The Impossible Peter Oborne

On the face of it, Peter Oborne is impossible.

It’s not possible to be educated at Sherborne independent school, at Cambridge University, to work as political editor of the Spectator, as chief political commentator of The Daily Telegraph, as a journalist at the Evening Standard, as a commentator at the Express, to make nearly 30 documentaries for Channel 4, BBC World and BBC Radio 4, to appear endlessly on high-profile radio and TV programmes, to be made Society of Editors Press Awards Columnist of the Year twice, and still speak out honestly on systemic corporate media corruption.

US author and ethical logician Upton Sinclair explained why it just doesn’t happen:

‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’1

Oborne is different. In February 2015, he resigned as chief political commentator at the Telegraph, warning:

‘If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.’

More to the point:

‘The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers.’

In 2019, Oborne was interviewed on BBC Radio 2 by the BBC’s media editor and (now) Today programme presenter, Amol Rajan, formerly editor of the Independent. In the interview, Oborne named and shamed ‘client journalists’ cosying up to power, before tearing up all the unwritten ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ on ‘mainstream’ interviewing and inclusion by savaging Rajan himself:

‘You, yourself, when you were Independent editor, notoriously sucked up to power. You are a client journalist yourself… you were a crony journalist yourself. It’s time this system was exploded… Your record was and is shameful. Where to start?’.

Rajan responded like a Club Secretary ruling on a breach of Club etiquette:

‘It’s unbecoming of you, Peter, it’s unbecoming.’

Or consider this comment from Oborne on the arch-propagandist Daniel Finkelstein, former executive editor of The Times (also known as Baron Finkelstein of Pinner in the London Borough of Harrow, OBE):

‘As any newspaperman will recognise, Daniel Finkelstein has never in truth been a journalist at all. At the Times he was an ebullient and cheerful manifestation of what all of us can now recognise as a disastrous collaboration between Britain’s most powerful media empire and a morally bankrupt political class.’

In his searingly honest new book, The Assault on Truth, Oborne directs his fire at a very specific, crucial target:

‘I have never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson. Or gets away with his deceit with such ease.’2

Oborne is well qualified to comment, having been hired by Johnson as his political editor at the Spectator in 2001. Oborne adds:

‘It has become all but impossible for an honest politician to survive, let alone flourish, in Boris Johnson’s government.’ (p. 6)

With every example fortified by meticulous footnotes and references, Oborne nails Johnson’s lies again and again:

‘Johnson went on the Andrew Marr show to claim the Labour leader had “said he would disband MI5”. Marr did not demur, but to be sure I looked at the Labour manifesto. It contained no mention of MI5 but did pledge to “ensure closer counter terrorism co-ordination between the police and the security services, combining neighbourhood expertise with international intelligence”.’ (p. 22)

And:

‘Boris Johnson said that Corbyn “would whack corporation tax up to the highest in Europe”. Not true. Labour had said it would raise the main rate of corporation tax to 26 per cent. This would not be anything like the highest in Europe. At the time of Johnson’s claim, the rate of corporation tax in France was 31 per cent, and in Belgium the rate was 29 per cent.’ (p. 23)

Oborne highlights this particularly cynical example of lie-based electioneering from Johnson:

‘During a ten-minute speech, viewers learn that he is building forty new hospitals. It sounds a hugely impressive election pledge.

‘Actually it’s a lie which the prime minister has already repeated often during the campaign, and would go on to repeat on many more occasions. At best the government has only allocated money for six hospitals.’ (pp. 15-16)

The devil is in the footnoted details at the bottom of the page:

‘Under Tory plans, six hospitals were allocated funding for rebuilding programmes between 2020 and 2025. Up to thirty-eight other hospitals would receive money to develop plans for upgrades between 2025 and 2030, but not to undertake any building work.’ (p. 16)

Oborne’s conclusion:

‘There is irrefutable evidence that Conservative Party lies and distortions in the 2019 election were cynical, systematic and prepared in advance. Johnson’s Conservatives deliberately set out to lie and to cheat their way to victory. The strategy triumphed.’ (p. 37)

So how on earth did Johnson get away with it?

‘Britain’s mainstream reporters and editors collectively turned a blind eye to the lies, misrepresentations and falsehoods promoted by Johnson and his ministers.’ (p. 7)

But this was only part of the problem:

‘Many senior journalists went a step further. They actively collaborated with Downing Street in order to distribute false information helpful to Johnson’s cause.’ (p. 121)

This democracy-killing media bias was pushed yet further by the relentless media campaign smearing Corbyn:

‘the mainstream press paid almost no attention to Johnson’s habitual lying, in sharp contrast to their treatment of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was subject to constant attack’. (p. 119)

The difference being that Corbyn didn’t lie – he was attacked for everything and anything he said, or did, or didn’t do.

