Everyone loves a redemption arc. The British media is no exception. It makes a habit of rescuing people from the pits of history: the liars, the cheaters, the war criminals. If these figures have something to offer the establishment — a condemnation of the Left; a bolster to the Right — the press that represents its interests will sponge away their crimes and bring them, renewed, back to their seat at the table.
Following the events of this week, this system has a task on its hands. Boris Johnson’s reputation, as Zarah Sultana wrote in Tribune yesterday, was well-known ahead of his premiership. He is racist and homophobic; he is an enthusiastic liar; he is entirely self-serving. He was never interested in running the country for the good of the people. This character has not suddenly appeared in the last six months: he has always been that way, and that way was condoned by all those colleagues who backed his bid for the highest office in the land.
In a functional political culture, the reputations of those who supported and enabled him, many right up until the final scandal, would therefore be shot. In practice, because those MPs had the wherewithal to recognize the threat he had begun to pose to their political careers, and to the stability of a status quo that serves them, they will be made the saviors of civility. The pace of their change of heart — most notably that of Nadhim Zahawi — has not gone unnoticed (or unmocked), but it’s their role in getting rid of someone who had become a symbol, the sole representative of an antidemocratic impulse that in reality infects British politics much more broadly, that will endure. He didn’t want to go, but he will. That they pushed him out of unbridled self-interest soon won’t matter to the media, because the media is operating in exactly the same way.
The media played a crucial role in bringing Johnson to power in order to see off the alternative. Examples, mostly from the 2019 general election, are seared into the Left’s collective memory. The backing from the Tory press, Johnson’s homeland, was to be expected, but it was the nominally reluctant enthusiasm of outlets that style themselves apolitical or even left-liberal that really burned: Philip Schofield posing smilingly with Johnson on This Morning; Jeremy Corbyn projected large against the onion-domes of Moscow behind Emily Maitliss’s head; the New Statesman’s pronouncement that it could not bring itself to endorse any party; Laura Kuenssberg’s enthusiastic repetition of the lie a Labour activist had punched a Tory aide outside a hospital; the widely shared images of a bumbling but well-meaning man bringing tea to the reporters outside his home.
Johnson’s rehabilitation took place before he even made it into Number 10. This supine behavior continued throughout the pandemic, too, even as the bodies did “pile high.” That much alone tells us that the current ire the ruling class is directing at one of its own is the product of exceptional circumstances, not the norm. As Dan Hind has noted in Tribune, much of the information revealed as part of the Partygate scandal had been an open secret for some time, and not just because the gossip networks are wide open, but because establishment media figures were sometimes themselves present at the events that were later reported on as “news” — not news, in fact, but in Hind’s words, “a redistribution of knowledge.” What are seeing is the ruling class purging itself of an indulgence that had begun to make it sick.
As a result, we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that Johnson himself is done either. He is the current villain, he will remain so for a while, but he may well eventually be brought back into the fold as part–Westminster authority, part-clown. The more serious scandals can be expunged, the lighter ones made light of. This future is perhaps most evident in the fact that the criticisms that brought him down have avoided any real critique of how he has run the country: parties, financial misdealings, and sexual misconduct scandals have been the core of the argument, while the millions in poverty, the widespread suppression of democracy, and the attacks on basic rights have received comparatively little airtime.
That’s not to say the rulebreaking and the excuses made for sexual assault aren’t important. What they are is events that can be pinned on personal moral failings in order to avoid a real reckoning with the political culture that produced them — and Johnson — in the first place. Pincher’s alleged activity should itself be contextualized in a political backdrop that sees fifty-six MPs reportedly under investigation for sexual assault: there is a problem with the system here, an elite system that produces individuals convinced that the rules — whether COVID restrictions or the fundamental rules of sexual consent — are made for the little people; are simply not for them. Any substantial change to this system beyond a half-baked apology or a toothless investigation is something the mainstream media, its owners, and its sources of revenue are keen to avoid.
And Johnson’s rehabilitation, after those of his executioners, would be par for the course for prime ministers. If the media were to criticize, in any meaningful, long-lasting way, the way Boris Johnson has led the country, they would also have to condemn their new hero Theresa May for her role in the locking-up of pensioners in detention centers, or the voice of reason Tony Blair for his hand in the deaths of a million Iraqi people. If these actions are not beyond rehabilitation, neither are Johnson’s. Give it a few years, and a new column or even a TV show don’t seem like impossibilities. Maybe a podcast.
For its part, the media rehabilitates these individuals in the interests of its own longevity. Pundits will have to shore up their own legitimacy in having played such a central role in backing Johnson in the first place, and more importantly, in going on to back his cronies and ideological descendants when the moment arrives. Were there still a socialist leader of the Labour Party, the papers would rush to rally behind someone more venal than Boris Johnson to see off the threat. Were there still a socialist leader of the Labour Party, in fact, things never would have got this far. Leaks would have stayed in their containers. Only since the threat of any substantial change has been neutralized in the form of business-friendly, picket-line-averse Keir Starmer is it safe to look for someone more “prime ministerial” to take the reins.
Johnson is currently expecting to head out of Number 10 in the autumn. As that autumn turns to winter, millions of people will be facing another £800 hike on their energy bills. Food banks are at capacity. Children across the country are going hungry. There is only really one thing to say about a media and political class that has spent years conspiring to bring us to this point and would do so again in a second: don’t let them get away with it.