One should think carefully before accusing Boris Johnson of being “out of touch” with the British public. During the mayoral election race, Labour repeatedly tried to pin this label on the London Mayor, usually by regurgitating Boris’s impolitic remark that his £250,000 fee for writing a weekly Telegraph column was “chicken feed”. The accusation however never quite rang true: ask Londoners which of the two main mayoral candidates they would rather be stuck in a lift with, and rarely would they plump for Ken Livingstone, the anorak of municipal politics.
Boris’s popularity allowed him to defy political gravity by being re-elected even as his party were trounced nationally, boosting speculation that he could be a serious contender for the post-Cameron Conservative leadership. Johnson’s extraordinary attack on the BBC in Monday’s Telegraph is however a reminder that behind the affable persona lies a bundle of political beliefs which are so out of sync with the public, they could make Boris a liability if he ever completes his rise to the top of his party.
Johnson claims that the BBC, as a public body funded by TV license holders, is naturally “statist, corporatist, defeatist, anti-business, Europhile and, above all, overwhelmingly biased to the Left.” This is especially troubling because the government needs a sympathetic public service broadcaster as it administers unpalatable “medicine” to an ailing economy. And Boris’ solution to left wing bias in the BBC? A Tory in the director-general’s chair obviously.
What is extraordinary about the column is not Boris’s apparent inclination to politicise an independent organisation, his omission that the current Chairman of the BBC Trust is a Conservative grandee, or the plaintive cry that during the mayoral race “I sometimes felt that my chief opponent was the local BBC news” (astonishing from a candidate who had the Evening Standard as the de facto mouthpiece of his campaign). What is most striking is how out of touch Johnson is with popular sentiment.
Boris criticises the BBC for trying to “shaft a free-market competitor” through disingenuous coverage of the scandals surrounding News Corporation, and for destroying “the business case of its private sector rivals with taxpayer-funded websites and electronic media of all kinds.” The words could have been lifted straight from James Murdoch’s broadside against the BBC in the 2009 MacTaggart lecture, when with remarkable brass neck he described the corporation’s size and ambitions as “chilling.” Immediately after Murdoch’s comments a Guardian/ICMS poll found strong levels of public trust in the BBC and support for the licence fee. The survey was conducted at a time when the Beeb was still smarting from a number of minor scandals where it was accused of misleading the public, so it is likely that Boris’ hostility is even less representative today. If Johnson, who previously dismissed allegations of phone hacking as “codswallop,” thinks that what has gone wrong with the British media over the last ten years is bias and overreach in the BBC, then he is on a different planet to the public.
Occasional exasperation with BBC programming and the money it lavishes on studios and “talent” is inevitable, but Johnson’s ideological opposition to the Corporation sets him at odds with a public who still overwhelmingly love Auntie. The column is symptomatic of a near pathological obsession with the free market which would turn many voters off Johnson if given a wider airing.
That Boris will eventually be “found out” and implode under the demands of high office is a common refrain in British politics, which has, to the irritation of many crystal ball gazers, so far stubbornly refused to be borne out by events. He should not be underestimated. He has ample reason to exaggerate right-wing opinions in the Telegraph (to buff his reputation as true keeper of the Tory flame), and has demonstrated pragmatism in London (his derision for “the innocent belief that everything in life should be ‘free’” plainly does not stretch to the Freedom Pass, which he has pledged to extend). But if Boris was to ever lead his party, the areas of public debate where he would have to make serious contributions and reach substantive policy positions would increase exponentially, as would the level of scrutiny. The Conservative Party might then discover to their cost that Boris, the unlikely tribune of the people, is not quite as in touch with popular feeling as he supposes.