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Watch Out, We’re Mad! was the title of a 1974 Italian-Spanish slapstick comedy movie starring Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, whose films during the 1970s were the sort of thing kids – kids in the UK, anyway – would graduate to when they grew too old to enjoy the slapstick comedy movies of Norman Wisdom. Its plot had something to do with bearded, burly Bud and slim, handsome Terence having an escalating battle of wits, and fists, with some property-developing gangsters after the gangsters wrecked the duo’s beloved dune buggy. No shit. I saw it as a kid at my local cinema as part of a double bill with the re-released The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958). When you were ten years old, that was a double bill made in heaven.
However, Watch Out, We’re Mad! could also be the title given to the Daily Telegraph during the period leading up to and since Boris Johnson becoming British Prime Minister. As soon as a Johnson premiership looked likely, the venerable newspaper decided to be that premiership’s number one cheerleader in the British media. The November 6th edition of the Telegraph, for example, headed its front page with a quotation by Johnson saying of the opposition Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn: “…they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks.”
In my youth, the British tabloids were as idiotic and mean-spirited as they are today. On the other hand, there seemed to be some constancy and balance at the upmarket end of the nation’s press. You had three newspapers that were commonly, and for the most part deservedly, referred to as the ‘qualities’: the Guardian, catering for those people whose political sympathies lay on the left; the Times, catering for those who were in the middle; and the Telegraph, catering for those who tended towards the right.
Unfortunately, these days, ‘quality’ is the last word you’d apply to the Telegraph. It has untethered itself from reality and sanity. It has transformed itself into a printed pantomime of pro-Johnson loopiness. And since the announcement that Britain will have a general election on December 12th, that loopiness has increased by the power of ten.
Before I continue, I should explain that I don’t live in Britain at the moment and my only access to the Telegraph is via its website; and as its articles exist behind a paywall, and as I’m not going to shell out cash to an organ so dementedly devoted to Johnson, and to Brexit, and to all causes championed by right-wingers, I can only gawp at its headlines. It’s often said that newspaper journalists and columnists aren’t responsible for the sensational headlines topping their work, which are the creations of sub-editors. But as the names I’m about to mention seem very comfortably ensconced at the modern-day Telegraph, I doubt if the headlines over their articles disturb them greatly and I assume those headlines are fair summations of their opinions.
Firstly, there’s the Telegraph’s coverage of Johnson himself, which brown-noses the man with an intensity reminiscent of the state-controlled North Korean media reporting the mightiness and infallibility of Kim Jong Un. On October 20th, columnist Tim Stanley likened him to a certain bulldog-spirited British wartime leader: “It’s time critics saw Boris for the Churchillian figure he is.” Ex-Telegraph editor Charles Moore attributed miracles on August 25th: “Boris has brought a miraculous change to the political weather, as the remainer world falls apart.” Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in early October was widely derided for being brief and perfunctory, but the Telegraph’s American columnist Janet Daley heard qualities in it that nobody else did: “Good-humoured Boris just gave the best speech of his career.” And while stories have circulated about Johnson getting over-familiar with ‘the ladies’, Telegraph hack Alison Pearson dismissed these on October 1st. Apparently with a direct telepathic link to the minds of the entire British public, she declared: “Normal people don’t give a monkey’s about ‘Gropegate’ – they’re still backing Boris.”
To the Telegraph’s current editor Allister Heath, Johnson is practically an Arthurian warrior-king, taking arms against a sea of Corbynites, anyone who still likes Tony Blair, EU remainers and general evildoers: on November 6th, “Wake up, Middle England. A Corbyn victory would be a genuine catastrophe… This election is a binary battle between Boris and a Labour Party bent on the destruction of our freedom”; on October 30th, “Boris Johnson’s historic mission is to save Britain from Corbyn and the Blairites”; and on August 28th – insinuating Johnson is Maggie Thatcher with a sex change – “This is Boris Johnson’s Falklands War, and he will do everything to win it.”
Johnson and his Conservative Party are generally reckoned to have had a shit start to the election campaign. Their Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns resigned ‘after being accused of lying over an aide’s sabotaging of a rape trial’. Tory MP Ross Thomson, Johnson’s most vocal supporter in Scotland, announced he wasn’t running for re-election after allegations of him drunkenly groping people. And the famously aristocratic, arch-Brexiter Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was condemned for making crass, ignorant remarks about the victims of the Grenfell Fire disaster. But the Telegraph – surprise! – disagrees.