The particular problem, as Oborne observes, is that ‘Johnson’s government was a media class government.’ (p. 115) Johnson and Michael Gove are both journalists massively supported by former colleagues and allies:

‘The truth was that press barons were determined to install the troika of Johnson, Gove and [Johnson’s adviser] Cummings in Downing Street.’ (p. 117)

Michael Gove, after all, was the protégé of Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun, The Times and Fox News:

‘When Murdoch’s News International group was on its knees following revelations of criminal phone hacking, Gove came eloquently to the defence of press freedom at the Leveson inquiry. Murdoch did not forget: Gove and his wife Sarah Vine were invited to his wedding to the former model Jerry Hall.

‘Murdoch also supported Johnson, but his principal sponsors were the Barclay brothers, shadowy owners of the Daily Telegraph, house journal for the Conservative Party. “Many congratulations to Boris Johnson who has of course just been appointed Prime Minister,” enthused the paper when he entered 10 Downing Street. “Boris is the first Telegraph journalist since Sir Winston Churchill to lead the country.”

‘Associated Newspapers, owners of the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mail, which employed Sarah Vine, also backed Johnson. Together these three groups accounted for more than 30 per cent of British newspaper readers. All their titles backed Johnson. The same applied to the Evening Standard, which serves London, an area of predominantly Labour and Remain voters. Under the ownership of Evgeny Lebedev it became an unlikely ally of the Tories, backing Johnson for both Conservative leader and prime minister.’ (pp. 117-118)

This is seriously damning and courageous stuff (there have been no reviews of The Assault on Truth in the Murdoch Press, Associated Newspapers or the Telegraph group – see below), but Oborne goes much further:

‘A great deal of political journalism has become the putrid public face of a corrupt government. There is only one good reason to be a journalist: to tell the truth. We should not go into our trade to become passive mouthpieces of politicians and instruments of their power. Too much of the media and political class have merged. The unnatural amalgamation has converted truth into falsehood, while lies have become truth.’ (p. 7)

Chomsky’s ‘Basic Principle’

Oborne’s book is a wonderful test for Noam Chomsky’s ‘basic principle’ determining ‘mainstream’ inclusion:

‘The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist.’3

An idea of the extent to which The Assault on Truth would be allowed to exist could already be gleaned from the reaction to an article written by Oborne in October 2019 on ‘the way Boris Johnson was debauching Downing Street by using the power of his office to spread propaganda and fake news’. (p. 130) Oborne submitted the piece for his weekly Saturday column for the Daily Mail:

‘I received a call from the editor, who indicated, with his customary exquisite good manners, that he would prefer I wrote about another subject’. (p. 131)

Oborne then offered the piece to The Spectator, ‘but the editor explained his refusal to publish on the reasonable grounds that the newspaper’s political team had cultivated excellent insider sources and publishing my piece would invite charges of hypocrisy’. (p. 131)

Channel Four’s Dispatches showed strong interest before also withdrawing. Oborne finally resorted to publishing his article on the website openDemocracy. He wrote:

‘Papers and media organisations yearn for privileged access and favourable treatment. And they are prepared to pay a price to get it.

‘This price involves becoming a subsidiary part of the government machine. It means turning their readers and viewers into dupes.

‘This client journalism allows Downing Street to frame the story as it wants. Some allow themselves to be used as tools to smear the government’s opponents. They say goodbye to the truth.’

The dramatic response:

‘This article marked the end of my thirty-year-long career as a writer and broadcaster in the mainstream British press and media. I had been a regular presenter on Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster for more than two decades. It ceased to use me, without explanation. I parted company on reasonably friendly terms with the Daily Mail after our disagreement.’ (p. 132)

These are huge losses for a professional journalist:

‘The mainstream British press and media is to all intents and purposes barred to me. I continue to write for the website Middle East Eye, for openDemocracy and from time to time for the British Journalism Review.’ (p. 133)

Oborne’s comments inevitably recall the fate that befell US journalist Gary Webb, an investigative reporter for nineteen years, focusing on government and private sector corruption, winning more than thirty awards for his journalism. In 1990, Webb was one of six reporters at the San Jose Mercury News to win a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories on California’s 1989 earthquake. Webb described his experience of mainstream journalism:

‘In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn’t get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn’t work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as I could tell. It encouraged enterprise. It rewarded muckraking.’4

But Webb was in for a terrible surprise:

‘And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.’

