THIS morning let us honour Boris Johnson and Kelvin MacKenzie, newspaper columnists who certainly know how to make themselves look stupid. Well done, boys. You win today’s Right Pair of Tits Award.
For Johnson, who must still look at himself in the mirror and say, “I am the foreign secretary – how did that happen?”, his new government role sits uneasily with his past as a high-profile newspaper columnist. Now he has to face those parts of the world he has earned a fortune insulting. And to be fair to Johnson, he is a good columnist when on form, as well as one of the most highly paid, rumoured to have been coining in £250,000 a year (so his government role could actually cost him money).
But his opinion-splattered past caught up with him yesterday at a joint press conference with US secretary of state John Kerry, when he was forced to defend himself during his first London press conference in his surprise new comedy turn. Hostile questions from US journalists repeatedly asked the foreign secretary to explain the “outright lies” and insults to be found in his journalism, including calling Barack Obama part-Kenyan and hypocritical.
Johnson launched into a rambling defence of “stuff that I’ve written over the last 30 years… all of which in my view have been taken out of context, through what alchemy I do not know”. Ah, the old “out of context excuse”, that favourite shabby note waved by a columnist in a corner (although I do admire the construction of “through what alchemy I do not know”).
There is more of this, too much to include here in full, for Boris did go off on a splendid bumble, beginning: “There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have one way or the other I don’t know how that has been misconstrued. Most people when they read these things in their proper context can see what was intended, and indeed virtually everyone I have met in this job understands that very well particularly on the international scene. We have very serious issues before us today…”
Ah, yes. Those serious issues. And a man for the job who appears to still think he’s appearing on Have I Got News For You – except that’s a little unfair, for Boris Johnson is a smart and serious man beneath the mock-Tudor bumbling.
The trouble comes in giving such high-profile roles to outspoken journalists. They step into the room carrying a whole lot of potentially embarrassing baggage, in Boris’s case a Gladstone bag stuffed with colourful insults he has hurled at the world. And now he has to tote that bag wherever he goes. “Ah, sorry, chaps…”
But at least Boris Johnson is a clever columnist, although not to all tastes. Kelvin Mackenzie is more of a clod-hopping controversialist, a dull preacher of plodding populism. In his column in the Sun, a paper he used to edit, MacKenzie approached the Nice massacre by having a go at the Channel 4 News presenter Fatima Manji, “a young lady wearing a hijab”, adding: “Was it appropriate for her to be on camera when there had been yet another shocking slaughter by a Muslim? Was it done to stick one in the eye of the ordinary viewer who looks at the hijab as a sigh of the slavery of Muslim women by a male-dominated and clearly violent religion?”
Manji needs no defence from me as she is robustly capable of looking after herself, as she did with an article in the Liverpool Echo newspaper. Here is some of what she said: “Mr MacKenzie’s article was but one wild screed in a long-running and widespread campaign to intimidate Muslims out of public life.
“[He] has attempted to smear 1.6 billion Muslims in suggesting they are inherently violent. He has attempted to smear half of them further by suggesting they are helpless slaves. And he has attempted to smear me by suggesting I would sympathise with a terrorist.
“I will not be deterred… by the efforts of those who find the presence of Muslims in British cultural life offensive.”
In MacKenzie’s defence, he was writing an opinion column in a popular tabloid newspaper, and he stirred up a storm – which is part of his role. Freedom of speech involves people being free to express opinions that may cause offence. I’d say that MacKenzie was being offensive in a dull and clanging manner. And in a free society that is his right, even if what he had to say was on the wrong side of the stupid line. And Fatima Manji was free to defend herself, which wrapped the situation up neatly.
While I don’t share or enjoy the sort of opinions Kelvin MacKenzie puts on the page, it is right that he should be able to do so. And even better if saying such things ends up making him look a bit of a tit.