Why you should never believe a story until Boris Johnson has officially denied it
Boris Johnson's strong denial of the New European's report that he expressed 'buyer's remorse' over his recent marriage has only convinced people the story is true.
There is an old saying that you should never believe anything until it has been officially denied.
This came to mind this week following Downing Street’s bizarre response to a story in the New European by the journalist James Ball.
Ball reported on Wednesday that at a recent dinner hosted by the former Telegraph editor Charles Moore, Boris Johnson told his fellow diners that he was experiencing “buyer’s remorse” about his marriage to Carrie.
According to Ball there were “around thirty current and former journalists from the Telegraph present at the dinner,” none of whom have yet publicly contradicted the story.
However, following its publication, the New European say that Johnson’s Director of Communications threatened they would be sued unless they withdrew their story.
It is exceptionally rare for a prime minister to take legal action against a news organisation.
Such a threat was even stranger in this case given the large numbers of reported witnesses to the comments, and given the fact that any legal action would be very unlikely to pass the ‘serious harm test’ for defamation.
Lo and behold, the New European refused to withdraw their story and Downing Street instead withdrew their threat to sue.
Asked on Friday if the prime minister would sue the paper, Johnson’s official spokesman replied: “no, but the Prime Minister has been clear he didn’t make those remarks and they’re completely untrue.”
So did Johnson really make the comments?
Under another prime minister such a strong denial from Downing Street may well have been taken as reliable.
However, under the current administration such denials have increasingly lost all value.
On multiple recent occasions Johnson’s spokespeople have repeatedly and vehemently denied a story only for it later to emerge to have been entirely true.
Most recently Johnson’s spokesman spent more than a week denying that the prime minister had broken any rules when he took off his mask during a hospital visit.
This denial was repeated to me and other journalists despite the fact that the hospital’s own website explicitly stated that masks must be worn at all times.
The denials also continued despite the fact that it later emerged that Johnson had in fact been told no fewer than three times by the hospital that he needed to wear a mask.
Within days Johnson was forced to admit that he had in fact broken the rules and apologised for it.
He told the House of Commons Liaison Committee on Wednesday that “there was barely 30 seconds when I wasn’t wearing a mask… and I apologised for it.”
Since admitting this there has been no apology from either Johnson or his press team for misleading the parliamentary lobby and the public.
Other recent examples have included the ludicrous claim that the government’s motion to stop Owen Paterson from being suspended was somehow not about stopping Owen Paterson from being suspended.
They also include the equally bizarre attempt to claim that Johnson was unable to attend a debate on sleaze in parliament, despite being pictured arriving in London shortly after the debate began.
Absent an apology or explanation for any of this, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Johnson’s Downing Street now believes that such routine dishonesty is simply a legitimate means of doing business.
Unless that changes the value of all future official denials will only continue to plunge.
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