In 1996, Webb had written a series of stories on how a US-backed terrorist army, the Nicaraguan Contras, had financed their activities by selling crack cocaine in the ghettos of Los Angeles. Webb documented direct contact between drug traffickers bringing drugs into Los Angeles and Nicaraguan CIA agents who were administering the Contras. Moreover, he revealed that the US government knew about these activities and did little or nothing to stop them. The country’s three biggest newspapers, The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, turned on Webb, declaring the story ‘flawed’ and not worth pursuing. Webb commented:

‘Never before had the three biggest papers devoted such energy to kicking the hell out of a story by another newspaper.’ (p. 306)

Webb’s career had been cynically and brutally terminated.

The Reviews

To recap, The Assault on Truth makes two key claims: 1) Boris Johnson regularly, systematically and shamefully lies and fabricates, and 2) ‘A great deal of political journalism has become the putrid public face of a corrupt government.’ (p. 7) One of the book’s nine chapters, ‘The failure of the British press’, is entirely devoted to this second issue.

How have these claims, in particular the media analysis, been received?

In the Observer, Tim Adams’ 817-word review devoted around two-thirds of its analysis to the case against Oborne’s supposed hypocrisy and U-turns, and 100 words to the case against the British press.

This is already curious. As discussed, Oborne is a highly respected, very high-profile journalist. It is essentially unknown for someone of his stature to turn so forcefully on political lying, particularly systemic press lying. Why would a journalist commenting in the liberal Observer deem it important to devote so much space to Oborne’s alleged U-turns, and just two or three sentences to damning media criticism that is as rare as hens’ teeth? Shouldn’t the liberal press be celebrating such an unusual exposure of press lying? Adams wrote:

‘There have been some spectacular U-turns from political observers in the past five years – Piers Morgan’s desperate and tragically belated efforts to distance himself from Donald Trump, for example – but no reverse-ferret has been quite so vehemently trumpeted as that of Peter Oborne. Back in 2016, in his Daily Mail column, Oborne was proclaiming a new dawn of Conservatism, with Labour in collapse and David Cameron a busted flush. A “glittering prospect of 12 uninterrupted years as prime minister” awaited the winner of any leadership campaign, he suggested, and Boris Johnson’s years as mayor gave him “huge credibility” for the role.’

Adams portrayed Oborne as an enthusiastic dupe of Johnson:

‘Up until about spring 2019, it seems, Oborne continued to be cheerfully taken in by this music hall act.’

Anyone who reads Oborne knows that he is very generous in giving credit where credit’s due, even when he strongly disagrees on deeper issues of policy and political philosophy. For example, despite self-identifying as a Tory, he has repeatedly and strongly praised Labour’s foreign policy and ethical stance under Jeremy Corbyn.

In fact, the claim that Oborne was ‘duped’ by Johnson is nonsense. To take only two examples, in September 2018, Oborne described Johnson’s foreign policy as ‘morally abhorrent’ and his officials ‘shoddy’. In November 2017, Oborne noted of the catastrophe in Yemen that Johnson ‘scarcely lifted a finger on this calamity’ and did ‘virtually nothing of any significance to help’.

Adams similarly claimed Oborne ‘celebrated’ Trump’s election triumph in the Mail with a piece headlined: ‘At last! He may be a bigot, racist and misogynist but Donald Trump’s revolution could finally bring back family values’.

As Adams is well aware, commentators do not choose the headlines (Oborne did not choose this one). In the piece supposedly celebrating Trump, Oborne wrote:

‘The majority of commentators have issued angry cries of condemnation in response to Donald Trump’s surprise victory.

‘That is understandable. For he is beyond doubt a bigot, a racist and a misogynist.’

He added:

‘As a tax-avoiding billionaire, he will never be a genuine champion of the poor. He has no serious programme for government. He will fail.’

Trump was, Oborne wrote, an ‘odious man’.

Adams’ few words on the press simply ignored the most damning claims. In answer to the question, ‘What led the British people to put a liar into Downing Street?’, Adams commented:

‘A large part of the answer to that question Oborne lays at the door of “mainstream newspaper reporters and editors” who “collectively turned a blind eye to the lies, misrepresentations and falsehoods promoted by Johnson and his ministers” in order for him to bluster his way to power.’

As we have seen, Oborne’s whole point is that ‘mainstream’ media did not just turn a blind eye; they functioned as fully-supportive parts of Johnson’s lie machine.

The ‘blind eye’ comment cited by Adams is from page 7 of the book. He then quoted Oborne from page 137. In between, he wrote:

‘Certain political correspondents are identified as having given Johnson an easy ride – Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC and Robert Peston of ITV among them.’

But Kuenssberg and Peston are not mentioned at all. Did Adams actually read the book?

The Independent (online) devoted 491 words to Oborne’s book. In his review, Martin Chilton spent 431 words on Johnson and 60 words in two sentences on Oborne’s media analysis:

‘Part of the problem is that Johnson’s “claims” are simply not held up to inspection by most of the popular press.’5

Again, as with Adams, this conveniently ignored Oborne’s most damning assertion – that the press contribution to the lying was highly active, not passive. Chilton continued:

‘Oborne, who formerly worked for the Daily Mail and The Telegraph, says his new book will “make me enemies”, especially for statements such as “a great deal of political journalism has become the putrid face of a corrupt government”.’

