Whenever US President Donald Trump turns on Fox News, he’ll usually see a stream of positive coverage.
In the United Kingdom, there’s no television equivalent because of rules requiring impartiality and accuracy from broadcasters, particularly during election campaigns. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson does have a cheerleader in print and online — The Daily Telegraph newspaper.
The 164-year old publication is one of Britain’s top broadsheets, widely read in political circles and often cited in the country’s top TV programs. And it’s long been an unabashed supporter of Johnson’s Conservative Party — in 2015 the paper was fined £30,000 ($38,500) for breaking direct marketing rules after urging its readers via email to vote for the party.
Johnson has had close ties with the paper for more than three decades — at one point he was making hundreds of thousands of pounds a year writing a weekly column. He was Brussels correspondent between 1989 and 1994 where he often wrote critically about the European Union, sometimes making bogus claims about EU plans to regulate everything from condom sizes to chip flavors, according to the Financial Times.
It’s a relationship that’s worked for both parties.
Like many in the industry, the Telegraph has suffered from a declining readership but it still reaches more than 20 million people in print and online per month according to The Publishers Audience Measurement Company. And it’s getting a boost from Britain’s planned exit from the European Union, championed by Johnson.
Editor Chris Evans said recently that Brexit was “brilliant” for the paper and it would help drive subscriber numbers up to 500,000 in 2020, 100,000 more than this year.
“Thank you Boris, thank you Brexit,” Evans told the Society of Editors, according to the Press Gazette.
Some journalists at the Telegraph are much less comfortable with its relationship with Johnson, and say critical coverage of the prime minister isn’t welcome.
Earlier this month, the paper splashed a Johnson column over the top half of its front page, framing it as an exclusive to launch the Conservative Party campaign. A quote from the column in huge font compared rival Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — whom Johnson faces in a TV debate on Tuesday — to the brutal dictator Joseph Stalin.
British newspapers often give column space to politicians, especially those that align with their professed ideologies, said Professor Charlie Beckett, director of the Polis think tank on journalism and society at the London School of Economics.
Academics say it takes more than a newspaper’s views to influence a voter, but the Telegraph’s close relationship with a sitting prime minister has never been seen before in modern British history, Beckett said.
“It certainly stands out as the most enthusiastic, amiable relationship … it’s unprecedented,” Beckett said, adding that it is unusual “for a politician to have such strong regular connection with a newspaper when they’re in office and in power.”
’Chicken feed’ salary
Johnson is also a former editor of The Spectator, a weekly political and current affairs magazine owned by the same parent company as the Telegraph. He remained in that position until 2005, even after becoming a member of parliament in 2001.
A successful run for London Mayor in 2008 catapulted Johnson onto the international stage. By then he was writing a regular paid column for the Telegraph, controversially holding onto that position too while serving as mayor. He called the annual salary — at the time £250,000 ($321,000) — “chicken feed” and claimed he spent little time on the columns because he wrote “very fast.”
Johnson returned to parliament in 2015 and had to give up the paid side gig when he became UK foreign secretary in 2016. But he got it back when he resigned from government two years later and was rewarded with a front page splash in the Telegraph crowing “He’s coming home.”
According to a recent financial disclosure to parliament, he was paid £275,000 ($353,000) in 2018 for approximately “10 hours” of work per month. The publication stopped paying Johnson when he became prime minister in July but it continues to publish his writing.
Inside the newsroom
His columns and the newspaper’s broader support for the Conservative Party leader aren’t universally welcomed in the Telegraph newsroom, current and former staffers told CNN Business. Some questioned paying a public figure so much while the paper struggled financially in recent years. Others said the newspaper didn’t benefit from the relationship enough, in the form of scoops and exclusives.
While there is no official edict that staff cannot criticize Johnson in their articles, and political reporters at the Telegraph are respected by their peers, there is an understanding that such stories would not be welcome, multiple sources said. “It’s not like there’s a pretense of balance,” a former reporter who asked not to be named told CNN Business.
“[The leadership] always worshiped him, they always assumed rightly or wrongly the readers worshiped him too,” the former reporter added.
A spokesperson for the Telegraph said: “Like other media organizations we adhere to robust editorial standards.”
Johnson’s column has caused the Telegraph some headaches. Last year, he triggered a political storm after he compared Muslim women wearing full face burqas to “letterboxes.” The paper has been forced to issue corrections for his columns several times, including for one published in June claiming that the United Kingdom will “become the largest and most prosperous economy in this hemisphere.” Media regulators ruled it was incorrect because Johnson was extrapolating beyond the time frame covered by the forecast data, which also focused only on Europe.
Another former Telegraph journalist who dealt with the Johnson relationship told CNN Business: “There’s not a huge affection for him at a personal level because there is a view by a lot of people who dealt with him that he essentially took the money and didn’t really deliver in turn.”
“One column a week was absorbing enough money to pay for what, five reporters?” he said. “The constant history of the Telegraph over the last 15 years has been cuts to editorial because the owners are insistent the company had to hit the profit target, And yet you’ve also got him sitting in the middle of your budget, this line item of £275,000 per year for one column a week.”
Johnson was “an important symbol and part of the brand,” the journalist added, but the “Boris boosting” is a more recent phenomenon.
The billionaire owners of the paper, David and Frederick Barclay, are now reportedly looking to sell after the Telegraph Media Group reported a 94% drop in profit in 2019.
Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and former editor of the far-right online outlet Breitbart, is apparently interested in buying. He told the rival Times newspaper that he wants to turn the Telegraph into an “international brand promoting populist nationalism.”
It’s not clear how serious Bannon is about a purchase. His spokesperson declined to comment on the record to CNN Business. But if Bannon does buy the paper, most likely with the support of other investors, the love-in with Johnson would probably continue.
In a clip from American filmmaker Alison Klayman’s documentary on Bannon called “The Brink,” Bannon is shown reading the Telegraph front page boasting “He’s Back” while claiming he was in close contact with Johnson ahead of an important speech on Brexit.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect day for the Johnson-Corbyn TV debate.