At 5.15pm on Friday 4 October 2019 Peter Oborne learned that the copy for his regular Saturday column in the Daily Mail had been declined. Could he write another one? Oborne complied and offered his original article to the Spectator. They refused. He approached Channel Four’s Dispatches with the same story. They introduced him to a production company and agreed in principle to broadcast the documentary. A few days later they changed their minds. Oborne suggested to the TV production company that they approach the BBC. They replied, “There is no chance it would be interested.”
Open Democracy then agreed to publish it online. Oborne reports, “This article marked the end of my thirty-year-long career as a writer and broadcaster in the mainstream British press and media.” Oborne, who had previously written for the Spectator and the Telegraph, parted company with the Mail. He had been a regular contributor to Radio Four’s The Week in Westminster for over twenty years. That ceased without explanation. It did not end there. “The mainstream press and media is to all intents and purposes now barred to me,” said Oborne, who now publishes mostly online with Middle East Eye and Open Democracy.
Oborne had broken ranks to expose the collusion of much of the mainstream media with Johnson’s government. Politicians have always told lies but Johnson has made lying an integral part of government. Senior figures in the media have not just been misled. They have actively participated in the deceit. This amounts to an assault on democracy in which the Fourth Estate is now a Fifth Column.
When Oborne wrote The Rise of Political Lying about Blair’s New Labour it was all over the media. This time the media has largely ignored The Assault on Truth. The only mainstream review I could find was in the Guardian. John Newsinger has published a much better (and longer) review online in the Lobster.
Oborne seems at times bemused by Johnson’s success. How did he get away with it? Johnson is apparently “charming , intelligent and amusing.” He has certainly charmed Oborne. Apparently a person whose whole career has been built on “deception, misrepresentation, false statements and serial fabrication” is also “the most brilliant political journalist of his generation, with a talent that at times crossed over the line to genius.” Really?! Oborne is at his best when unpacking the lies and their consequences. The section on Covid is absolutely damning of a government that could lie to itself, could lie to the British people but could not lie to a virus.
Johnson got away with it because he got a free pass from a media, whereas Jeremy Corbyn was the victim of a smear campaign of unprecedented proportion in modern political history. Oborne deals with Tory lies about Labour’s policies on national security, taxation, immigration and defence. There is no mention of the abuse of antisemitism to discredit Corbyn and the treachery within the Labour Party machine by those who thought a Johnson government was a price worth paying to defeat the left in their own party. To be fair, Oborne has written a very good piece on the destruction of Jeremy Corbyn for Middle East Eye. I wish he could have incorporated some of those arguments in this book.
The book is a powerful indictment of the print media. But broadcast media gets off lightly with only a passing mention of the sins of omission by Andrew Marr and Nick Robinson. Oborne documents the active participation of Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston in the article in Open Democracy. It is strangely absent from the book.
BLAME THE LEFT
I am not convinced by Oborne’s attempt to explain the reasons behind the new moral barbarism of Trump and Johnson. He believes that in Victorian times honour and virtue triumphed over the corrupt politics of the 18th Century. Respect for the institutions of the state and a spirit of public service predominated in British politics. Politicians and parties might disagree. But they played by the rules.
Oborne suggests that the corruption of the rules came from the left. Because we believe we have the moral high ground we are more likely to believe that the end justifies the means. That makes us careless with the civil liberties and rights that old fashioned conservatives like Oborne seek to defend, not least the right to be told the truth by our rulers. He singles out Blair and in particular his lies to justify invading Iraq. This harks back to his earlier book about the Blair Government: The Rise of Political Lying. The difference between Blair and Johnson is that Blair was sincere in his belief that he was acting for the common good. Oborne allows Johnson no such defence.
Oborne grew up during the post war consensus. He regards this as a golden age of politics. Sadly for him and us, it was the exception, born out of the feelings of national unity from the fight against Hitler. Politicians of all parties who had served together in World War II had a different outlook from the spivs and chancers who now dominate the political scene. And the long economic boom meant there was little pressure to dismantle the welfare state and systematically attack the unions even when the Tories were in office. Those days are long past and Oborne’s call to defend liberal democracy does not inspire me. If liberal democracy could not even save us from Johnson we need a socialist alternative to stop rampant capitalism driving us to climate catastrophe.
It would be wrong to dismiss Oborne because of his politics. As a one nation conservative who has kept his moral compass, “when all about were losing theirs,” as Kipling might have said, he deserves some credit. This book is well worth reading for its summary of Johnson’s most important lies and its indictment of some of those who have most dishonoured journalism by acting as his accomplices. It is an invaluable source on How this happened. But Oborne loses his way in trying to offer an explanation Why.
Life long socialist. Now retired, I have been an office junior, a bookseller, a docker and a teacher. I write a lot and read a lot more. Committed member of the Society of Authors, English PEN and the National Education Union. Uncommitted member of the Labour Party. Will they expel me before my direct debit expires?