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Something Frightening Is Happening in British Politics

This election campaign has marked a grim milestone in British political history: a pathological liar in Downing Street, Boris Johnson, has run a campaign in which all standards of honesty and accuracy have been tossed aside — and a ferociously partisan media has done everything it can to cover it up.

Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson carries a crate of milk to deliver to customers at Greenside Farm on the final day of campaigning before Thursday's general election on December 11, 2019 in Yeadon, near Leeds, England. Ben Stansall-WPA Pool / Getty

Boris Johnson is a pathological liar. This has been known for decades. He was elected Conservative Party leader and appointed prime minister in spite of this fact. He has been sacked numerous times for lying: by the Conservative Party for lying about an adulterous affair to then–party leader Michael Howard, and by the Times for making up a quote in a front-page story. He has been in court for lying to his wife about an adulterous affair that resulted in a secret child and for deceiving the mother’s partner. His litany of untruths is such as to make it clear that this is not a man merely willing to tell a fib to get out of a tight spot, or to embellish a story to impress the right people. Rather, his behavior reveals a very specific psychology: a man who believes the rules of ordinary life and society do not apply to him, because he is an extraordinary person.

Such behavior should be ruinous for any person’s career regardless of their social class, wealth, or the interests propping them up: it certainly should preclude one from high office, let alone the most powerful position in the country. But Johnson’s penchant for deceit has instead become the central plank of the Conservative electoral strategy. Ordinarily, political strategists might work on “spin”: how best to frame figures and news stories to fit a particular narrative. In the 2019 election, that approach has gone out the window. Instead, the Conservatives just lie. Ministers on TV will flatly deny the accepted understanding of how numbers work, bombard journalists with bald falsehoods, and repeat verbatim smears about the Labour leadership.

During a party-leaders debate, the Conservative press office Twitter account rebranded itself as “FactCheck UK,” a fake, “impartial” fact-checking organization that actually spewed Tory spin and attacked Labour. Various Conservative social media accounts mendaciously edited footage of various Labour MPs to create the appearance of opposition politicians stumped by questions or rubbishing the manifesto of their own party, sometimes using fake date stamps and TV chyrons. Johnson repeatedly lied that there would be no checks on goods passing between Britain and Northern Ireland. When Labour launched their manifesto, the Conservatives bought up multiple ads for fake websites claiming to host the Labour Party manifesto. These were banned by Google after complaints.

The Conservative approach is brazen and blatant, but very calculating. Factoring the internet into campaigning came late for the Conservatives, who skew older both in terms of their politicians and their central voting base, but they now have a key strategy: slash and burn, and lie with impunity. Tell whatever falsehood you fancy, especially one that has a propensity to go viral. Get your smear heard as widely as possible, and if you’re challenged, just lie. Far more people will see your initial lie than the follow-up correction, and few people will take the time to research any statistical embroidery or rewriting of the party’s stance or record.

The Conservatives’ strategy is only possible because they can rely so heavily on the media: to protect them, to apply a light-touch scrutiny to the Tories while tearing Labour apart with their bare hands, and to dutifully parrot lies without the faintest attempt at fact-checking or due diligence. The behavior of the media has moved from biased, to cack-handed and biased, to its current state: an outrageous failure of duty to the British electorate that has now created a full-blown democratic disaster.

When Jeremy Corbyn’s team agreed to an interview with notoriously combative host Andrew Neil only on condition that Boris Johnson be interviewed by Neil as well, BBC executives assured them a Johnson interview had been secured when in fact they had accomplished nothing of the sort. Johnson promptly refused to be interviewed by Neil while Corbyn was subjected to a withering interrogation from him.

After a huge backlash, the organization’s press office tweeted that they would refuse to grant Johnson an interview on Andrew Marr’ more laid-back Sunday show unless he agreed to be interviewed by Neil. Then the BBC backtracked, claiming the London Bridge attack meant the country needed to hear from the prime minister. Again, Johnson got what he wanted, the BBC were revealed to be mugs, and he was given a softer ride that allowed him to parrot his preferred party slogans while posturing as the tough, magnanimous statesman, politicizing the tragedy against the express wishes of one of its victims.

The BBC and much of the press remains institutionally right-wing, with senior executives who skew right far outnumbering the cluster of token left-wingers. This is fully reflected in its political output, required to be impartial by its institutional remit as a state broadcaster, but treating Labour’s stances and language with undisguised contempt, as though it were the ruling party of a bloody dictatorship rather than a mainstream party with a manifesto similar to many socially liberal European parties. The print media are more open about their political leanings, but that hardly counts as compensation.

The Observer, the Sunday sister paper of the Guardian, published an extensive guide to tactical voting the weekend before polling day. Tactical voting has become an obsession with the media and particularly among centrists, ostensibly functioning as a high-minded way of laundering one’s political conscience: signaling that you could not countenance voting for the Conservatives, but that you equally view Labour under Corbyn as verboten. In reality, tactical voting, as ever, exists purely to boost the polling numbers for the Liberal Democrats. A proliferation of websites with opaque funding encourage voters to enter their postcode and then spit out advice to back the Lib Dems in seats where the race is in fact realistically only winnable by either Labour or the Tories, often accompanied by claims that the Lib Dems are the only true Remain candidates. The Lib Dem strategy of attempting to scoop up dozens of seats off the back of voters motivated purely by the desire to remain in the European Union has failed: voters care about many more issues than simply Brexit, particularly the NHS, the economy, public services, and schools. But the push to grab more votes via tactical voting remains.