Chilton was clearly keen to keep his head down, gesturing vaguely in the direction of harsh truths that Oborne spelled out with great clarity.

In the Guardian, William Davies’ review totalled 1,261 words. Of these, 109 words discuss Oborne’s media analysis:

‘It’s not just the contemporary Conservative party that appals Oborne, but developments in his own profession. Newspapers, their owners and their staff have colluded with politicians to smear and fabricate without fear. Oborne’s efforts to expose these practices have not been without personal cost. Finding no mainstream media outlet that was willing to publish him on the topic of journalistic malpractice around 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. Sombrely he reports that, since the piece appeared, “the mainstream British press and media is to all intents and purposes barred to me”.’

This was something, but Davies preferred to focus on Oborne’s personal plight, rather than highlighting particular examples of journalistic corruption, or delving deeper into the significance of the chapter Oborne devotes to the issue – one of the most important chapters ever written on the UK press.

Thus, national UK newspaper reviews of Oborne’s important and damning claims about the UK press received some 269 words in coverage in the middle of a grand total of three UK national newspaper reviews. We asked Oborne for his reaction on how his book has been received:

‘I haven’t been able to find any review of my book anywhere in the Murdoch press, Associated Newspapers or Telegraph group. They reviewed my earlier books. However this book (which has also been ignored by mainstream broadcasters) demonstrates that the British print and broadcast media have been complicit in Johnson’s serial dishonesty. It’s not just that they turn a blind eye to Johnson’s habitual and systematic dishonesty. I show in the book that the British media class collaborate with Downing Street in pumping out Johnson’s smears, deceptions and falsehoods. They have been an essential part of his machinery of deception. So maybe that’s why they have ignored the book.’ 6

Conclusion

In reality, of course, Peter Oborne is not impossible. The corporate media is not monolithic, not run by conspiracy. Honourable, rational human beings can make it past the corporate political and media gatekeepers. And when they do, they’re dealt with.

Jeremy Corbyn got through and was unethically cleansed by a spectacularly dishonest, cross-spectrum smear campaign that rendered him unelectable. Comedian Russell Brand got through, appeared in a powerful BBC interview on Newsnight watched by 12 million people, and was unethically cleansed by Guardian liberals smearing him as a ‘Jesus clown’, ‘misogynist’ and ‘religious narcissist’. Brand was so badly beaten up he retired from political commentary and became a self-help guru.

Oborne also got through. His meticulous book – superbly written by a high-profile journalist with impeccable credibility and experience – has simply been ignored by the vast majority of newspapers and magazines that have been, as Oborne says, ‘an essential part’ of Johnson’s ‘machinery of deception’. The rest have blown past his media criticism in a couple of anodyne sentences. Blink and a casual reader would have missed even these mostly oblique, soft-pedalled references.

Oborne received this treatment despite major omissions that made his message far more palatable than it might otherwise have been. Remarkably, for example, his book contains no criticism at all of the BBC or ITV. As discussed, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg’s infamously biased reporting in favour of Johnson and against Corbyn is not even mentioned.

More importantly, while Oborne does expose active media lying, he perceives it as a ‘failure’ of the British press. By contrast, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s ‘propaganda model of media control’ – the model on which our own analysis is based – views this media bias as a success – the corporate media arm of the larger, profit-maximising state-corporate system is simply doing what it has evolved and been designed to do! Oborne does not venture into an analysis of the fundamental nature of corporate capitalist media that would locate him even more firmly among the ‘wild men [and women] on the wings’, casting him even further adrift from the ‘putrid’, stagnant ‘mainstream’.

Nevertheless, this was a vanishingly rare opportunity for the public to witness a media insider making a complete nonsense of the myth promoted by the BBC’s leading client journalist Andrew Marr; namely, that journalism is ‘a crusading craft’ run by ‘disputatious, stroppy, difficult people’ relentlessly challenging power.

This is the deception on which all other deceptions depend. It is too precious to be seriously challenged, and journalists know it.

  1. Sinclair, ‘I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked,’ Oakland Tribune, 11 December 1934. []
  2. Peter Oborne, The Assault on Truth – Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism, Simon & Schuster, 2021, p. 18. []
  3. Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Hill and Wang, 1992, p. 79. []
  4. Webb, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press,’ Prometheus, 2002, pp. 296-7. []
  5. Martin Chilton, ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, The Independent, 31 January 2021. []
  6. Peter Oborne, email to Media Lens, 15 March 2021. []
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.