Boris Johnson, COVID and the Media

The Pursuit of Truth – Or Not Boris Johnson, COVID and the Media Dorothy Byrne 21 June 2021

When a man lies often enough, every now and then, something he says will turn out to be true. And so it happened with Boris Johnson. He said our country would be “record-breaking” in this pandemic and it has been, twice over: at one point, the UK had achieved the highest rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita in the world; and it also suffered the worst fall in GDP in Europe.

How have the Prime Minister and his Cabinet fared when it comes to telling the truth about the greatest disaster our country has experienced since the Second World War?

Privately, radio and television journalists will reel off what they think are the most outrageous lies of this Government’s Coronavirus catastrophe – how it claimed that it was simply ‘following the science’ or ‘protecting the NHS and care homes’ or awarding contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) sensibly. 

Back in autumn 2019, I condemned Boris Johnson as a known liar in the annual MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival. A number of my colleagues in broadcasting disapproved strongly even though they did not dispute the accuracy of my statement. That the Prime Minister is a notorious liar is accepted among journalists in the UK across the political spectrum.

Johnson was sacked by The Times early on in his career for an untruthful front-page story which he misattributed to his own godfather. As the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels’ correspondent between 1989 and 1994, he regularly disseminated ‘Euromyths’. He was sacked in 2004 as the Conservative Party’s vice-chairman and Shadow Arts Minister for dishonestly assuring the then leader Michael Howardthat reports he had had an affair with a columnist were an “inverted pyramid of piffle”.

Yet, almost all broadcast journalists believe that they should not use the ‘L’ word about Johnson.

Why? Firstly, it’s rude and we’re British. Secondly, they fear that the public could thereby think we have lost our impartiality. Well, that’s a risk we have to take. I am indeed not impartial between truth and lies. The public doesn’t have the wherewithal to research the facts about politicians’ statements and therefore judge accurately whether they are telling the truth. They rely on us for that. 

Ministers have made untrue statements over and over again and it has worked for them. A significant proportion of the population has accepted these statements. This is partly because they sympathised with a Government dealing with a plague without precedent for which it could not be blamed. But this is also because broadcast journalists have not said that we have been lied to in significant ways.

Back in 2019, I was complaining about Johnson’s lies concerning EU rules on condoms and kippers. What halcyon days they were, pre-pandemic, when a politician lying about fish seemed like a big deal. Now, he and his Cabinet lie about life and death. Previously, his lies were specific. Now, they are are so vast in their ambition that they create a parallel universe.

In the past, lying politicians were held to account on television and radio. They were not named as liars, but their statements were analysed forensically in lengthy interviews. Not any more.

During the Coronavirus crisis, we have not seen Boris Johnson putting himself up for the sort of grilling to which, for example, Margaret Thatcher subjected herself over the Falklands. Johnson and senior Cabinet ministers have failed to appear on Newsnight or Channel Four News, the two programmes with the time to carry out in-depth interviews. 

A leading broadcast journalist told me: “They just don’t believe in accountability. In one of the great crises of modern times, where is the major interview with the Prime Minister? I can’t think of a time when a Prime Minister in a crisis has put himself up so little. There is no proper scrutiny. It’s a complete contempt for accountability.” 

This is an edited extract from ‘Populism, the Pandemic and the Media: Journalism in the Age of Brexit, COVID, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’ to be published on 24 June 2021 by AbramisDorothy Byrne is a television journalist and producer. She was formerly editor-at-large at Channel 4 Television, where she previously served as head of news and current affairs

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