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Sunday, July 03, 2022

The mystery of Fleet Street: An article on Boris Johnson vanishes

The article reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, when he was the foreign secretary in 2018, proposed appointing his mistress at the time, Carrie Symonds, as his chief of staff, with a salary of 100,000 pounds.

By: New York Times | London |
June 21, 2022 3:21:09 pm
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Reuters)

Written by Mark Landler

The most talked-about article in the British newspapers last weekend was one that featured juicy allegations of love, ambition and thwarted corruption at the pinnacle of the British government. Then it vanished abruptly from the pages of The Times of London in the early hours of Saturday.

Two days later, the circumstances of its disappearance remain cloaked in mystery.

The article reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, when he was the foreign secretary in 2018, proposed appointing his mistress at the time, Carrie Symonds, as his chief of staff, with a salary of 100,000 pounds ($122,000). Symonds married Johnson in 2021, but in 2018, he was still married to his previous wife, Marina.

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A spokesperson for Carrie Johnson said Monday that “these claims are totally untrue.”

The Times published the article, by a longtime political reporter, Simon Walters, on Page 5, but then replaced it with another article in later editions. The article was never posted on the newspaper’s website. The Daily Mail posted a version of the report on its website, MailOnline, only to delete it a few hours later.

Neither paper has issued a statement explaining its decision, or retracted the story. And Walters said he stood by it completely.

“At no point did anybody offer me an on-the-record denial of the investigation, either before or after it was published,” he said in a telephone interview. “Mr. Johnson’s team did not offer an off-the-record denial, either.”

On Monday, however, Downing Street confirmed that its representatives had been in contact with the Times both before and after the article was published, presumably to dispute the story. It said Johnson had not been in contact with the paper, but would not say who had.

It is not unusual for British papers to apologize for articles, or retract them. Libel law in Britain makes it easier than in the United States for plaintiffs to win lawsuits against publishers for what they assert is inaccurate reporting. But removing an article during a press run is so unusual as to be extraordinary, and the lack of answers fueled a feverish day of speculation in Britain’s gossipy journalism world.

“This is what Sherlock Holmes would call a three-pipe problem,” said Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of The Guardian. “To pull a significant story with no explanation, when the reporter is still standing by it, is baffling. Let’s hope the Times and Mail can shed some light on this mystery.”

The Times, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, declined to comment on the decision. But an official at the company said there were “legal issues” with the article, without specifying what they were. A spokesperson for the Daily Mail, which is owned by the Rothermere family, did not reply to a request for comment.

Adding to the confusion, most of the details in the article were previously reported in a tell-all biography about Carrie Johnson written by Michael Ashcroft, a former Conservative Party official who is a member of the House of Lords. The Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday published excerpts from the book, “First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson,” in February.

According to the book and the Times’ report, Boris Johnson’s suggestion that he name Carrie Johnson as chief of staff was quickly snuffed out by his aides in the Foreign Office, who pointed out the ethical and political problems with it.

On Monday, Downing Street refused to deny the story directly, saying that it could not comment on Boris Johnson’s actions before he became prime minister. But a spokesperson pointed to statements, including one from Carrie Johnson’s spokesperson, denying the claims.

In the British media, the threat of libel is very real because if legal action is taken against a news organization, it has the burden of proving that its allegations are true. This means that even when journalists are confident that their reporting is accurate, editors will sometimes still hold off on publication unless they are certain that they could, if challenged, prove it in court.

To some press critics, however, the disappearance of the Johnson story underlines an unhealthy closeness between the government and the powerful pro-Tory newspaper proprietors in Britain, which include Murdoch and the Mail’s publisher, Jonathan Harmsworth, also known as the fourth Viscount Rothermere.

“Right from the start of Boris Johnson’s campaign for party leader, we have seen a merger between the Johnson political operation and the media machine,” said Peter Oborne, a journalist and broadcaster who wrote a book, “The Assault on Truth,” that investigates Johnson’s ties to the right-leaning papers.

Until recently, Walters, the story’s author, was a reporter at The Daily Mail, where he broke several stories about the costly refurbishment of the Johnsons’ official residence at Downing Street, which was initially paid for by a Conservative Party donor. The reports were particularly embarrassing for Carrie Johnson, who took charge of the project.

Among Walters’ biggest backers was Geordie Greig, who was then the Mail’s editor and had recruited him to the tabloid. Last November, Greig was forced out of his job in a power struggle. Since then, media critics have said, the Mail has become far less critical of Johnson, most visibly on the lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street, a scandal that almost cost the prime minister his job.

Soon after Greig departed, Walters was let go by the Mail. He has been a freelance journalist since then, still contributing to the Mail but writing for other papers, including the Times. Last month, Walters reported on tensions between the Johnsons and the chief housekeeper at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence, which led to the housekeeper resigning.

The sequence of events that led to the latest article being pulled remain murky.

The editor of the Times, John Witherow, was recovering from a medical procedure and was not on duty last week, when the article was published. That left the paper in the hands of his deputy, Tony Gallagher. Neither editor would comment, and Walters declined to discuss his exchanges with the paper.

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