Boris Johnson's tea-delivering stunt showed that he's trying to wrest control of the narrative. We shouldn't let him
The role of the media is to consider what those in positions of power have said and done, and hold their actions to account. In Boris’s case, this means properly examining his words and their consequences, which already appear to include a rise in verbal attacks on Muslim women
On Sunday afternoon, Boris Johnson emerged from his Oxfordshire home to offer the expectant press pack cups of tea.
Declining to answer questions about the ongoing row over his suggestion that niqab wearers look like letterboxes and bank robbers, the former foreign secretary – clad in floral shorts – nonetheless provided the waiting cameras with a perfect picture opportunity. Sure enough, his appearance with a tray of hot drinks was enough to provoke a new round of reports and keep him at the centre of the nation’s attention.
So should the media play along? Even in the dog days of August, a week of debating two particular sentences in a Boris Johnson newspaper column might on the face of it seem excessive. And when it is plain that this is a man who has ambitions to be prime minister, we should at least consider whether by prolonging the discussion, we are simply falling into the trap he very deliberately set by his choice of words.
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The counter argument of course is that a refusal to be embroiled risks playing into the Johnson narrative that there are forces in this country which wish to quash debate about difficult questions.
There are in fact a great many occasions when journalists do not report details of particular stories out of concern for the potential consequences. Sometimes this is in response to legal or regulatory requirements – not identifying victims of sexual assault, for instance, or excluding precise details about how an individual has taken their own life.
Even when not obliged by external rules, decisions are regularly made not to publish. We don’t often show images of dead people unless there is a particularly compelling reason to (for example when The Independent ran images of Alan Kurdi, the little boy washed up on a Turkish beach in 2016). And there are times when we decline to publish material that could further nefarious agendas.
Most obviously, the majority of responsible news outlets ended the practice of repeatedly showing images of people taken hostage by terrorist groups, especially Isis, when it became obvious that this was precisely what their captors wanted. While plainly it is important to keep readers abreast of what is going on, it is also important that journalists recognise when they are effectively being duped into becoming propaganda agents. That is why we should always take care when it comes to reporting the pronouncements of extremists.
However, Boris Johnson isn’t an extremist – not yet anyway. He is a senior politician who might, if circumstances permit, one day be in charge of the country. While the row about his comments might suit him down to the ground, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be had. What’s more, if critics of his comments imagine they could deprive him of the oxygen of publicity by refusing to engage, they are thinking very wishfully indeed. After all, Johnson has his own platform in a national newspaper and plenty of supporters: he isn’t going to disappear from the political scene.
Much better instead to ensure that his remarks – and those of his supporters – are subjected to proper scrutiny and properly framed. That, ultimately, is the role of the media: to consider what those in positions of power have said and done, and hold their actions to account.
In Johnson’s case, this means properly examining his words and tackling simplistic interpretations – such as those by people who claim he was just making a broad point about religion, or multiculturalism; or those which cast his comparison between a niqab and a letterbox as simply “a good joke” (in fact, it was the kind of joke a three-year-old would make; also it wasn’t in a comedy routine, but a newspaper column that purported to be making serious points).
For anyone who believes the interests of the nation are not best served by politicians who seek to sow seeds of division between citizens of different faiths or backgrounds, Johnson’s comments deserve to be carefully critiqued, long and loud. As do their consequences, which already appear to include a rise in verbal attacks on Muslim women.
There is something else though, which further bolsters the argument in favour of continuing the discussion about Johnson’s remarks. For while it is right that dog whistle politics should be held up to the light, so it is vital that the debate about multiculturalism and integration does not become framed in purely confrontational terms – liberal versus conservative, left versus right, internationalist versus patriot.
It is has been clear for a decade at least that a great many people in this country are uneasy about multiculturalism. It is also plain that some people in the UK whose origins are Asian are uncomfortable with mainstream British attitudes. A survey for the BBC’s Asian Network found that fewer than half of British Asians (44 per cent) thought same-sex relationships were acceptable – set against more than 70 per cent of the general population.
Where Johnson is right, therefore, is that we must not stifle debate about these broader issues: for the sake of social harmony we need to understand, and resolve, the anxieties that are real on all sides. But nor must Johnson and his supporters alone be allowed to decide how that debate is framed: because by reducing a sensible discussion of major social issues to schoolboy jokes, or indeed by turning it into a fairly facile argument about free speech, we get nowhere positive at all. Meanwhile, Johnson gurns for the camera and carries on just as before.
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