Throughout the political chaos of Theresa May’s repeated failure to gain approval for her agreement to leave the European Union, Brexit-supporting newspapers never wavered in their underlying support for Boris Johnson’s hard-line approach.
He was the ever-present cheerleader, a backstop for the pro-Brexit press, waiting in the side-lines, ready to step into the breach to lead the final assault on Brussels to deliver the freedoms promised in the EU Referendum.
At least in the opinion of most Conservative Party members, Johnson became – like Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair before him – an all-powerful Prime Minister, safe in the knowledge that he and his closest aides were starting out with every chance of being able to command the news agenda and manipulate friendly media outlets.
Not since the sustained allied propaganda of the Second World War, have the bulk of the UK’s newspapers been so united in their objective and so fiercely partisan for so long.
Leaving the EU became a crusade for the dominant British press proprietors decades ago, and their achievement in helping to deliver the 2016 vote to leave was hailed by the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express as the ultimate victory for their brand of campaigning journalism.
Ever since then – backed by their command of 80 per cent of daily newspaper sales – their determination to own and deliver Brexit has been resolute.
Johnson’s two-to-one victory in the Tory leadership election and his confirmation as Prime Minister was greeted with special editions and front-page headlines that echoed the tabloids’ celebrations for the Referendum result.
Whatever his previous travails, and however grudging their admiration sometimes might have seemed in the past, they have seized on every opportunity to promote and protect “Boris, the Brexit Saviour”.
“Johnsun” was the one-word on the Sun’s front page (26.7.2019) below an image of Johnson’s face superimposed on the sun on what was the “hottest July day ever”.
The Daily Mail’s banner front-page headline the day before, “All Guns Blazing” (25.7.2019) picked up on “Boris’s bloodbath” cabinet reshuffle.
Editorial executives, sympathetic journalists and on-message commentators had always kept faith with the original architect of the Brussels-bashing coverage that became the tabloids’ stock in trade.
In a media blitz backing an August bonanza of spending pledges, the pro-Brexit press adopted ploys as ruthless as their tactics in 2016, when they first stoked fears over immigration and then neutralised the Remainers’ fightback as Project Fear.
No trick in the media playbook has been off limits in support of the fresh objective of convincing the public that a no-deal departure might become the only sure way to get Brexit over the line.
Johnson’s long-standing and most brazen mouthpiece, the Daily Telegraph, was only too ready to abuse opinion poll findings to deliver the headline, “Public backs Johnson to shut down Parliament for Brexit,” (Camilla Tominey, 13.8.2019).
“Why so sad on Planet Remain? We’re loving it on Planet Brexit” (Brendan O’Neill, 24.8.2019) was the Sun’s verdict on polling evidence that showed “ordinary people” wanted the UK to “say adios without a deal”.
Any reservations about Johnson’s tangled personal life have been obliterated amid gushing coverage for his girlfriend Carrie Symonds. Her treatment in the Daily Express has been akin to that of a minor royal: “Why Carrie’s the first lady of ethical fashion” (Karen Kay, 24.8.2019).
Despite the Sunday Times’ exclusive (18.8.2019) on the secret “Yellowhammer” report on “Operation chaos: Whitehall’s secret no-deal plan”, the coverage remained relentlessly upbeat.
Johnson’s double act with Donald Trump at the G7 summit in Biarritz was a master class in news management, ending with the US President’s promise of a “fantastic” trade deal for the UK.
Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s top media strategist has launched what in effect has become the equivalent of three-month election campaign.
Pro-Johnson story lines have influenced, indeed dominated, much of the mainstream coverage with ease, not least because of the strength of the pro-Brexit commentariat.
Press reviews and debates on television and radio have been over-run by pro-Leave commentators, from the tabloids, Conservative-leaning think tanks and like-minded websites.
They have outnumbered and outgunned voices representing a pro-Remain and left perspective and, unlike the build-up to the Referendum, Johnson’s first month in office passed by with no sign of a cohesive, co-ordinated fightback.
No wonder Cummings and Johnson’s other long-standing adviser, Lynton Crosby, have advised the Prime Minister that he has nothing to lose by steering clear of potentially hostile broadcast appearances.
Television and radio journalists need the backing of cheerleaders ready to hold the Brexiteers to account, but sadly so many of them seem to have lost their voice.
Illustrations: Sun 26.7.2019; Daily Mail 25.7.2019; Mail on Sunday 28.7.2019