work of actually editing the magazine was done by Johnson’s long-suffering deputy, Stuart Reid. Johnson was a figurehead editor and while a weekly magazine may cope with that, running the country needs just a little more commitment.
(As a columnist, meanwhile, it would be ungenerous to deny that Johnson had talent in a show-boating sense but his copy, colourful as it might be and entertaining to some, nonetheless had a curiously weightless quality to it. Yes, fine, but what’s the real point of it? And for all that folk liked to use the term “Wodehousian” in connection with Boris the journalist, there was one vital difference: Wodehouse would throw out a joke if it interrupted or got in the way of the plot. Johnson, by contrast, could never resist the gag, even at the cost of undermining all else. The gag, in fact, was the point. I do not mean this unkindly: newspapers are by their nature ephemeral, but it is wise to at least be aware of their limitations. One other small, but revealing, note: Johnson was notorious for filing his copy late, no matter how much this might inconvenience other, rather less well-paid, people. Just Boris being Boris, of course, but other people had to cope with or clear up the mess.)
And then Bagehot…
Mr Johnson is not the cause of all that ails Britain. He has brio and charm. But the dangers of sitting around that cabinet table with him were real. His flaws tarnished good people. They poisoned the government—and by extension, the country.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty