The Memeification of Boris Johnson: How Fake News and Racist Comments Went Under the Radar
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
How the prime minister turned his label as the joke of journalism into a successful political campaign that divided the nation, an opinion piece by ANE writer Daisy Westwood.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born on 19th June 1964 to author and politician Stanley Johnson and artist Charlotte Fawcett, on the Upper East Side in NYC. He grew up in a variety of places as a child including Washington DC, West London, Somerset and Brussels. His first ambition was to become “world king”.
Johnson has undoubtedly experienced a privileged lifestyle, starting private education at preparatory level. He attended Eton College from age 13 and went on to study Literae Humaniories (classics) at Oxford. At both of these famously upper class education institutes, Johnson was a part of elite societies, including the Bullingdon Club, a high society club whose members had leisurely yet somewhat questionable hobbies such as vandalism, bullying, sexism and accusations of former member David Cameron performing sexual acts on a pig carcass.
"one of the great exponents of fake journalism" - Chris Patten
In 1987, Johnson started working at The Times as a trainee assistant, and while later working for the Daily Telegraph he made a name for himself tackling the subject of Euroscepticism. Some argue he rebranded Euroscepticism for the political right. However, his journalism was accused of containing false information, with colleague Chris Patten claiming Johnson was “one of the great exponents of fake journalism”.
Patten’s bold claim proved to be true, as Johnson was later fired from his post as editor of the Spectator for falsifying quotes. Here he gained a reputation as a bad political pundit, having, for instance, approved articles by colleagues with racist and antisemitic language. If this wasn’t bad enough, he had written articles himself with racist language which he defended as being satirical or having been taken out of context. This includes calling black men “piccaninnies” and claimed the Quran is “intended to provoke".
So, why does it matter that our current Prime Minister built his career on pathological lying, racist remarks and shifting the ideology of Euroscepticism towards the political right?
For starters, it is very telling of a person’s true character if they have gained a reputation for dishonesty, especially if they have one of the most powerful positions in UK politics. However, when it becomes apparent that a person is willing to lie or stretch the truth about implementing policies. For example, that a large majority of the Vote Leave Campaign being focused on giving £350 million weekly to the NHS, to only find the day after they won the referendum that they had no intention of giving this money to our health service. The Vote Leave Campaign, spearheaded by Johnson and Nigel Farage, also used the ideology of Euroscepticism to justify racist and xenophobic attitudes., One example being: “imagine what it will be like in decades when new, poorer countries join” in regards to immigration from EU countries.
A 21-year career in journalism, especially one working as a political pundit, would mean that Johnson would have, or should have, learnt how the media operates in politics; in particular the effects negative press could have on a politician’s career. Boris would have also built up a considerably large number of connections throughout his career, not only just within the journalistic sphere but also with celebrities, politicians, and their PR teams.
Of course, having a good public image is vital for a successful political career. This involves being generally seen as likeable, having leadership qualities, and possessing vast knowledge on political issues. Another key component is being able to respond in a positive and appropriate manner when hit with backlash from the general public. Luckily for Johnson, he has a plethora of “funny” and “relatable” moments which can/have made up for his negative press. In fact, a google search of “Boris Johnson memes” will show approximately 3.5 million results.
Physical appearance is another attribute significant to having a likeable public image. Johnson deflects from his upper-class privileged background and gives a more “relatable” appearance with his signature scruffy hairstyle, and occasionally sporting creased shirts and undone ties.
Another element the current British PM has made good use of and which has simultaneously positively influenced his popularity is using his name as a brand. The most notable example of this is Boris bikes, which was implemented during his time as Mayor of London, despite the fact the idea belonged to his predecessor Ken Livingstone.
Johnson’s name seems to be an important part of his PR image, with a lot of newspapers referring to him as ‘Boris’ or ‘Bojo’. This adds a level of personification that isn’t often seen with politicians; however, it may be a necessary component which works harmoniously with being relatable and down-to-earth. Being consistently referred to by a first name (in Johnson’s case, technically his middle name) or a nickname diminishes the feeling of a power imbalance and is generally seen to make people more likeable. As class is no longer as important to voters, it is vital for Johnson, as an upper-class man in a privileged position, to appeal to the interests of the general public to ensure his popularity is maintained, as it works in his and his Party’s favour.
There have also been many circumstances where Johnson has said something objectively humorous. i.e., something that was actually funny, whether he meant it to be or not. A clip of Boris mispronouncing the word vegan in an LBC interview in 2019 recently resurfaced on the TikTok page @goodoldbritishmemes with 407K likes. Comments include “he is one of the funniest prime ministers ever”, and “I’m so mad he is prime minister because he is actually jokes”.
And sometimes this tactic has been used to try and right his wrongs. For example, after comparing Muslim women in burkas to letterboxes, a clip of Boris Johnson offering a cup of tea to the journalists who wanted an apology made the rounds online. Islamophobic hate crimes rose 375% following the comment.
Even amongst his critics, this image still worked in Johnson’s favour with both The Telegraph and The Sun have posted articles showing “Boris’ funny moments”. By being perceived as scruffy and intellectually inferior, alongside the sheer prominence of these memes/jokes surrounding him, Johnson was able to successfully fly under the radar as a politician. It seems he was overlooked due to his “stupidity”. This opinion was most commonly held when Johnson campaigned for Brexit. This perception has been shared across social media and television alike, including on Outnumbered, a popular BBC comedy series (2007-2016). This critique alongside being constantly shown in a comedic light has made it possible for his opponents to doubt him as a credible political candidate.
So, what does this all mean?
Boris Johnson has clearly been successful in both his journalistic and his political career. However, it is also evident that the success he has gained is less down to luck and talent, and more being born from an elite background and a history of pathological lying. It is also clear to see his racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic nature within his lifetime, in his writings, and currently within the policies that have been implemented and proposed during his post as Prime Minister, including the Points Based Immigration system, the proposed Policing bill, and most recently talks of 14 years imprisonment for journalists who embarrass the government.
Despite receiving a lot of backlash for false information within the Leave EU campaign, it was from this moment that Boris started shifting his focus from Brexit to the top job as Prime Minister. With a positive PR campaign behind him and a positive press image it made it easier for Boris Johnson, a man with a history of lying to further his own agenda, to use simplistic slogans (e.g., “get Brexit done” and describing the delicate negotiations as an “oven ready deal”) to gain the position of power he has always wanted. It's not quite “World King” but it’s pretty close.
It is clear to see Johnson won the vote on being a charismatic character, however I propose we see the curtain call.
For more articles on this topic, head to our dedicated Fake News & Role of the Media section.