Like almost everyone else writing on the subject, I have no idea whether Boris Johnson told colleagues in October that he would rather ‘let the bodies pile high in their thousands’ than have another lockdown. When such words are reported, they are given to journalists ‘on lobby terms’ and are therefore unattributable. But surely the report should indicate from which point of view they come. In this case, the BBC cites ‘sources familiar with the conversation’, a phrase which gives it permission, it thinks, to run headlines like ‘Boris Johnson’s “bodies pile high” comments prompt criticism’, as if it knows that the Prime Minister definitely spoke those words. Surely licence-fee payers need also to be told that the sources giving these stories are Boris’s enemies, just as clearly as those denying them are ‘Downing Street sources’. This is a war, so war correspondents should explain with whose troops they are embedded.
Not that I would be surprised if Boris did use the words quoted. Many people express themselves extremely in private, in the heat of the moment, or sometimes just because they have the sort of mind which likes to provoke argument as part of the search for solutions. Lots of us say things like ‘If that man says that once more, I’ll kill him’, or ‘I’d rather die of Covid than not be allowed to go to the pub’, or ‘All Brexiteers/Remainers should be taken out and shot’, without even faintly meaning it. It is worth noting that most of Boris’s alleged private remarks and texts did not transpire in action. Even better-controlled leaders privately make threats they do not intend to fulfil. Just before she set out to sign the Lancaster House agreement to turn Rhodesia into Zimbabwe, which her government had just achieved, Mrs Thatcher stopped in the entrance hall of 10 Downing Street and said to her private secretary: ‘I am not going to shake the hands of terrorists’ (meaning Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo); but she did, of course, and she knew she would. If we become unable to distinguish between private and public conversation, we shall all go mad. Perhaps we already have.
This is an extract from The Spectator’s Notes in this week’s magazine. Click here to read the whole piece.