IIn recent years, “saving receipts” has become a somewhat paranoid form of diligence, whereby someone mentally stores evidence of someone else’s behavior, in case they ever need it in the future. The phrase has a particular effect in the context of social media and smartphones, which produce constant digital records that can be archived for future reference. A society in which people have “receipts” for each other can hardly be happy and will eventually enter a vicious cycle of suspicion, once it is clear that everyone keeps files on everyone else. But when it comes to liars and known frauds, I would be remiss not to keep some kind of paper trail.
Peter Oborne is an accomplished receipt holder. His efforts to hold political elites to account go far beyond regular reporting and have multiplied over the past 20 years to become a one-man moral crusade against lying in public life. He tackled the issue head-on in his 2005 book The rise of political lies, the same year he featured a Channel 4 documentary Why Politicians Can’t Tell The Truth. He reveals in his new book that “when Blair’s term ended in 2007, I had become used to keeping a file of political lies.” The figure who has come to dominate that archive for the past five years is our current prime minister.
The assault on the truth It may sound like another book on “post-truth,” “fake news,” or the threat posed by French philosophers. But make no mistake: this is a book about Boris Johnson. Oborne is clinical and ruthless in his account of Johnson’s mendacity, building his case article by article, footnote. The forensic nature of the task leads him to adopt an entirely new citation system, with the bottom third of a page often made up of URLs, dates, and textual references. The book that reminded me the most was Christopher Hitchens. The Henry Kissinger trial. In a sane world, it would be a political obituary.
Oborne is precise, understated, and occasionally repetitive. He rehearses the plain facts of Johnson’s lies, throughout his journalistic and political career. Some of these are well known, such as the ones that led to his being fired from the Times at age 23 (making up a quote) and then from the shadow cabinet (falsely denying that he had had an affair with a Spectator colleague). It also details the serial lies told about Labor Party Jeremy Corbyn and the impending Brexit deal over the course of the 2019 election campaign, a time when Oborne held a specially designed website to keep track of all falsehoods. “I have been a political reporter for almost three decades,” he writes, “I have never come across a high-level British politician who lies and fabricates as regularly, as blatantly and consistently as Boris Johnson.”
What makes Oborne’s file so fascinating is that he and Johnson share the same cultural and professional milieu, or at least they did. Johnson hired Oborne as a political correspondent for the Spectator, and Oborne is occasionally overwhelmed with praise for his moral nemesis. He describes Johnson as “by some measure the most brilliant political journalist of his generation, with a talent that sometimes crossed the line of genius,” and as “a pleasure to work for, a good editor, and a loyal colleague with the most The quickest mind I’ve found. ”Yet he blames Johnson personally for the dramatic deterioration in the credibility of public life and the legitimacy of institutions. Britain has entered a“ nightmarish epistemological universe, ”and the key moment of This transition was on July 24, 2019, the day Johnson entered 10 Downing Street.
Oborne thus elevates Johnson to Dionysian status in British politics, gleefully trampling on everything the Tories have held dear for more than 200 years, leaving a trail of rubble. He accuses Vote Leave (especially Dominic Cummings) and its financial backers of launching a “reverse takeover” of the Conservative Party, taking advantage of the fact that party membership and innate respect for tradition had long been falling. Cummings et al “despised the Conservative Party and hated British institutions.” For Johnson, they offered him a path to power, and that was enough.
Oborne’s moral compass is that of traditional pre-Thatcher conservatism: Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, and the rules that emerged over time to govern the conduct of parliament and public administration. For a conservator like Oborne, the public record is, or should be, the last word. His belief in Victorian standards of bureaucracy and parliament is sometimes borderline quaint, but clearly authentic. For an example of where his most boring and dignified kind of conservatism survives, he repeatedly turns to Angela Merkel.
It is not just the contemporary conservative party that scares Oborne, but developments in his own profession. The newspapers, their owners and their staff have colluded with politicians to vilify and fabricate without fear. Oborne’s efforts to expose these practices have not been without personal costs. Finding no media outlet willing to publish it on the issue of journalistic malpractice surrounding Johnson, he took his evidence to openDemocracy, who published his article “British journalists have become part of Johnson’s fake news machine“In October 2019. Grimly, it reports that, since the article appeared,” the British press and media are banned for all purposes.
Johnson, Vote Leave and Rupert Murdoch are roundly condemned. Donald Trump, despite appearing in the book’s subtitle, makes a cameo appearance, serving as Johnson’s comparator and partner in epistemological crime. But the underlying conditions of these phenomena are taken too lightly, perhaps because, as a conservative voting for Brexit, Oborne is unwilling to fully confront the role of the market and nationalism in dethroning the liberal ethic of public service. It is impressive, even moving, to witness Corbyn being so unconditionally defended by someone who certainly disagrees with everything he stands for. But Oborne can’t help but blame the left for an underlying malaise, of which Johnson is the most aggressive symptom.
From Rousseau to Tony Blair, Oborne believes that the left makes more use of mendacity than the right, as the former is more confident in its ultimate moral goals. If the end justifies the means, then the means can include lies. This, Oborne argues, is what gradually corroded the pact of conservative institutionalism, creating the space for artists like Johnson to exploit the void. Johnson and Trump “combine right-wing political instincts with progressive methods.” The dogma of Thatcherism is not mentioned.
It’s a relief, in many ways, that social media appears so rarely in a book on political lies. There is something decidedly analogous about Oborne’s mission and the faith it places in official documentation like Hansard. And yet it becomes difficult to explain the rise of Johnson’s (or Trump’s) free political entertainment brand without at some point addressing changes in technologies and funding for our media. Johnson’s lies are no secret, though they have rarely been as well documented as in The assault on the truth. The question is why they, and books like this one, do him so little harm. In a world of peer-to-peer surveillance, where our managers, credit evaluators, clients, and each other constantly monitor our honesty and character, there is some relief in the sight of the outrageous leader who seems immune to this collection. of “receipts”. Meanwhile, Oborne offers a poignant rage against the death of the establishment’s light.
• William Davies is the author of This Is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain (Verse). The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism is published by Simon & Schuster (£ 12.99). To purchase a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism