Nick Cohen

It’s time to pick a side in Boris Johnson’s war on the media

It's time to pick a side in Boris Johnson's war on the media
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Boris Johnson is the first party leader of the media age. Winston Churchill and Michael Foot wrote extensively. But Johnson is a journalist. Before he went into politics, producing Tory commentary and editing this magazine were the achievements that defined him.

And yet no modern prime minister has shown a greater determination to limit media scrutiny. Whether it is banning ministers from appearing on the Today programme and Good Morning Britain, or banning them and their special advisers from talking to journalists, Johnson is revealing himself to be a brooding suspicious politician, wholly at odds with his cheeky chappie persona. Even when a terrorist attacked civilians on a London street, ministers were “not available” to speak to the public.

I suspect there is a strong element of projection at play. It is because Johnson was a partisan columnist that he is an enemy of press freedom. He assumes all journalists are like him, and that they will twist, distort and censor accordingly.

You can see the same projection in the policing of his colleagues. Just as a general who has seized power in a military coup keeps a close eye on his army to make sure no one else is thinking of using the same tactics against him, so Johnson is determined his ministers can never dream of repeating his tricks.

Johnson won power by exploiting his mastery of the media, which was so assured journalists referred to him as “Boris” – the readers' and viewers' friend. He is making sure that potential rivals in Cabinet do not build an independent base by threatening to fire ministers who talk to journalists.

Johnson appealed over the heads of David Cameron and Theresa May to party members. Naturally, he is making sure Conservative ministers cannot do unto him as he did unto Cameron and May. It is working for now. So successful has Johnson been in diminishing his colleagues, that if the prime minister’s time among us were to end tomorrow, I have no idea who would have the stature and political base to succeed him. There’s only room for one “big beast” in Boris Johnson’s zoo.

If he sees himself in every journalist and politician he meets, is it any wonder he is so paranoid and so determined to prove, that if WH Auden’s bleak description of narcissistic humanity does not apply to everyone, it most certainly applies to him:

'For the error bred in the bone

Of each woman and each man

Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone'

Fear and self-love are pushing Johnson into the familiar pattern of elected autocrats. He’s only been in power since 23 July, but already he’s tried to commit the democratic outrage of suspending parliament, purged the Conservative party of dissenters and threatened the independence of the judiciary and the civil service.

From Modi’s India to Orban’s Hungary, the justification is the same: the leader won the people’s blessing by winning an election – or in Johnson’s case by winning an election and a referendum. A judge who challenges the legality of the leader’s decisions or a journalist who asks hard questions is therefore not just challenging the leader but the people itself.

I accept some readers will find it hard to put defending democratic values above ideology. Any criticism made of Johnson’s attacks on fundamental values and institutions will undoubtedly put them where they least want to be: on the side of the remoaners, libtards and leftists – the very people they are in politics to oppose.

Democracies only survive, however, when people are prepared to put aside partisan advantage and defend the basics. Never assume, warns Timothy Snyder in his 'On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century', that a nation’s institutions are eternal; that the courts will always be independent of the state or the press will always be free. ‘Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.’

And, I would add, you must be willing to defend them regardless of whether you agree with this judge’s decision or that BBC journalist’s choice of question.

Against all expectations, lobby journalists have delivered a moral lesson to the rest of us. I can and have written at length about what is wrong with the lobby, and have done the same for the BBC, the judiciary, the House of Commons and civil service. Johnson would lap it all up. But you must have noticed by now that his government is not interested in reforming undoubted abuses, only in undermining checks and balances so that more power can be concentrated in its hands.

The lobby receives briefings from the government and opposition, which ought in many cases to be delivered in public. For all that, it remains a democratic institution in its way. Political editors go to its briefings regardless of whether they are friends of the governing elite or not. At least they used to.

Yesterday, political journalists arrived for a briefing from David Frost, Britain’s chief negotiator with the EU. Frost is a temporary civil servant, bound by his professional code to be impartial and not act as propagandist for the ruling party.

Yet Johnson treated him as if he should be the Tories’ hired help. As Paul Waugh, one of the best political reporters around, described it, only journalists selected by Johnson’s aides were to be admitted. ‘Those invited to the briefing can stay – everyone else, I’m afraid, will have to leave,’ announced Johnson’s PR man Lee Cain. ‘We’re welcome to brief whoever we like, whenever we like.’

Moments like this define people and their societies. They ask the fundamental question: which side are you on?

In a small but rather magnificent act of defiance, the favoured journalists decided that they were on the side of their colleagues and a free media. Missing the story and losing access to power would hurt them. They know because their editors would have told them that they have to be first with the news. Nevertheless, they put the general interest before their private interest and told Cain that they were walking out with their colleagues because they could not agree to a briefing on such divisive terms.

The Johnson administration may not be up to much but by attempting to divide reporters into the saved and the damned it has already provided the best metaphor yet for the grim politics of the 2020.