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EU Referendum: corruption at the heart of the media

2016-03-27 23:42:27

In March 2013, confronted by the BBC's Eddie Mair with the accusation that he'd been sacked from The Times for fabricating a quote in an article he had written, Boris Johnson's response was typically disingenuous.

Caught out in perpetrating one of the most heinous crimes possible in journalism, betraying the trust of his readership, Johnson at one admitted the "crime" but then immediately sought to make light of it. "Well, I mean", he said, "I mildly sandpapered something somebody said, and yes it's very embarrassing and I'm very sorry about it".

Yet, "mildly sandpapered" doesn't even begin to describe the seriousness of what Johnson did. According to the Mail (supplemented by the account in Sonia Purnell's book), he was indeed guilty of an egregious fabrication.

After graduating from Oxford in 1987, Johnson had became a trainee journalist with The Times and in May 1988 had been asked to write about the discovery of the long-lost palace of Edward II on the south bank of the Thames in London.

Not content with the mere journeyman's task of writing up the facts, Johnson decided to insert a completely spurious reference to gay sex among the royals, a titillating paragraph about how the King would use the palace to cavort with his catamite Piers Gaveston.

To give his invented passage credibility, he then fabricated a quote from an Oxford don, Sir Colin Lucas, his own godfather, an expert on the French revolution, not medieval England. Not only had Johnson not checked the quotation with him, it was as Purnell puts it - "pure historical tosh". Piers Gaveston had been beheaded in 1312, making it hard for him to cavort around a palace not constructed until 1325.

What then happened typifies the Johnson "brand". When Lucas complained to The Times about this invention, he got the dust off from editor Charlie Wilson, with the words: "Our reporter stands by his story".

When Lucas persisted, Johnson wrote another story, aiming to defuse the row by backtracking on the original, again fabricating another quote. Purnell has it that this sealed Johnson's fate. He was summoned before the editor and told that it was a "heinous crime" to make up quotes for The Times.

According to Purnell, rather than being contrite, Johnson simply claimed that "most" of the quotes in the paper were made up. With that, he was sacked but has never truly repented. Instead, he blames "whingeing historians" for pointing out his error, and Lucas's "ruthlessness" in seeking a correction.

At the time though, Lucas, a respected historian, had been trying to become master of Balliol College. Johnson's damaging fabrication had cost him that job. However, what should have been the end of his career as a journalist, for Boris Johnson simply became a short pause before he was given a job by Max Hastings as leader-writer on The Daily Telegraph.

On this newspaper, making up stories has never been a barrier to success. A famed Belfast correspondent during the height of the Troubles had gained his fearsome reputation while posting his front-line stories from the safety of his fashionable London residence, often embellishing his stories with quotes from police officers on the spot, garnered from television reports.

Latterly, its sister paper, The Sunday Telegraph, was to hire Robert Mendick as its chief reporter after he had been fired by the Evening Standard following unprecedented criticism from the PPC for fabricating a story on climate activists. This was by no means the first time Mendick had lied in fabricating a story, and he was to find his spiritual home in the Telegraph group, where lies were already an established part of the corporate culture.

In this culture, Johnson was to thrive, having in the spring of 1989 been appointed as Brussels correspondent for the newspaper. There, totally out of his depth as a working journalist, he overcame his lack of experience by simply making up stories.

This was the view of Rory Watson of the now defunct European, endorsed by David Usborne, the Independent's Brussels correspondent, who said of Johnson, "He was fundamentally intellectually dishonest". Sarah Helm, the Independent's diplomatic correspondent was even more forthright. "I remember developing an instinctive feel that Boris was a complete charlatan", she said.

Michael Binyon, a Times man in Brussels spoke of Johnson having written "some grotesquely exaggerated stories". But Johnson did not, as David Gardner of the Financial Times once complained, even stop there. He was also known to plagiarise the copy of his fellow journalists, embellishing stolen work to make it more attractive to his editors and readers.

Peter Guilford, another Times correspondent, explained how Johnson worked: "The key was, he did use people, he used everybody. It was in a charming, buffoonish way". A well-known broadcaster confirmed this, saying: "He gets away with murder because he is very charming".

This is a man who, with his made-up stories of the Commission banning under-sized condoms and requiring fishermen to wear hair nets, created a whole new genre of reporting, the "Euro-myth". In so doing, for his own personal gain, he has set back the understanding of what was going on in Brussels by decades.

When I started working with Booker in 1992, Johnson was still enthroned in Brussels, churning out his lies. We spent much of our time having to correct or debunk his stories, on the grounds that to run with demonstrably false tales undermined our credibility and damaged the cause - which it does to this day.

Even by then, the rest of the Brussels press corps was growing weary of him. Journalist Geoff Meade, although conveying affection for the man, speaks with disdain for his "lying, conniving side". "I'm always very careful what I say to Boris as I know he'll always try to benefit from it", he said.

Nevertheless, when Johnson came back from Brussels in 1994 he had established himself as a star. In truth, he got out just in time. His colleagues were openly contemptuous of his "Borisisms" and he had become such a pariah amongst EU officials that no one would talk to him. He was by then a caricature figure and had to go.

We have, therefore, a man who in the media is known as a serial liar. But the crucial thing to understand about Mr Johnson is that the lies are not an incidental part of his life. He has built a career out of lying - he is a professional liar. So, last Tuesday, when Andrew Tyrie called him to task for his latest batch of lies, he was by no means the first. He was just another footnote in Johnson's unending career of mendacity.

Now, at last, we have two journalists go strongly into print to call him out for the serial liar that he is. Yet, predictably, apologists spring to his defence. Firstly, we had Iain Martin in his self-referential propaganda site, CapX, then to be followed by Ross Clark in the Spectator, the magazine Johnson once edited.

The Mayor has had too easy a press in many quarters, writes Clark, adding: "There is a good reason for this: he is one of us. There is a bit of the Bullingdon in Fleet Street: we are often too disinclined to attack our own".

Neither of his defenders, though, allow the use of the "l-word", as in liar. All Clark will allow is a reference to Johnson being "dishonest, a chancer", which he then excuses with a generous dismissal, writing that, "Of course Boris can be a slimy opportunist - show me a top politician who isn't".

But this is to gloss over the fact that Johnson is in a class of his own, having made a career in journalism out of lying, thence to repeat it as a politician combining this with his lucrative career as an over-paid columnist on the Telegraph, a newspaper so much at ease with journalistic invention.

Thus, for those then who think this post is another one on Boris "Serial Liar" Johnson, it isn't. It is about the corruption at the heart of the media, a media which embraces a serial liar as one of their own. Despite his catalogue of lies, it promotes him as a fit and proper person to represent the "leave" campaign in this desperately important referendum.

One is entitled to ask of these people how dare they pervert and trivialise our referendum? How dare they front this compulsive liar, despite knowing exactly what he is, and how dare they defend and protect them, when he is set to wreck the hopes and dreams of so many?

So no, this isn't about Boris. It's about the loathsome, venal, disgusting travesty of a self-serving industry that calls itself a free press, an industry which is undermining the very democracy which gives it succour a parasite sucking the life out of our politics.

On that basis, there is no way in a million years that any decent person can possibly endorse the judgement of the media, and accept this dishonest, dishonourable travesty of a man as a potential leader of the "leave" campaign". His corruption is infectious, tainting the industry of which he is part. We can do without the machinations of this diseased industry polluting our campaign - we cannot allow the taint of being associated with him.