A headline in today’s Independent reads:
Boris Johnson described most deprived members of society as ‘chavs, losers, burglars and drug addicts’
The casual reader might be mistaken into believing that Boris Johnson did this; that he is an “uncaring Tory” or whatever the motif is this is supposed to foster.
It is in fact a straight lie – of the kind that abounds in the liberal press.
The quote is culled from a Spectator article which Johnson wrote 14 years ago. This is part of one of the interesting phenomena of this election – citing comments which people made 10 or 20 years ago as evidence of how they are personally deplorables. A process made easy with the help of Google, social media and the Internet Archives website. (This process also depends on the immature student concept of time as the ‘eternal present’. There is no allowance here either for the fact the social context will have changed or that people change).
Back to the headline. What Johnson actually said is:
The real divide is between the entire class of people now reposing their fat behinds on the green and red benches in the Palace of Westminster, and the bottom 20 per cent of society – the group that supplies us with the chavs, the losers, the burglars, the drug addicts and the 70,000 people who are lost in our prisons and learning nothing except how to become more effective criminals
This class “supplies us” with the ‘chavs, losers etc.’. He is not saying that this class is ‘mostly’ the ‘chavs, losers etc.’ as the Independent headline screams. Nor is he saying that this class is ‘made up’ of ‘chavs, losers etc.’ as the journalist writes in the body of the text. He is saying that ‘chavs, losers, people in prison’ etc. come from this class. Which is probably true (allowing for rhetorical flourishes).
The whole article is linked from the Independent. It only takes about 3 minutes to read. If you read it you will see that the way it is presented in the Independent is an exact 100% reversal of the meaning of Johnson’s 14 year old piece. In the piece Johnson argues that the then Labour party (2005) was doing nothing for the bottom 20% of society except try to manage them with prescriptive social policies. He argues that the Labour-led expansion of Higher Education was disadvantageous to this 20% as it entrenched them as a disadvantaged underclass without degrees, barred from vocational routes to progression as these no longer exist. He criticises how some on the ‘left’ attack the privilege of the Tory party but in fact many of them went to elite Universities, send their children to private schools etc. Johnson argues that both parties are stuffed with the ‘smug middle-classes’ and that the real divide is between the middle-classes and the neglected 20% of society at the bottom. He criticizes New Labour (remember this is 2005) arguing that they are doing nothing for the bottom 20% – other than bossing them about with social injunctions “don’t smack your children, don’t get fat” etc.. You can disagree with this analysis or not. But at any rate the piece is clearly written from the point of view of questioning how these people can be helped. To represent it as some kind of smear on this 20% as the Independent does is entirely mendacious and it must be knowingly so.
This sort of thing happens all the time. Complete and deliberate misrepresentation of Johnson’s views. The Independent quotes Labour MP David Lammy as saying that the piece shows “disdain for working-class people across the UK”. This is a cynical attempt to whip up popular feeling by liars. Johnson could readily take this as supporting evidence for his case that Labour / New Labour don’t / didn’t really care one hoot about this 20%.
This minor media incident is an example of the way that the discussion in this election is being conducted very largely at the level of personal insults. It is enough to paint your opponent as personally deplorable. Social media is scanned for injudicious remarks people made even before they entered politics. (Many of the remarks are quite surprising it has to be said; but even so – this is not serious argument). This is a kind of debasement of politics. Why, for example, can’t David Lammy read the original (14 year old) article and make some kind of reasoned response? Is it because he can’t find one; i.e. he secretly accepts that Johnson’s analysis of the political class is correct, or because he doesn’t care or is simply too lazy? (He could, for example, have pointed out that New Labour built Sure Start centres to help families in poor areas which have now been closed by ‘Tory’ cuts to public sector spending).
We are supposed to have ‘democracy’ but if this just means culling your opponent’s writings for anything which, taken however far out of context, can be used to present them as a ‘bad person’ and spraying this at them in a complicit media then we can hardly be said to have a meaningful democracy. The next step is that people may feel ‘why bother’. ‘Democracy’ is hard-work. It requires effort – from politicians and the media. That effort is missing at the moment. Sheer laziness and cynical populism may lead to fascism.
A few weeks ago both the Guardian and the Independent carried a vox-pop interview with an elderly lady in Johnson’s constituency of Uxbridge in which she described him as “a filthy piece of toe-rag”. Both media outlets gave this clip considerable prominence. The clip showed no evidence of reasoning and showed only this nasty personal abuse. It seems that it wasn’t even the case that the abuse followed some reasoning, for example “The Tories have closed the public library. I think he is a ‘filthy etc'”. Unless the clip has been very cleverly edited the sum total of the comment was “filthy piece of toe-rag”. Quite possibly the elderly lady interviewed has some kind of personal problems and this is the basis for the abuse. That such a clip could be presented at all let alone as having something to contribute to the election debate is indicative of a sickness in the media.
One analysis for this (and here I lean on Peter Oborne’s Triumph of The Political Class ) is that the media class is trying to cover up and protect their own elitist and out-of-touch position by grabbing at anything which will make it look like they support populism and are on the side of the people. This can lead to dumbing-down at its most extreme.
- Peter Oborne Triumph of The Political Class. Simon & Schuster. 2007.