Boris Johnson, the odds-on favourite to become Britain’s next prime minister, had one distinct advantage going into the race to succeed Theresa May: name recognition. When the UK media drop that name – Boris – Britons know who exactly they are talking about.
And that is partially because, as it happens, Johnson got his start in the news business. In the late 1980s, after getting fired from his first reporting job for inventing a quote, Johnson wound up as Brussels correspondent for The Daily Telegraph newspaper, known online as The Telegraph.
In this role, he produced an assortment of Eurosceptic stories that people found amusing and that arguably sowed seeds in peoples’ minds for leaving the European Union.
It [Boris Johnson’s Eurosceptic journalism] set the tone for 25 years of British media coverage of Europe,” says Martin Fletcher, former Brussels correspondent for The Times. “Because every news editor in Fleet Street thought that what Boris Johnson was producing was much more interesting than the usual grey dull fare that came out of Brussels. And they demanded the same. I know this because I was the Brussels correspondent for three years myself at the end of the 1990s.”
Isabel Oakeshott, a former political editor for The Sunday Times, the largest-selling British national newspaper, does not think Johnson or his stories two decades ago are catalysts for what she calls “Britain’s fundamental Euroscepticism.”
“It was immensely colourful, made great copy and people lapped it up. But I’m sure also people took it with a little bit of a pinch of salt,” Oakeshott argues.
But nearly 30 years later, Johnson became a key asset on the Leave side in the 2016 referendum campaign – saying the same kind of things about the EU as a politician he once did as a journalist.
Johnson is well aware that most of the UK print media do have his back. But not all of them.
Recently an expose was released about Johnson’s ties with Steve Bannon, the alt-right former White House operative who has ties to white supremacists. Bannon was reportedly behind Trump’s efforts to ban Muslims from entering the US.
“We don’t know all the specifics of the relationship between Boris Johnson and Steve Bannon, but in another way it doesn’t matter,” says writer and commentator Maya Goodfellow. “What matters is that he is trading on exactly the same kind of politics that Steve Bannon is. Boris Johnson likes to ramp up the hatred towards certain groups of people at particular times. And at this moment that is ramping up hatred towards Muslims which is an existing sentiment in Britain.”
Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist with The Guardian and The Observer who broke the Bannon story, says: “We in Britain, we’re facing exactly the same problems that the American press is facing with Trump, which is, how do you hold a liar to account? In this day and age it’s incredibly difficult because our media is very largely owned by oligarchs and they’re overwhelmingly right wing. And you can see concerted elements of the press working together to promote their man – which is Boris Johnson.”
Johnson’s ongoing relationship with The Telegraph and his weekly column remain central to his political ambitions. Because PM May resigned before her term was up, her successor will be selected on July 23 by the Conservative Party membership, not in a general election.
“The Daily Telegraph is the bible of the Conservative Party,” says Fletcher. “So his column in The Daily Telegraph is immensely important to him. I think it’s quite extraordinary. To me, it breaches every code of journalistic ethics. I cannot understand how he or the Telegraph gets away with it.”