How time flies. Is it really three years since we discussed on these pages the generosity shown by journalists to an incoming prime minister who had been plucked from their own ranks? Normally something dies in journalists when figures alongside them succeed. Peers are done down rather than bigged up. Yet the sometime Daily Telegraph columnist’s accession to power had just been greeted with acclaim by all but the liberal press. And that was before his election victory. It was almost as though proprietors had decreed positive coverage.
Today, many have remembered who they are and given a good kicking to a man who is down. But Boris Johnson has not lost all his media friends. The Sun places him alongside Margaret Thatcher. For the Daily Mail, he is to become the king across the water. His more constant admirers have conferred immortality on him over Brexit – let us not debate whether the process has been perfectly realised – and the worst they have to say is that he is not an instinctive manager or administrator.
Historians might decide Mr Johnson reached his apogee almost a year ago, as he bestrode a global stage at the UN climate change conference (COP26) in Glasgow. The prime minister had come through the Covid epidemic. The vaccines were working. He was famous around the world. That week, he hurried back to London to meet old journalist colleagues. Neither they nor he could have imagined that he was being drawn back to earth.
Those former leader writers at the Telegraph who arranged a Garrick Club reunion had hoped, but not expected, that he would join them and were delighted to see him. They demonstrated the journalistic weakness that is proximity to power. He demonstrated the journalistic weaknesses of an eagerness to leg it from anything boring – he reported that he had rushed a bilateral meeting to secure his escape – and a reluctance to pay his way. The organiser later reported – rather admiringly – that Mr Johnson was the only guest who failed to reimburse him. Perhaps he has sent his cheque since.
Within days, he was deep in a row over attempts to save the Tory MP Owen Paterson, a man much loved in Mr Johnson’s old Telegraph circle, from parliamentary censure. This was a misguided notion that would have played better as a newspaper column than as government policy. Within weeks, he was inundated with stories about parties.
Now that he has fallen, his failures are presented as the inevitable consequences of placing a newspaper columnist in a position of power. Are Mr Johnson’s faults his own, or those of all journalists? It would be reassuring to suggest the former: we worry that there is something in the latter. Certainly, we can agree that the working lives of journalists – particularly those of entertaining columnists – do not inspire confidence. They are destructive rather than creative, quicker to demolish than to build. Journalists work at the last minute, are bored by preparation, seek constant stimulation.
Indeed, when we look more deeply, we see in many of our colleagues what armchair psychiatrists could describe only as arrested adolescence. Most of us learn that we are not the centre of the world, that the views of others might be more relevant than our own, that work can at times be boring. Many of our leading journalists – broadcasters are particularly susceptible to the condition – seem to have avoided all these developmental shifts. It’s a wonder they observe much of the world, so caught up are they in their own. And doubtful whether they seek other opinion, given their confidence in what they think themselves.
There are many online sites to guide parents through their children’s most trying years. They identify the characteristics of the adolescent in a checklist that is uncannily familiar: verbal aggression, intolerance of frustration, low impulse control, risk-taking, defiance, testing limits, abandoning commitments, selfishness, mood swings and – who could they have in mind? – “frequent changes in relationships”. We notice that journalists, for all their boasting of independence, have a disturbing tendency to seek the attention of a father figure against whom they can rebel and to whom they ultimately conform: Rupert Murdoch? Robert Maxwell? Every editor?
Our thesis leaves unresolved an important question. Perhaps a university might take it up. Does journalism turn adults into adolescents? Or are those who find themselves trapped in adolescence particularly attracted to journalism?