A deceitful prime minister is a price that a majority of British voters seem prepared to pay for one that represents their values, writes Johanna Ross.
By Johanna Ross
in Edinburgh, Scotland
Special to Consortium News
Earlier this year an important book was published, though it has had little attention from the mainstream media. An Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism by Peter Oborne is one of the few real critiques of the current British government, an administration that is seemingly steeped in lies and deceit.
Even before Boris Johnson came to power, he had been caught lying in previous positions of employment he held, as a Times journalist, and as editor of The Spectator. But things got more serious when Johnson came closer to gaining more authority before the last election and when he ultimately became British leader.
For Johnson now heads a government of his reflection, of his own making, where ministers have one by one, broken the ministerial code and gotten away with it.
The case against Johnson, according to Oborne, is damning. He is labelled a “serial liar and fabricator” who habitually utters falsehoods on the floor of the House of Commons. And incredibly, instead of holding the prime minister to account and calling him out on the misinformation, the mainstream media has only amplified his lies.
The collaboration of the press is what has made the lying even more problematic, as journalists put their relationship with Downing Street, and getting their “scoops,” before ethical considerations. According to Oborne, No.10 “relies on a compliant media to cooperate with that deceit — even when it knows the allegations are false.”
So what makes the situation different nowadays? After all, you may say, politicians have always twisted the truth in order to manipulate the population. Well, in the past, the various high-profile British politicians who deceived the public — such as Jeffrey Archer or Jonathan Aitken – were generally punished for doing so; Johnson on the other hand appears to have only gained from his deception, as he has repeatedly won at the ballot box.
Perhaps the reality is that Johnson’s media background enables him to understand better than the average politician the importance of marketing and promoting oneself in order to manipulate the voter. Like Donald Trump, he appreciates the importance of repeating key phrases to the population — whether it be “40,000 new hospitals and 20,000 new police officers” (which turned out to be untrue) or the infamous Brexit campaign slogan on the sides of buses which claimed Britain sent the EU £350 million a week (also incorrect and misleading).
For Johnson it’s clearly not about the rules of the game and how it’s played, but whether you win or not. And once elected, it’s much more difficult to get a prime minister out.
Rather sadly, it has also been speculated that one reason Johnson has been able to get away with his deception, is because the British public no longer cares about it.
Oborne himself has said the question of “What happened to the British?” has nagged him for some time. He’s not the only one who has contemplated this; even former Prime Minister John Major said back in 1994 that core British values were being gradually eroded: He spoke of “certain lasting values that are instinctive to the British … respect, courtesy, obedience to the law, self-discipline, no-nonsense decisions between right and wrong.”
Age of Multiple Sources
Nothing stays the same of course, but the real difference nowadays is that we live in the age of the internet and social media where people are used to obtaining information from multiple sources. This means that it is normal now for us to read a news item conveyed to us in several different ways, with contrasting versions of the same stories. This makes it increasingly difficult for the average reader to assess what the facts of the matter are.
As such, it has perhaps become less important what the truth is, but what people “feel” about a particular issue; whose “side” they are on.
American journalist David Roberts writes about the rise of this political tribalism and “tribal epistemology,” where information is evaluated according to whether it conforms to a group’s values and goals and not whether it is relevant to “common standards of evidence.”
Essentially, in the age of the web, where people are no longer swallowing everything they see and read as they did in the past — when it was carefully managed and “packaged” by the BBC and mainstream newspapers — they are having to evaluate information themselves. The average person is using a different set of criteria to do this, and perhaps resorting to the primitive instincts of whether something appeals to them or not.
Characters such as Johnson and Donald Trump therefore may be more “personable” and “likeable” than more conventional, dry, politicians due, ironically, to their failings. It is the exaggeration and lying that make them seem, for many, more human. And if we look at how populism is taking hold across the globe, with the TV comedian Vladimir Zelensky winning the Ukrainian presidency and the Five Star Movement in Italy (founded by a comedian and a web strategist) we can see that traditional, dissembling politicians are no longer gaining public support.
It seems that the lies and deception are a price the public is now willing to pay for other values that Johnson and other such populist politicians are offering — whether it be Brexit or other nationalist movements.
The flip side of this is that the very structures traditionally in place for keeping the government in order, are under threat. On July 2 the Institute for Government published a paper entitled “Updating the Ministerial Code” in which it argues that Johnson’s actions reveal a disdain for high standards in government.
It says the prime minister has undermined the Ministerial Code — a document which sets out ethical standards of conduct for cabinet members — and that he must “fundamentally overhaul the rules which govern the standards of behaviour to which ministers are expected to adhere.”
It cites the recent case of former Health Minister Matt Hancock, who was forced to resign recently after breaching Covid restrictions. Note, the prime minister did not sack him, and there are still questions remaining over certain conflicts of interest that Hancock may have had.
Unsurprisingly the report was given little coverage in the mainstream media. As PM, when you have the corporate media in your pocket, it’s unlikely you’ll see much negative press about yourself.
But that brings us to a rather grim conclusion: if we have an immoral government, which cannot be held to account by our media, we cannot continue to promote our country as a shining example of a functioning democracy. We cannot pretend that we are a pillar of virtue for the rest of the world to admire and emulate.
The U.K. needs to sort out its own house moving forward before pointing the finger at others. Will it? Not if Boris Johnson can help it. The “threats” of Russia and China will continue to play the useful role of distracting the British public from government scandals. Slogans will continue to take precedence over sense.
As the 17th century British politician Sir Henry Vane said: “The people of England are now renowned, all over the world, for their great virtue and discipline; and yet suffer an idiot, without courage, without sense, nay, without ambition, to have dominion in a country of liberty.”
Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun.
Johanna Ross is a journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow the author on Twitter.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.