Boris Johnson has a troubled relationship with honesty: why have most British newspapers covered up his lies?

Monday, January 31. An embattled Boris Johnson, bloodied by another bruising Commons encounter with the Labour leader Keir Starmer, goes into a closed meeting with the Tory backbenchers. There’s talk of a leadership crisis and a vote of confidence. Tory briefers move among the journalists outside. Inside, cheers can be heard. The briefers tell journalists the meeting is going well. There are reports that Johnson is making a comeback. Michael Fabricant, a Johnson loyalist, tweets out that the prime minister “really worked the room”, adding: “I think by the end it was like a Billy Graham evangelical love-in!” Word goes round that Johnson might yet survive. The biggest cheer of the meeting, reported The Daily Telegraph’s Chris Hope, “was when Boris Johnson said he was getting Lynton Crosby back to advise him”.

Since no reporters were present in the room, there’s no knowing exactly what Johnson told Tory MPs about the Australian political strategist, generally considered the strategic intelligence behind Johnson’s two victories in the London mayoral elections. But there’s no question what was reported. According to Huffpost: “The prime minister told a meeting of Tory MPs that Lynton Crosby, an Australian political strategist who ran Johnson’s successful 2008 London mayoral campaign, would give him regular strategic advice as part of a Downing Street shake-up.” The Sun, reports that Johnson “confirmed legendary Aussie election guru Sir Lynton Crosby – nicknamed the Wizard of Oz – will return to get a grip on No 10”. The Daily Mail – like The Sun, one of Johnson’s loyal supporters – says that Johnson had vowed to bring back Crosby. In a story headlined “Wizard of Oz returns”, it reported: “The Prime Minister won applause from backbenchers as he told a private meeting that Sir Lynton would return to advise him.”

“Boris Johnson brings back election guru Lynton Crosby to help save job,” screamed The Independent. “Lynton Crosby’s return is a sign Boris Johnson plans to fight, and fight dirty, to stay in his job,” said iNews. The following day, Mail writer Sarah Vine devoted her column to analysing Crosby’s return and what it meant for Johnson’s Downing Street: “Perhaps the strongest indicator of this new direction is the re-appointment of Sir Lynton Crosby, who will be advising on the running of Downing Street. He is a master of the dark arts, and bringing him back shows Boris means business. If I were Dominic Cummings, I’d be worried.” She concluded: “He’s there to do a job, and do it he will – regardless of who gets in the way.”

One would have thought that the London media had learnt by now to take Boris Johnson’s pronouncements with, ahem, a little scepticism. Apparently not. There’s no evidence in any of this breathless reporting that these media outlets contacted Sir Lynton to check if Johnson and his spinners were telling the truth.

I emailed Sir Lynton in Australia and asked if the reports were true. This is how he replied: “I am not going into No. 10 or working in that way. If any Conservative PM asked for advice I would give it.” He added: “I am in Australia and have been for months and not back for weeks yet.”

There was, I suppose, a fragment of truth in Johnson’s reported message to MPs, quickly relayed to a credulous media, that Sir Lynton was returning to give him strategic advice. But only a fragment. The story that Crosby, who reportedly fell out with Johnson during his campaign for the Tory leadership in 2019, was returning to Downing Street to rescue the prime minister was nonsense.

This episode illustrates two themes which have been constant ever since Johnson became Tory leader in the summer of 2019. First, Johnson habitually lies, fabricates, misleads and cheats. Secondly, the British media – broadcasters and newspapers – have gone along with these lies, reporting them as facts without bothering to check. Rather than interrogate statements from the Tory party, 10 Downing Street or Johnson, reporters have often passed them on without comment, allowing them to get away with his lies. This inert attitude helped Johnson win his huge victory in the 2019 general election.

A few weeks before election day, I watched Johnson live on Sky News, speaking to supporters in front of his Tory battle bus. During a speech lasting no more than 10 minutes, viewers learnt that he was building 40 new hospitals. A lie that had already been questioned by the excellent Full Fact website. The prime minister then told Sky viewers that “20,000 more police are operating on our streets to fight crime and bring crime down”. Also hopelessly misleading.

Johnson then told Sky viewers that Jeremy Corbyn “plans to wreck the economy with a £1.2trillion spending plan”. Labour’s manifesto hadn’t at that point been published, let alone fully costed. Johnson’s £1.2trillion was a palpable fabrication. He then went on to say that Corbyn “thinks home ownership is a bad idea and is opposed to it”. Not true.

At the end of his speech, the Sky News presenter made no attempt to challenge or correct any of Johnson’s false statements. This meant that the Tory leader was getting away with a party political broadcast. It would be unfair to name this relatively junior journalist because the big media cheeses were even worse.

Let’s take the case of health secretary Matt Hancock’s election visit to a hospital in Leeds. Journalists were briefed by unnamed Conservative sources that one of his aides had been punched by a Labour Party activist. Rather than check this out independently, the ITV and BBC political editors, as well as one senior newspaper political editor, immediately reported that Hancock’s adviser had been punched by an activist.

But the punch never happened. This was, in due course, revealed by a video of the event, which showed no attempted or actual violence by any protester. Hancock’s aide accidentally collided with a protester, who had raised his arm. West Yorkshire Police issued a statement that they were not aware of reports of a punch. Most of the editors – not all – published full or partial retractions. But what were they doing passing on false stories given to them by “Tory sources’ in the first place?

Why didn’t they do what journalists are taught to do at journalism school and independently corroborate the facts? There are scores of comparable episodes. I have listed many of them in my crowdfunded website, Boris-Johnson-Lies.com. Click on it and look. You won’t have read about most of the lies, dating back to the start of Johnson’s uniquely dishonest premiership, in British newspapers. This means they have allowed themselves to become part of Boris Johnson’s machinery of deceit.