The Observer encouraged voters to vote Lib Dem in many seats where the party trailed both the Tories and Labour by tens of thousands of votes in the last general election, using as a guide the results from the 2019 European Parliament election — even though EU elections always have far lower turnout than general elections, barely ever resemble Westminster voting patterns, and are heavily used by the electorate for protest voting. In Kensington, a seat Labour won by twenty votes in a major upset in 2017, the Observer encouraged readers to vote for Sam Gyimah, the Lib Dem candidate who defected from the Conservatives only in mid-September, having previously announced plans to stand as Tory leader. Gyimah lied about his Labour opponent, Emma Dent Coad, early in the campaign, claiming she had been responsible for approving the cladding on Grenfell Tower that caused the building to become a flaming coffin. Dent Coad has received hundreds of death threats against her and her staff as a result of Gyimah’s opportunistic falsehoods, and all her requests for an apology and retraction have been ignored, yet the Observer is happy to back him over an MP who has been the most vocal politician fighting for justice for Grenfell survivors and relatives of the deceased.

The Observer has also failed to check the most basic of facts: the paper told readers to vote for the Scottish National Party (SNP) candidate in the Kirkcaldy and Cowndenbeath constituency, despite the fact that Labour had won the seat by only 800 votes and the SNP are not even running in Kirkcaldy and Cowndenbeath. Meanwhile, the paper, which has repeatedly condemned Labour for failing to act on antisemitism, failed to mention that the SNP was forced to withdraw  support for the candidate it had selected in the district over antisemitic social media posts. By the time the error was corrected online, all editions of the paper had been sent to print and distributed.

Over the weekend, the Sun newspaper published a story online claiming to be sourced from former British intelligence officials and army veterans, featuring an interactive map of Corbyn and Labour’s “close networks.” The map included left-wing journalists and politicians, “from Marxist intellectuals to militant groups and illegal terror organisations.” It claimed to show “a party in the grip of a hardline cabal” on the far left. Though the map was reported as a breaking news story, it had in fact been seen before: it was widely shared online earlier in the summer under the original name of “the traitors’ chart,” and its “fact files” included a link to what essentially amounted to a hit list for anti-leftists that was filled with antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia, linking and sourcing such extremist websites as “Aryan Unity.” The Sun deleted the story within hours, with a 404 page in its place on the website, but no apology or contrition from the Sun or the author, political editor Tom Newton Dunn, was forthcoming.

The Conservatives are willing to push the media as far as they can, aware that both journalists and social media sites will allow them to behave with impunity. A study of political ads from a good-government group during the election campaign found that 88 percent, or almost six thousand of the most widely promoted Conservative ads contained falsehoods, and that hundreds of Lib Dem ads contained incorrectly labeled or unlabeled graphs and missing or misleading source data — whereas the report authors could not find one example of Labour ads misleading the public.

But no single event has better summed up the Tory belief that rules do not apply to them than an incident involving Boris Johnson on Monday. Interviewed by a reporter, he was repeatedly asked to look at and comment on a widely shared photo of a four-year-old child with suspected pneumonia resting on a hospital floor in an oxygen mask, which happened because Leeds Infirmary, the hospital he attended, was desperately short of beds due to cuts in funding. Johnson repeatedly refused to look at the photo on the reporter’s screen or address the issue, before finally grabbing and pocketing the phone in an attempt to prevent the line of inquiry. The tactic didn’t work: the clip went viral, with 10.5 million views in twenty-four hours, and pushed the story further up the news agenda, forcing the prime minister to dispatch health secretary Matt Hancock to the hospital to insist the government was taking the issue seriously.

Here, Conservative desperation and media mendaciousness reached fever pitch: when a small number of protestors waited outside the hospital to challenge Hancock, some of the most senior journalists in British politics, almost in tandem, tweeted that Labour had organized and paid for dozens of protestors, that the atmosphere had been violent, and that Hancock’s aide had been punched — with one journalist claiming the attacker had been arrested.

It swiftly became clear that nothing of the sort had occurred: mobile phone footage from two different angles showed the aide in question accidentally walking —very slowly — into a protestor’s outstretched but entirely stationary arm, in an accident that under no circumstances could be considered a “punch.” Yet Tory staff were absolutely confident that claiming the aide had been punched would be tweeted obediently as fact, verbatim, by a number of senior journalists, with no attempt at a fact-checking. All were senior staff, not young and inexperienced reporters. They were baldly lied to by people who knew their claims would not be checked, that their reports would be accepted as gospel in a way that no claim from a Labour source would ever be.

The spectacle was a low point in the election, particularly for the excruciatingly gullible journalists responsible for participating in an obvious attempt to divert attention away from a story involving boorish behavior from Boris Johnson over a small child denied adequate care while desperately ill, under the prime minister’s watch.

In the thick of an election, there is little that anyone outside of the upper echelons of media can do to alter an utterly wretched state of affairs. The BBC and some newspaper editorial teams should, of course, be forced to submit their coverage and editorial decisions to intense scrutiny after polling day. But by then it will be too late for the public: they have already been woefully misled and ill-served, and the political environment has been irrevocably polluted by a Tory campaign that knew its lies would be repeated.

The lives of people across the United Kingdom will be shaped for the next five years by such failings, and if the Conservative torrent of deceit succeeds in getting Boris Johnson elected on Thursday, nothing seems likely to prevent our failing democratic institutions from collapsing further.