This barking at politicians is getting boring
Eddie Mair’s humiliation of London mayor Boris Johnson was a triumph for anti-political cynicism, not journalism.
Sometime in 2001, I remember sitting in a car in a Waitrose supermarket car park in north London. As I waited for my friend to return from the store, I saw a middle-aged man in front of me trying, and failing, to get into his rather pensionable red Citroen. After a lot of fruitless faffing, he went back into the store, presumably in the hope of finding help. It was Boris Johnson.
Back then, Johnson was a well-known journalist – editor of the Spectator – who had recently been elected MP for the safe Tory seat of Henley. He was a bumbling, amusing public figure; nobody thought he was a serious politician. But he was certainly ambitious and, as events have fallen his way time and again – from being elected London mayor in 2008 to being the frontman for the London 2012 Olympics – he is now widely touted as a potential prime minister.
On Sunday, Johnson also laid an early claim to TV Event of the Week. In an interview on The Andrew Marr Show, the host’s stand-in, Eddie Mair, reduced Johnson to a flustered wreck by moving quickly on from the apparent political substance of the interview – around, for example, the deal to make West Ham United football club the long-term tenants of the Olympic Stadium – to more personal matters.
Mair asked Johnson about three past events that, Mair argued, called into question Johnson’s integrity. Firstly, that he had been sacked as a trainee reporter for The Times in the late Eighties for fabricating a quote. Secondly, a much replayed incident in which he was recorded being asked on the phone by an old school friend – convicted fraudster Darius Guppy – about getting hold of a troublesome journalist’s address so that Guppy could arrange to have the journalist beaten up. Thirdly, when a shadow education spokesman in the early Noughties, he had lied to Conservative leader Michael Howard about having an affair with a colleague at the Spectator, Petronella Wyatt.
The interview was odd for two reasons. First, because Mair had decided to raise such well-rehearsed issues with Johnson in the first place. It is well established that Johnson was guilty as charged, although no one has ever being able to prove that Johnson ever went further than humouring Guppy’s request. ‘Bonking Boris’ has long been outed as a rather egotistical serial shagger who uses his affability to get away with things that would be political suicide for anyone else. It is torturing the meaning of ‘political interview’ to drag up such stories again for no particular reason.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about a BBC ‘heavyweight’ interviewer pursuing such a line of questioning. It seems to be standard practice now for the likes of Mair, Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys to assume that whoever is placed in front of them is a venal fraudster out for whatever they can get at the expense of the British public. It’s a pretty tiresome technique that only helps to reinforce the general cynicism about politics.
What was much more remarkable was Johnson’s reaction of blundering discomfort. It was rather like a well-known boxer being floored by a feather-like blow. It only seemed to confirm that there must be must be some merit in Mair’s question that ‘you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?’. Mair, currently the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s PM early-evening current-affairs show, was afterwards praised to the skies as the next big hitter for Newsnight. But even Mair himself must have been wondering if someone had packed his glove with lead, so devastating was the effect of the punch.
The excuse for this rather tawdry line of questioning was a documentary the following night on BBC2, Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise. Michael Cockrell’s film was at least a bit more revealing about Johnson the man. The ‘British Berlusconi’, declared Private Eye‘s Ian Hislop, who drew parallels between the London mayor and the former Italian prime minister as randy, dodgy but perplexingly popular politicians. The portrait of Johnson presented here was of a man who concealed ruthless personal ambition behind a charming, chaotic but utterly calculated exterior, a self-serving individualist rather than a party man or a team player.
However, psychologising Johnson doesn’t really help to explain his rise in British politics. In truth, it has been anything but irresistible. Rather, it reflects the anodyne state of public affairs today. The major parties are manned by individuals who are only too happy to play the role of cogs in the electoral machine. Politics is now all about managerial competence rather than political principle. Someone like Johnson, who apparently says what he thinks and is willing to be a little independent-minded, thus comes across like a veritable colossus, able to transcend his privileged roots in a way that David Cameron or George Osborne never can.
If Johnson really is getting away with murder, it is surely the place of interviewers to hold him to account for his policies and performance. There is plenty to criticise, even though his role as mayor of London actually comes with relatively little power. For example, his first move as mayor was to ban drinking on London’s public transport. He has also censored offensive adverts. So much for the liberal-minded character he likes to present. In fact, for all the talk of being a new broom, Johnson has stuck remarkably closely to many of his predecessor Ken Livingstone’s ban-happy, PC policies. Boris has also quietly ditched many of his old critical stances, from criticising environmentalism to questioning multiculturalism. His shaggy-dog persona disguises the fact that he’s as PC and conformist as every other politician these days.
Sadly, though, politics has been reduced to a clash of characters rather than a battle of ideas. And for that reason, and probably that reason alone, Johnson seems handily placed to clean up. If we must judge our leaders on the basis of personality, it seems many people will plump for someone who has actually got one.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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