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September 1, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:14am

Tim Walker on why he thinks Boris Johnson has poisoned the well of journalism

By Tim Walker

As Boris Johnson steps down as Prime Minister, former Telegraph columnist Tim Walker, author of the soon-to-be-revived play Bloody Difficult Women and writer for the New European, explains why he thinks he “poisoned the well” of journalism.

One of the greatest and most enduring love affairs of my life is in its death throes, and, not for the first time, it’s Boris Johnson who’s the third party and principally to blame. There have been letters, and, just lately, a telephone call, and, quite frankly, I’m devastated.

In the 30 years we’ve been together, I don’t believe I’ve changed at all, but the newspaper industry has, beyond recognition. Cynicism as well as idealism has always been there, of course, but Johnson more or less single-handedly drained it of the latter.

Johnson’s ignoble career in newspapers has been well documented, but less well understood is how he’s poisoned the well of journalism every bit as much as he has the political one.

Sacked by The Times for lying, he then washed up at the Telegraph, where he was quick to see there was a good living to be had out of lying about the European Union, first for Lord Conrad Black, and then, after they acquired the title from the Europhobic fraudster, the non-dom billionaire knights, David and Frederick Barclay.

Words became Johnson’s soldiers in a vicious ground war against anyone and any institution that stood in his way and the grim Darwinian alt-right vision of his owners who paid him £270,000-a-year.

I remember my first sight of Johnson at an editorial conference at the Telegraph and the revulsion was instant. He was very obviously in the business of confirming prejudices rather than challenging them: he’d make lazy, clichéd jokes about foreigners, minority groups, the working classes, Liverpudlians, and women he claimed to have bedded. He was the Barclays’ man through and through, and made little or no attempt at small talk with the likes of me. He saw no need to expend energy on endearing himself to factory floor journalists when he had the owners on his side.

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Talk to any journalist of my generation about why they wanted to get into the business and the chances are All the President’s Men will come up, and this brings me to the telephone call I received. That film about how The Washington Post had broken Watergate and brought down President Nixon had made the industry seem noble and glamorous. Fifty years on almost to the day from the start of the Post’s famous investigation, one of its journalists called me and made me profoundly depressed. It brought home to me quite how far newspapers in this country had fallen and what a chasm had opened up between my youthful ideals and the present reality.

She was doing a piece about Carriegate. This was a very different kind of ‘gate’ from the one the Post had broken. I’d disclosed in The New European how The Times had run a story about Johnson as Foreign Secretary improperly attempting to secure a £100,000-a-year job for his then-mistress Carrie Symonds. It made the first edition of The Times, but then it had been mysteriously pulled from all the subsequent ones. The Mail’s website, which had first lifted it, then swiftly took it down.

The official explanation I got from the most senior people at The Times was that the Johnsons had threatened legal action. Given that the story has since been endlessly repeated and no one has been sued, that just beggars belief.

Simon Walters, the freelance journalist whose byline appeared on the original story, assured me he stood by it 100 per cent and he added he could stand it up, too, in court, if it came to it. The only plausible explanation was the newspaper that was once known as The Thunderer had pathetically caved in to pressure from Johnson’s Downing Street. The story got traction around the world because there was the collaboration between our political and journalistic classes laid bare for all to see.

The Post journalist heard me out as I talked her through what happened and then she said she didn’t understand why The Times had dropped it because it was a great story.

In this brave new world, the characters of individual editors started to be tested as never before.

The acting editor the night The Times dropped the Carriegate story was Tony Gallagher, who I’d got to know during his years in charge at the Telegraph. It had been him who’d overseen the Telegraph’s parliamentary expenses investigation more than a decade ago and that took some guts.

I’d occasionally lunch with him after we headed off to different newspapers and he struck me as a fundamentally decent man. He was on the Echo’s sister paper in Southampton when I was working in Bournemouth and I’d ask him why we’d got into journalism in the first place: to do good or to do bad? Editing the massively pro-Brexit Sun at the time, he didn’t reply. Still, he’d at least tried to get Carriegate into his paper rather than reject it out of hand as had Ted Verity, the editor of the Daily Mail, when Walters offered him first dibs on it.

Verity had been Mail editor in chief Paul Dacre’s choice to succeed Geordie Greig as the Daily Mail’s editor (as he did in November 2021). Greig had been leading the charge against Johnson with a succession of front pages highlighting his corruption, and it had, by all accounts, been too much for the paper’s owner Lord Rothermere, or at least those who advised him.

Verity then began trying to protect Johnson, running editorials telling the readers to ‘move on’ after each successive scandal. Even when the Prime Minister was quite clearly a dead man walking – when the whole country twigged that lying was a compulsion to him – the Mail was still backing him and demanded, the day after he’d been brought down: “What the hell have they done?”

When I’d worked for Dacre, his was a confident, sure-footed newspaper and it was not done ever to offer copy approval – according people who figure in stories the right to vet them ahead of publication – but that was precisely what he demanded when he learnt he was about to figure in a play I’d written about Gina Miller’s court case against Theresa May’s government called Bloody Difficult Women.

Without even the slightest hint of self-parody, he instructed the paper’s legal department to barrage my producers with increasingly intimidating letters. I declined these requests precisely because that was the kind of man Dacre – and a great many other editors before him – had made me. Still, those letters – along with the phone call from The Washington Post – were a wake-up call.

What always struck me about Johnson – and all the weakest people I’ve known in my life – is that ultimately he does not know who he is. I’m beginning to wonder if Dacre knows any more.

The greatest editors of recent times – Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post and Harry Evans of The Sunday Times, among them – knew they had to keep a reasonable distance from politicians, and they died as newspapermen. Any obituary of Dacre would have to include his quest to take over as Johnson’s choice as the boss of the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom.

It would be nice to think there would be a flight to quality journalism in the years ahead, but Johnson has done to the trade what he’s done to politics, and now most people will conclude we are all as bad as each other. Trust, once lost, is seldom easy to restore.

I don’t really care what happens to Johnson, but I think it’s unlikely the Telegraph will be willing to give him the kind of salary it had before. I got to know Sir David Barclay well and he told me Johnson was forever on the phone to him, pleading poverty and complaining about his child maintenance payments. Sir David is now dead and the Telegraph’s trenchant criticism of Johnson towards the end of his premiership suggests his twin brother Sir Frederick is a better judge of character.

Whatever Johnson chooses to do with the rest of his life, he’ll mess it up and leave only destruction and despair in his wake.

(This article is an edited extract of Tim Walker’s chapter in Boris Johnson: Media Creation, Media Clown, Media Casualty – published by Mair Golden Moments)

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