By John Lloyd
Two men of influence – the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the politician Boris Johnson – now face media bans and/or ridicule for what they saw as speaking their minds. Both, though quite different in background, manner and actions, are pioneers in the new politics.
In the United States, Jones claims censorship after his podcasts and posts were removed by Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify. In the United Kingdom, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is under investigation by his Conservative Party for likening Muslim women wearing burqas to letter boxes and bank robbers.
Jones and Johnson work within, indeed work to create and further, the themes and dramas of contemporary populism. Their clout derives from a contemporary form of the centuries’ old merging of media and political power.
In the more than 500 years since printing presses began turning out pamphlets and news sheets, markets were spawned for journalism, advocacy and propaganda – concepts that were not, and in many places still are not, differentiated. The word, the image and in the more recent past moving images with words attached, have been used to shift the minds of millions. So what’s new about these two guys?
In large part, the novelty is their rise to fame within a season of the weakening of mainstream democratic politics in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
Jones is a radio show host and diet supplement merchant who, on his Infowars YouTube channel, specialises in conspiracy theories, arguing that the US government was behind events like the 9/11 attacks, that a pizza parlour in Washington was used for a paedophiles’ sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and that the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school – where the 26 killed included 20 first-grade children – was a hoax. A man with a rifle turned up at the pizza parlour to rescue the child sex slaves he believed were held there; he was later sentenced to four years in prison for firing a rifle inside the restaurant.
One who has become wealthy through peddling his theories, and more recently by using his network to sell dietary supplements of doubtful use, Jones has for some years been a source for, and even a mentor to, US President Donald Trump. Jones’ power is to give the president leads, messages and themes – often prefacing these with “people are saying.”
Johnson was, until July, the British foreign secretary, a post he had held for almost exactly two years – resigning after a Cabinet compromise was reached on the terms of Brexit which he argued would, if implemented, reduce the UK to the status of a colony. His early career in journalism as the Brussels correspondent for the right-wing Daily Telegraph saw him write a series of stories either hugely exaggerated or flat out false. When, in 2008, he was elected mayor of London – a Conservative leader in a Labour-voting city – he remained popular, getting elected for a second term in 2012 and using his wit, charm and contacts in the media to remain in the public eye. His record was judged as mixed, with the 2012 Summer Olympics considered a triumph (though not one in which he did much organising).
Johnson unites politics and media in one body. His early journalism, and his continuing column in the Telegraph, places him as a man of generally liberal social views, but increasingly as a politician willing to steer away from conventional centre-right conservatism into a stronger stance on English nationalism.
He’s ambitious, wants to become prime minister – but at present, is only at a middling level in the bookmakers’ odds on who will follow Theresa May. The Conservative Party chooses its leader; thus his strategy must be to go to the people, to create a wave of support and belief in his capacity to rouse the country behind him, which would make doubts about his grasp of policy, his past indiscretions and his increasing tendency to create shock irrelevant. He must be the Peoples’ Boris.
Speaking for and with the people unites Johnson and Jones and illuminates the changing basis for politics as a whole – both democratic and authoritarian. They must counter pose themselves to “them” – the establishment in all its manifestations, mainstream politics, mainstream media, mainstream policies, mainstream institutions. They must be against the streams – must be turbulent cross currents, bringing new forms of governance and representation, more genuinely of the people, by the people and for the people, impatient of the old inhibitions and cautions.
It’s essential for them to be outside of the establishment, to be the victims of “them” – and both Jones and Johnson have achieved that in the last few days. Jones has been banned from major social media for, in Facebook’s words, “glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanising language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies”. Only Twitter has dissented. CEO Jack Dorsey took the classic liberal stance, tweeting that Jones hadn’t violated its rules, that Twitter wouldn’t bow to outside pressure and that if false information is put out, “it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions.”
Johnson, for his part, wrote in his Telegraph column that while he was against a ban on Muslim women wearing the burqa, which typically exposes only the eyes of the wearer, he thought the garment “oppressive and ridiculous” and made the women “look like letter boxes”.
Obligingly, the conservative establishment (and the liberal establishment, insofar as the two differ), including Prime Minister May herself, and the former Cabinet Minister Dominic Grieve, who said he would leave the party if Johnson became its leader, ignored the first part of his commentary and focused on the offence the article was said to have given.
Jones has gloried in his victimhood; Johnson has yet to respond (but “sources” say he won’t apologise). Both have put another brick in a wall they are building to make politics less constrained by either facts or courtesy. The politics of the Peoples’ Voice, amplified by the Peoples’ Champions, advances.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow