Things You Can Say About Boris Johnson That You Shouldn’t be Able to Say About a Prime Minister

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

When you train to be a journalist you have to rapidly learn a lot of law. You need to be able to cover everything from a magistrate’s court to the Supreme Court to parliamentary proceedings without getting sued — or convicted of contempt of court and thrown in jail.

I did my training just over a decade ago and back then, in the pre-Trump days, there was an expectation that politicians would at least pretend to have integrity. Back in those simpler times, when the law was the law and facts were valued, a young reporter calling a ‘top politician’ a liar — let alone a racist, an inciter of social conflict or a deceiver of both partners and voters — would have been in trouble.

Such is the rapid decline in the quality of ‘top politicians’, on both sides of the Atlantic, that it is possible to call prime minister Boris Johnson (and indeed president Donald Trump) any of those things and have no chance of being on the losing side of a libel case. This is because to be successfully sued for defamation, the statement the journalist makes must be untrue.

I will outline examples which would allow a decent politician to sue for libel, yet would not offer that option to Boris Johnson. This is because each can be shown to be true.

Lying

In 2004 Johnson was sacked by party leader Michael Howard for lying about an affair. We all know about the pre-referendum claims about vast amounts of money going to the NHS after Brexit, when the more likely outcome is stretched services and haemorrhaging clinicians. But Johnson had already proved himself to be dishonest before becoming an MP. He was sacked from The Times for falsifying quotes and, as a journalist, told a friend plotting to get a journalist beaten up that he would provide the intended victim’s address.

As a reporter you take pride in getting good quotes that nobody else has. Making them up is just about as low as it gets — though being part of a plot to have a member of the press silenced by a beating is below even the gutter.

Dangerous irresponsibility

A vivid example of Johnson’s dangerous irresponsibility can be drawn from just two years ago and involves a mother in jail abroad on trumped up charges. Then foreign secretary, Johnson told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (a UK citizen serving a five-year jail sentence in Iran, after being detained on holiday and accused of espionage) had been “simply teaching people journalism”. For a state that jails more journalists than most other countries, this was a dangerous, irresponsible and idiotic claim. Johnson’s words caused the regime to add a charge of propaganda against the state, which risked her sentence being doubled.

After much criticism, Johnson still wouldn’t take responsibility. Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains in an Iranian jail, estranged from her five-year-old daughter.

Racist comments

Johnson has made numerous racist comments over the years — which is perhaps one reason why he is popular among the far-right. He has recently been accused of dog-whistle politics by using narratives likely to trigger such people (see below), but his racist comments go back decades. Writing in The Telegraph in 2002, he described black people in Africa as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. In 2006, while a shadow higher education minister, he trumped even that grotesque racist remark by referring to people in Papua New Guinea as cannibals.

In 2016, after years of Donald Trump spreading lies about the nationality of Barack Obama, Johnson called the then president “part-Kenyan” with an ”ancestral dislike of the British empire”. This line of attack, which appeared in a Sun article after Obama expressed the view that the UK would be better off staying in the EU, seems to have been aimed at invalidating Obama’s opinions by placing him in a racial category.

In his short time as foreign secretary, Johnson’s most memorable overseas trip was the one in which the British ambassador, at a Buddhist temple in Myanmar, had to tell him to stop reciting the colonialist-era Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Road to Mandalay. Before Johnson reluctantly stopped, he was approaching a line which refers to the Buddha as a “Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud”.

Inciting social division and conflict with dog whistle politics

Last year Johnson gained approval within far-right circles by suggesting some Muslim women look like bank robbers and letter boxes due to their clothing. In a squalid example of dishonest journalism, he claimed to be on their side — but the dog whistle could be heard by the far-right and Islamophobes in the US and beyond. Steve Bannon, the white nationalist behind disgraced Cambridge Analytica and former executive chairman of far-right website Breitbart, is one of the few public figures who defended Johnson after those comments.

In recent days, Johnson has used every media opportunity — even when the journalist was trying to ask him about allegations of groping women — to repeatedly force the term ‘Surrender Act’ into his replies. This misrepresentation of a piece of legislation, voted through Parliament to prevent this dangerously irresponsible prime minister from pushing the UK over the cliff of a no-deal Brexit, is pure dog whistle politics for the ears of the militant far-right.

When asked in Parliament by Paula Sherriff, a friend of Jo Cox (who was murdered by a far-right Brexiter) to refrain from using militaristic and divisive terms such as “surrender” and “betrayal”, as such narratives fuel threats she and other MPs are subjected to, Johnson said: “I have never heard such humbug in all my life”.

An MP in Parliament — even if they are the prime minister — cannot call another member a liar. But by calling her comment “humbug” he effectively did just that, while showing a distinct lack of empathy about the many threats received by (especially) female MPs, and particularly by those who are in favour of Remain. Which is the reason Jo Cox was assassinated.

Johnson also claimed in the same session that “The best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox and indeed the best way to bring this country together would be, I think, to get Brexit done.” This wanton distortion and co-opting of the memory of Jo Cox for hard-right hard Brexiteers is one of the most disgusting things I have seen a politician do. However, I’m sure that if Boris Johnson stays in power beyond October, he will find new ways to disgust us and perhaps take this grotesque period of politics to a whole new level.

Will is an anthropologist, journalist and former clinician. He is the author or Veneer of Civilisation, Psychopathic Cultures and Beyond the End of the World

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