To my dismay I find myself defending Boris Johnson for his actions as The Spectator editor.
In “Boris Johnson ‘outed’ journalist as an MI6 spy ‘for a laugh’” (more on the “laugh” and journalistic licence later) Harriet Agerholm and the Independent’s editor commit exactly the same “crime” that they accuse BJ of doing i.e. naming an alleged spy already reported in another publication – but with less justification; and with distortion and unquestioned assertions thrown in for good measure (see below).
It also seems that our journalists are either regurgitating briefing papers or plagiarising other journalists reports without conducting any of their own verification or research. The content of Agerholm’s “Boris Johnson ‘outed’ journalist as an MI6 spy ‘for a laugh’” (22 July?) is nearly identical in both title and content wording to “Boris Johnson once outed MI6 spy ‘for a laugh’” by Adam Bienkov, politics.co.uk (19 July).
You can count on our Journalists to let you down
With few exceptions our media failed to properly analyse, critique, and inform in the lead up to the Iraq war. Now, with Syria, many reporters do nothing more than “re-tweet” UK/US Gov assertions and unsubstantiated claims by rebel factions. Our business journalists write “reports” that are word for word copies of company PR/briefings. It seems our newspapers are more interested articles of little substance or aimed solely at destroying the reputation of public figures like Corbyn and McDonnell.
The Independent upholds this tradition of poor journalism in (re?) publishing a distorted article that serves no purpose other than character assassination. The Independent’s Agerholm also regurgitates, without question, fallacious claims that Journalists lives have been put at risk (more below).
What exactly did Johnson do?
As editor of the Spectator he allowed a columnist to write a dismissive review of a book by former British spy Tomlinson that was being distributed by a Russian(!) publisher. The review stated the book was based on Tomlinson’s short MI6 career, gossip and the occasional piece of personal mischief. BJ’s crime was that the review included an example of this mischief:
“The former Spectator editor Dominic Lawson is for some reason singled out for his unexceptional act in providing a travelling MI6 agent with journalistic cover in the form of a letter commissioning him to write an article. Lawson may also be puzzled to discover that, according to Tomlinson, his code name inside MI6 was `Smallbrow’.”
The spy who never was – or never let facts get in the way of a story:
The Independent refers to outing of a spy – the Spectator did not call or describe Lawson as a spy, it merely stated that the reviewed book claimed that he provided a spy with journalist credentials. The only one outing anyone is the Independent via the implication in its headline.
Outed MI6 spy ‘for a laugh’:
- the review which names Lawson was written by Julian Manyon NOT Johnson
- The Spectator and the Independent have done the same thing – quote from another source already in the public domain.
- The Spectator/Johnson did not claim Lawson was a spy.
- Manyon simply mentioned that the book claims MI6 referred to Lawson by the unflattering codename of “smallbrow”. This anecdote at the expense of an establishment figure lightens an otherwise dry review.
- The Independent’s headline uses Lawson’s comment with journalistic licence:
“You can imagine how angry I was. I rang him up, but there was just this sense of ‘Never mind, Dommers, I just did it for a laugh’“.
None of us were party to the conversation, but a (valid) justification of using an amusing anecdote already in the public domain to lighten the article could be wilfully misinterpreted by an angry (his words) Lawson as “done for a laugh”.
The Independent quotes Lawson
“And apart from anything else, if you’re running a newspaper with foreign correspondents in strange parts of the world, as I was then, it’s potentially a physical threat to them if it’s believed that they’re working for British intelligence.”
The Spectator describes the book’s “revelation” of Lawson’s action as unexceptional i.e. this type of activity is common knowledge. Even ordinary plebs like me with an interest in current affairs are aware that: in the same way as an Embassy “military attaché” equals spy, countries have some spies acting as journalists, and some journalists acting as spies. It was even discussed in class when I was at school! If Lawson and Agerholm believe that what was discussed by school kids is news to foreign powers then they shouldn’t be journalists.
There are many reports on this subject. In the 1960’s the Russians claimed editors and journo’s of the BBC and our major papers were working with MI6. This was denied at the time but espionage historians now claim Russia’s documentary evidence was genuine and likely given to them by George Blake. Again, any journalist worth their salt should be aware of this.
Among our enemies the only people to whom this might be news will be small cells of under educated terrorists who were in nappies pre 9/11 when The Spectator review was published.
If anyone is endangering journalists it is the Independent by giving this issue prominence 15 years later when threats of terrorism are much greater – all just to have a go at Johnson.