Boris Johnson quit journalism for politics because he felt guilty about “abusing or attacking people” without putting himself in their shoes, he told a group of schoolchildren on Tuesday.
“I was like a journalist for a long time, I still am really, I still write stuff,” he told pupils at Sedgehill Academy in south-east London. “But when you’re a journalist, it’s a great, great job, it’s a great profession, but the trouble is that you sometimes find yourself always abusing people or attacking people.”
He continued: “Not that you want to abuse them or attack them, but you’re being critical … maybe you feel sometimes a bit guilty about that because you haven’t put yourself in the place of the person you’re criticising, and so I thought I’d give it a go.”
— Daniel Hewitt (@DanielHewittITV) February 23, 2021
The prime minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said Johnson was referring to the job of reporters in holding the government to account, saying: “That is the prime minister talking about the fact that you … as journalists your job is to constantly challenge and that’s something that makes all of us in government better.”
But others may reflect on Johnson’s record of writing in derogatory terms about groups other than politicians without necessarily “putting yourself in the place of the person you’re criticising”.
In a 2018 column for the Daily Telegraph, he wrote that women who wore burkas were choosing “to go around looking like letter boxes” or “a bank robber”. In a 2002 column for the same newspaper, he described black people as “piccaninnies” and referred to “watermelon smiles”, language for which he later apologised but claimed had been taken out of context. In a 1998 column, again for the Telegraph, he used the phrase “tank-topped bumboys” to describe gay men.
By the time he finally gave up the column when he became foreign secretary, Johnson was paid £275,000 a year, about £4.80 a word.
As well as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, he was a Brussels reporter for the same newspaper and editor of the Spectator. As a reporter he had a reputation for filing exaggerated, if colourful, stories and was famously fired from his first job at the Times after making up a quote and attributing it to his godfather.
Since changing professions, the prime minister is said to have sometimes taken umbrage when facing negative press himself. The columnist and former newspaper editor Sir Max Hastings wrote in 2019: “I have handwritten notes from our possible next prime minister, threatening dire consequences in print if I continued to criticise him.”