Its parliamentary sketch-writer Michael Deacon insisted on November 7th that the fiasco was actually one big, brilliant Boris plan: “A bumpy start for the Tories? Actually, it’s a PR masterclass.” Deacon apparently believes that whatever happens during the campaign has been mapped out in advance and will end in a big win for Johnson, for on October 30th he wrote: “The election campaign hasn’t even begun – but the Tories’ cunning plan is already clear.” Oh, and let’s not hear any bad words about Jacob Rees-Mogg either. Back on July 27th, Charles Moore gushed: “Jacob Rees-Mogg makes a fine case for the revival of the archaic.”
Boris Johnson might in the eyes of the Telegraph be heroic, noble, wise and infallible, but few adjectives are negative enough to describe his opponents, especially those who also oppose Brexit. “Remainers have turned parliament into an anti-democratic monstrosity” (Heath on September 25th); “Euphoric Remainer snobbery has become a fanatical religion” (Sherelle Jacobs on October 18th); “Fatuous remain MPs have just become the useful idiots of the Leave cause” (Jacobs on October 24th). And don’t even mention the unspeakable European Union itself. “To survive the new global Dark Age, Britain must leave the tyrannical EU” (Jacobs yet again on August 8th); and “Our democracy is being overthrown by the EU’s Hideous Strength” (Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP and Fox News’ go-to guy when they need a British commentator to assure right-wing Americans about the horribleness of the British National Health Service, on September 14th).
It says something about how utterly Loony Tunes the Telegraph has become that the editor of its Scottish version almost sounds reasonable in comparison. This is Alan Cochrane, a man famous for his fulminations against supporters of Scottish independence. Aware that in more left-leaning Scotland, any success the Scottish Tories have enjoyed in recent years has been due to them being perceived as ‘moderate’ – as epitomised by their former leader, the supposedly moderate Ruth Davison (who promptly resigned when Johnson became Prime Minister) – Cochrane has written pieces warning how badly the Boris Johnson Show plays north of the border. These include “It’s not just what Boris Johnson says, it’s the way he says it that alienates Scotland” (October 4th) and “Crass Downing Street jibe at judges unites Scottish politicians” (September 12th). You nearly feel sorry for Cochrane when you read the unhinged, xenophobic, Scotland-bashing comments his articles attract from English Telegraph readers in the threads below them.
Although Cochrane’s work appears regularly on the online Telegraph’s opinion page, he isn’t even mentioned on the page listing its columnists (alongside such veteran eye-swivellers as Julie Burchill and Nosferatu himself, Norman Tebbit). Which shows how much importance the newspaper attaches to Cochrane, its Scottish edition and Scotland generally.
Of course, the Daily Telegraph is fixated with Boris Johnson largely because he’s been involved with the newspaper since the late 1980s – when it hired him as a journalist after he’d been sacked from the Times for fabricating a quote. (Then-Telegraph editor Max Hastings has since said of Johnson that “he is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.”) During the 1990s, as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, Johnson made his name publishing widely exaggerated pieces on how the beastly EU was imposing spiteful and stupid regulations on plucky little Britain, helping fuel the Euro-scepticism that birthed the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and eventually won the 2016 referendum in favour of Brexit. Johnson still writes for the Telegraph and its online opinion page gives pride of place to a set of articles with the oxymoronic title The Best of Boris.
Mindful of the dynamics between President Donald Trump and Fox News in the USA, the Telegraph clearly hopes to enjoy a similar relationship with Prime Minister Johnson – supporting him with a fervour unlike any other media outlet, whilst enjoying a symbiotic relationship where he uses his name to promote it and it has influence over him and his policies.
Yet all cannot be well in Telegraph-World because its owners, billionaire twins David and Frederick Barclay, have just decided to put the newspaper up for sale for 200 million pounds – less than a third of what they paid for it in 2004. Officially, it’s said that the sale is due to the newspaper’s declining profits. However, I’d like to think that the Barclay brothers are worried that their Boris-worshipping newspaper has turned into a Frankenstein’s monster and they want to get rid of it before their reputations are damaged by association. That they’re no longer saying, “Watch out, we’re mad!”, but “Hold on, we’re not that mad.”
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