Since entering Downing Street, Johnson has told fibs about almost everything. Some are relatively unimportant, but even minor deceit displays an attitude that the truth simply does not matter. Remember: political lying has consequences. Governments that get away with lies get away with the misgovernment the lies protect. They never take responsibility for error and failure. Billions of pounds are siphoned by cronies or simply wasted.

Service people give their lives in wrongful wars and there are thousands of premature avoidable deaths, not only in pandemics but in the normal course of bad government decisions on healthcare. People lose trust in their governments and ignore them even when they are telling the truth. They therefore persist in behaviours that are harmful to them and their families.

For these reasons, all lies by governments are significant, even those that seem trivial. Together, they build a fog which blots out the boundary between truth and falsehood, and hides the faces of those who do dark deeds in the state.

Who should hold a lying government to account? Theoretically, the answer is the press and broadcasting media. In practice, the British mainstream media have been careful to play down – and for the most part entirely ignore – Johnson’s lies and misleading statements. Some journalists have gone a step further and actively collaborated with Downing Street to distribute false information helpful to Johnson’s cause. This means that British reporters have played an important role in the production and dissemination of the lies and false statements produced by Johnson and his ministers.

Bear in mind that the media knew the prime minister had a long record of mendacity and deceit when he entered Downing Street. As a young journalist, he was sacked from The Times for fabricating a quotation. The Times later endorsed both his Tory leadership campaign and his 2019 general election campaign.

It is not only the press that does this. The supposedly impartial BBC has repeatedly failed to hold the prime minister to account. Here is one telling episode. The BBC, along with The Guardian, led the investigation into the Pandora Papers in the UK. BBC reporters were enthusiastic about reporting foreign beneficiaries from secret offshore accounts. When it came to Tory donors, the corporation became craven. The day after the news broke that several donors were implicated, Tory leader Johnson gave a 20-minute interview to Nick Robinson on the Today programme. Incredibly, Robinson did not even raise the issue.

In telling contrast, the BBC sent a reporter to the Czech Republic to ambush the Czech prime minister Andrej Babis with questions about his failure to declare investments in an offshore investment company used to purchase two villas for £12million in the south of France. The readiness to tackle a foreign leader while giving deferential treatment to the British prime minister raised serious questions about the independence of the BBC. Again and again, it refused to hold the Johnson government to account over corruption allegations and the epidemic of ministerial lying.

The gap has been filled in part by independent fact-checkers, local journalists, and private individuals concerned about the truth. It is hard to praise too highly the scrupulous work carried out by the independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact. Lawyer Peter Stefanovic has kept a remarkable record of Johnson’s false statements, noting many lies and misleading statements that would otherwise have disappeared from the public record.

Stefanovic published a video highlighting some of the most serious falsehoods uttered by the British prime minister. By late last year, this video had been viewed more than 40million times. Repeat: 40million times. It was all but ignored by the BBC, other broadcasters and the mainstream press. This is perhaps the most breathtaking single illustration of the complicity of both the written press and broadcasters in Johnson’s lies and fabrications.

Again and again in the Johnson premiership, the most revealing reporting about government has come from outside the mainstream media. Thanks to the Health Service Journal (HSJ), we learnt the details of exactly how Boris Johnson planned to get away with his deceitful plan to build “48 new hospitals”. In an Orwellian touch, civil servants have been ordered to change the meaning of the word “hospital”. Renovations, rebuilds or new wings are now classified as hospitals. This is like a used car salesman putting on a splash of paint and a new gearbox, then passing off a secondhand car as “new”. It was HSJ reporter Dave West who exposed Johnson’s deceit about hospital building. Needless to say, his revelations were largely ignored by mainstream newspapers. Even though the fabricated claim to construct 48 (or sometimes 40 – the numbers cited vary) new hospitals was at the heart of the Johnson general election campaign and prominent in the Tory manifesto.

At last, far too late, the tide is turning. Until a few weeks ago, the media generally called the prime minister “Boris”. This sobriquet conveyed an endearing rascality and a cheeky chappie you’d like to have a drink with and whose weaknesses are part of the fun. Now even some supportive newspapers are calling him Johnson. For this, we have to thank Daily Mirror political editor Pippa Crerar, whose story of the Downing Street parties at the height of the Covid lockdown has changed the political climate.

There used to be a tendency to mock and deride the Mirror compared to its mass market rival, The Sun. The tables have turned. The Mirror has broken the two stories that have hit Johnson hardest. First, Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle, and now Downing Street flouting the Covid rules. All journalists owe a special debt to Ms Crerar. Our profession should ultimately be about only one thing: fearless truth-telling and truthful reporting, regardless of the consequences.

She’s shown how the job should be done, and in the process played a major role in turning the Mirror back into a paper of which its legendary campaigning boss Hugh Cudlipp could feel proud. Rival papers need to explain themselves. The Sun and The Daily Telegraph did not follow up Crerar’s story on their front pages. Either they did not appreciate the significance of her report (a vanishingly remote possibility) or they were trying to suppress it. It is hard to know which explanation is worse.

For more than two years after becoming prime minister, Johnson was able to rely on the media not to draw attention to Downing Street lies, cronyism and moral corruption. Historians and political scientists will want to assess to what extent the British political media over the last three years have become a structural part of Johnson’s debased system of government. To its eternal credit, the Daily Mirror stepped outside this stinking arrangement and did the job of a proper newspaper.

Peter Oborne writes a diary for Byline Times. He has chronicled the lies, falsehoods and misleading statements of the Johnson government on his crowdfunded website Boris-Johnson-Lies.com. His latest book, The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism, was published last year by Simon & Schuster@OborneTweets.