Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 29 June 2019

The UK right wing press: news or propaganda? The Boris domestic story.

Some background for non-UK readers. The contest for the next leader of the Conservative party, and therefore our next Prime Minister, is now between two: Boris Johnson and someone else. Johnson is the clear favourite to win. Johnson has a pretty colourful love life, such that uncertainty about how many children he has produced is a talking point.

Last week neighbours of Johnson’s current girlfriend heard screaming, crashing and shouting coming from her home very late at night. One particular neighbour, Mr. Penn, knocked on the door but there was no response. He then rang the police, who quickly came to the property. The police were satisfied that all occupants were OK, they had no concerns and left. One other neighbour described the earlier noise as so bad they thought someone had been murdered.

That would have been that, except that one of those neighbours, a Mr. Penn, contacted the Guardian about the story, and had also switched on his phone inside the flat when the noises started. The reason he gave for contacting the Guardian was simply that the story was of public interest. The Guardian rang the police and they initially said there was no incident that night. When the Guardian rang back with further details the police corroborated the story.

The story was of course of public interest. It was on the front page of every newspaper the next day, including the right wing press. So far, the right wing press were acting as proper newspapers. It is what happened next that tells a more interesting tale. Mr. Penn decided to go public (the Guardian had kept his identity secret) because
“The unpleasant things being said about myself and my partner, and some quite frankly bizarre and fictitious allegations, have been upsetting for not only us, but also for family, friends and fellow Camberwell neighbours, who are currently being harangued by the media. I would ask that you leave private citizens alone and focus instead on those who have chosen to run for power within the public eye.The attempts from some areas of the press to instead focus their stories on us, and in particular my wife, have been eye-opening, and very alarming.”

Here is a headline from the Mail the day after the incident hit the front pages that gives you a flavour of what he meant.

'Leftist' millionaire's daughter whose playwright husband called police on Boris after recording screaming bust-up 'gave the finger' to PM-hopeful in the street - as it's revealed Johnson's girlfriend Carrie no longer feels safe at home.”

Here is some more from the text:
“Most curious of all is what the couple did – and why they did it – after they were assured by police that there was nothing to worry about, that no one was hurt, no crime had been committed and that there was no cause for further action. At this point many in their position might have slunk away, faintly embarrassed they had dropped their neighbours (with whom they share a tiny communal landing) in it with police.”

Other right wing newspapers joined in. The Times searched through Mr.Penn and his wife’s twitter accounts to find ‘incriminating evidence’ that they were Remainers, left wing, disliked Johnson and so on. The Telegraph gave two pages over to comment of a similar kind.

The hypocrisy of the follow up reporting had two aims. The first was to distract attention away from the fact, which no one denies, that Johnson had had a blazing row with his girlfriend that frightened many neighbours and to instead focus attention on the messengers. The implication of rather a lot of the reporting is that if you hear a woman screaming next door best keep it to yourself. The hypocrisy is that every newspaper had run the story as a front page lead the day before, so Mr. Penn had been absolutely correct that the story was of public interest.

The second aim is to ensure that any other member of the public that might have potentially important information about a Tory politician that was in the public interest keeps it to themselves. They will keep it to themselves because they know that if they reveal it they will have the full might of the Tory press trying to destroy their character in the days after the information was revealed.

Adam Ramsey describes this as anti-journalism, but I think that does not fully describe what is going on. If it had been a Labour politician of any rank these same journalists would have gone to any length to find the dirt on the politician, and not reward their sources by investigating them as well. What these newspapers are doing is propaganda: providing information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, designed to promote a political cause or point of view.

Why have these papers not yet descended to the level of Fox News in pretending bad things (for Trump) did not happen? These papers know that most of their readers will get their news from one of the broadcasters as well. If they are not reporting what is a top story for these broadcasters their bias is all too obvious. They cannot hide the story that is embarrassing to one of their own, but they can do their best to prevent similar stories in the future never seeing the light of day.

Mr. Penn and his partner have left their flat after receiving a large number of death threats as a result of this newspaper coverage. Our right wing propaganda machines has achieved its goal. 


  1. With Trump and Johnson the permissive society rhetoric of Conservatism has fallen apart.

    When I said here that Cameron's Big Society was merely Victorian Values renamed, it is looking now like a proper change to Conservatism, where shrinking the size of the state, that markets make morals, has overtaken the 1960's idea of the permissive society.

    Comparing the Daily Mail online to the Daily Mail in print gives you the same change.

  2. We don't need any more biased or empty plaudits for the incongruous Boris Johnson as he impersonates a circus bear that has been clouted too many times on its head. We need a Boris Johnson who is a ex-politician now sprawled at the bottom of a deep well of anonymity. Any MP who treats politics as an amateur charade belongs in a balloon juddering out of control in mid-Atlantic. Where the maddened and enraged media cannot reach him. If he became prime minister, wise leaders would never allow him inside the Elysee Palace or The White House. One tiny advantage; his political career is finite.


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