Tom McTague is a bad journalist and should feel bad
Tom McTague’s recent puff piece for Boris Johnson in the Atlantic is a multistory of failure. While falling for a scam once may be excusable, Tom McTague manages the journalistic equivalent of repeatedly buying the Eiffel Tower while continuously insisting this time he got the real thing.
I will not be looking at this article absolutely line-by-line, if only because the majority of the piece is fluff. The opening paragraph:
“Nothing can go wrong!” Boris Johnson said, jumping into the driver’s seat of a tram he was about to take for a test ride. “Nothing. Can. Go. Wrong.”
conflicts magnificently with McTague’s stated purpose:
I wanted to understand whether Johnson was truly a populist, or just popular. His argument for patriotic optimism has obvious appeal, but I wondered whether it masked more cynical impulses.
(I note McTague only decides to note his goal fifteen paragraphs in.)
If your goal is to find out if a politician is cynically manipulating his image, it may not be advisable to start with an extended non-analytical write-up of a publicity event.
What am I doing this for?” Johnson asked his aides, looking at his schedule for the day and seeing a slot carved out to talk to me.
“It’s for the profile I advised you not to do,” James Slack, Johnson’s then–director of communications, said.
The article is littered with examples of McTague repeating, uncritically, play-acted vignettes of candidness . To be explicit: the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications does not insult him in front of guests unless it is planned.
Johnson’s aide told me the prime minister had been excited about his tram ride all morning.
Grabbing my phone, he read the headline aloud in exaggerated Italian as an aide urged him to get to the business at hand, which was to ensure that the town moved into the Conservative column.
Johnson believes there remains a “world-weariness” in the government that has to be “squeezed out,” one of his ministers told me. Johnsonism, an aide said, was partly about “puffing our chest out and saying, ‘We’re Britain.’ ” (Several of Johnson’s advisers agreed to be candid in exchange for anonymity.)
Tom, I don’t know if you are new to politics, or even to this planet, but they are not being candid. This isn’t even me being cynical, this is like when a used-care-salesman says you’re their best customer — basic survival skills tell you not to believe them, let alone write an entire article about how much you believe them.
Here was Johnson offering a rare moment of self-reflection.
No, he wasn’t. This is elementary stage-management. McTague does manage to briefly come close to realising the con:
During the time I spent with him, whenever we got close to anything approaching self-analysis, he would parry, swerve, or crack a joke.
But like a good mark he dismisses the intrusive thought as one of Johnson’s accomplices offers faux-intimacy:
One of Johnson’s aides told me the prime minister loathed anything that smacked of overintellectualizing politics.
McTague can’t even use the excuse that he is unaware of Johnson’s history. Indeed, a large part of the article is made up of curiously non-aggressive biograhical notes:
He made a name for himself with outlandish, not-always-accurate stories about European regulations ostensibly being imposed on Britons — rules governing the flavors of potato chips, the bendiness of bananas, the size of condoms.
He lied, Tom. You can say it. In fact, you should say it. However, a good con-man is one who can convince you they lie to everyone else but you. To McTague, Johnson is a cheeky chappy who revealed his true soul in brief moments of clarity to his good friends in the media.
There are even sequences where Johnson appears to be mocking McTague:
“Horace writes all these bum-sucking poems about his [patrons] saying how great they are,” Johnson told me, “but the point he always makes to them is ‘You’re going to die and the poem is going to live, and who wrote the poem?’ ”
I told him that sounded like a cynical view of the world.
“It’s a defense of journalism!” he said.
“So you’re saying I’m more powerful than you?” I asked.
“Exactly, exactly,” he replied, laughing.
Tom, you may need to look at the definition of negging. Then find a new career.
Again, the majority of this article is rather dull fluff: soft biography, fake bonhomie, primary school textual analysis. Johnson is allowed to go on lectures about his love of internationalism, then McTague decides there’s some truth to it because some of Johnson’s cabinet ministers are members of ethnic minorities. McTague finds no space for Johnson’s foreign aid cuts or how said cabinet ministers love far-right policies.
Nothing, really, could have gone wrong
With a media class as incompetent and trusting as this, nothing will go seriously wrong for Johnson for a long time.