Those who can, do. Those who can’t, end up working for GB News.
In a pleasing piece of synchronicity, Boris Johnson’s move into his latest career, as a TV presenter working for a man called Paul Marshall, was announced just before what was left of his reputation as prime minister was forensically shredded in the evidence before the Covid inquiry.
“It was the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset,” was how his former comms guy, Lee Cain, evaded the key question of whether Johnson was up to the job.
As recently as 2010, Cain’s own day job involved dressing up as a chicken on behalf of the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror in order to taunt David Cameron and other Conservative election candidates. But, after a stint in Downing Street, he has learned to talk like the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby.
Johnson’s real-life cabinet secretary, Simon Case, was less squeamish in his choice of words. “He cannot lead,” Case wrote in a WhatsApp thread at the height of the pandemic, “and we cannot support him in leading with this approach. The team captain cannot change the call on the big plays every day. Government isn’t actually that hard but this guy is really making it impossible… This is in danger of becoming Trump/Bolsonaro level mad and dangerous.”
Even this was polite stuff compared with Dominic Cummings, the Brexit buddy Johnson brought into the heart of government. It would not be seemly to reproduce much of the language Cummings used to describe his boss and his cabinet, but the words included all the really rude four-letter ones beginning with c, s, f, and w.
I don’t suppose Johnson is unduly distressed by the rubbishing of the way he handled his time at Number 10. That was then—and, according to Cummings, he was bored of being PM within a month of getting the job. He has moved on—to an extremely lucrative basket of careers including speaker, columnist, global sage… and now TV presenter.
Johnson’s motives can be easily summed up in three words: money, ego and mischief. The six-figure stipend will be handy. He has an almost sociopathic hunger to be talked about. And, in an impending election year, he has an infinite number of scores to settle.
So that’s the easy bit. But what about Paul Marshall? What’s in it for him?
It’s possible you haven’t heard of Sir Paul Roderick Clucas Marshall. There’s no reason why you should have. Until fairly recently he was just another hedge funder/philanthropist whose only involvement in politics was as a patron of the so-called orange book tendency (the fiscal right wingers) within the Liberal Democrats.
But then he caught—and helped finance—the Brexit bug. In a 2021 article for UnHerd, which he also funded, he identified himself as a “classical liberal”—a group which he thought needed, more than ever, to “stand up for our most ancient freedoms such as freedom of speech, conscience and assembly.” In other words, don’t call him woke.
To that end, he founded GB News, in which he owns a 48 per cent stake. He is thus, in some senses, about to be Johnson’s boss.
But why? The parent company of GB News, amusingly called All Perspectives Limited, was established in late 2019—since then, six of its 11 officers have resigned.
“All perspectives”? Well, Johnson joins a line-up of presenters who are still Tory MPs—including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Lee Anderson, Nigel Farage, Esther McVey and Dehenna Davison. So that’s all perspectives within one party from, let’s say, pretty right of centre to extremely right of centre. In addition, there has been a motley crew of anti-woke oddballs and climate change sceptics in front of the camera.
Former colleagues of Johnson are beginning to realise that the channel—together with its incarnations on social media—is likely to prove highly influential in shaping whatever remains of the Tory Party after the next election; you’ll remember Priti Patel’s slightly demented conference tribute to the channel as “a disruptor… to take on the establishment, the Tory-hating, Brexit-bashing and free-speech deniers at the BBC and so-called mainstream media.” Which made one wonder if she has, say, ever read a mainstream newspaper.
It is one of life’s mysteries that Ofcom, the regulator which is legally charged with upholding the due impartiality of GB News, appears to think that the “all perspectives” branding ticks the right boxes.
But Sir Paul is not content with shaping the future of right-wing British politics through GB News alone. He also wants to buy the Daily Telegraph and Spectator.
When I started in Fleet Street the Telegraph was owned by Lord Hartwell, a man with little evident interest in the political line of the paper (albeit the editorial line was always small ‘c’ conservative).
The board of directors included one marquess, a baronet and four peers. The then-editor, a gentle man called Bill Deedes, was described to me by one of his successors, Charles Moore, as “actually very good at news and not very good at comment.”
I see no signs that Sir Paul is very interested in news. He seems relaxed, for example, about GB News employing presenters who spout clueless nonsense about the climate crisis engulfing us. But, hey, freedom of speech!
No, it appears that Sir Paul wants his hands on the Telegraph/Spectator—as well as GB News—presumably so that he, as publisher, can call the shots in terms of how right-wing politics develops over the next generation or so. He’s made his millions (his fortune was £645m in 2021): now, it seems, he wants to be a player. A kingmaker.
Am I being unfair? How would you know? The ownership of major mainstream media platforms does not involve submitting yourself to any kind of serious scrutiny. So, assuming his bid is nicely pitched, Sir Paul could soon be a mini-Rupert Murdoch. Pulling strings, wielding unseen power.
So who better to hire as a star GB News presenter than Boris Johnson, his old Brexit confrere, whose previous career as a journalist displayed at times only an intermittent relationship with the truth. Who knows, if Sir Paul is successful in his bid for the Telegraph, maybe the editor’s chair at the top could be kept warm for the old rascal?
The Spectator was in its prime as a journal of opinion 300-odd years ago. There are times when Britain feels as if it is still in the grip of an 18th-century system of patronage, information and government. And Johnson continues to flit between all three.