The mystery of Fleet Street: An article on Boris Johnson vanishes

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The most talked about article in British newspapers over the weekend was one that contained spicy accusations of love, ambition and suppression of corruption at the top of the British government. Then it suddenly disappeared from the pages of the London Times early on Saturday morning.

Two days later, the circumstances of his disappearance remain shrouded in mystery.

The article reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, when he was foreign secretary in 2018, offered to appoint his mistress Carrie Symonds as his chief of staff, with a salary of £100,000 ($122,000). Symonds married Johnson in 2021, but he was still married to his previous wife Marina in 2018.

Representative Carrie Johnson said on Monday that “these claims are completely untrue.”

The Times ran an article by longtime political reporter Simon Walters on page 5, but then replaced it with another article in later editions. The article was never posted on the newspaper’s website. The Daily Mail posted a version of the report on their MailOnline website, but removed it hours later.

Neither newspaper issued a statement explaining its decision or retracted the article. And Walters said he fully supported him.

“No one has ever suggested that I formally refute the investigation, either before or after it was published,” he said in a telephone interview. “Mr. Johnson’s team didn’t offer an informal retraction either.”

On Monday, however, Downing Street confirmed that its representatives had contacted the Times both before and after the article was published, allegedly to dispute the story. It stated that Johnson had no contact with the newspaper, but did not say who.

It is not uncommon for British newspapers to apologize for articles or withdraw them. Defamation law in the UK makes it easier than in the United States for plaintiffs to win lawsuits against publishers for what they claim is inaccurate coverage. But the deletion of an article mid-circle is so unusual as to seem extraordinary, and the lack of replies has sparked a hectic day of speculation in the gossip world of British journalism.

“This is what Sherlock Holmes would call the three-pipe problem,” said Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian. “Pulling out a meaningful story with no explanation when the reporter is still supporting it is confusing. Let’s hope the Times and Mail can shed some light on this mystery.”

The Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, declined to comment on the decision. But a spokesman for the company said the article had “legal issues,” without specifying what it was. A spokesman for the Daily Mail, owned by the Rothermere family, did not respond to a request for comment.

To add to the confusion, most of the details in the article were previously reported in a candid biography of Carrie Johnson by Michael Ashcroft, a former Tory official who is a member of the House of Lords. The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday published excerpts from The First Lady: Intrigue in the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson in February.

According to the book and the Times report, Boris Johnson’s proposal to appoint Carrie Johnson as chief of staff was quickly rebuffed by his foreign office aides, who pointed out the ethical and political issues involved.

On Monday, Downing Street refused to directly refute the story, saying it could not comment on Boris Johnson’s actions before he became prime minister. But the spokesperson pointed to statements, including a statement by spokesperson Carrie Johnson, denying the claims.

In the UK media, the threat of defamation is very real because if a news organization is sued, it has the burden of proving that its claims are true. This means that even when journalists are confident that their reporting is accurate, editors sometimes still refrain from publishing unless they are confident that they can, if objected, prove it in court.

For some press critics, however, the disappearance of Johnson’s story highlights an unhealthy affinity between the government and powerful pro-Tory newspaper owners in the UK, which include Murdoch and Mail publisher Jonathan Harmsworth, also known as the fourth Viscount Rothermere.

“From the very beginning of Boris Johnson’s campaign for party leader, we have seen a confluence of Johnson’s political operation and the media machine,” said Peter Oborn, a journalist and broadcaster who wrote Assault on the Truth, which explores Johnson’s ties to right-wing newspapers.

Until recently, Walters, the author of the story, was a reporter for The Daily Mail, where he published several articles about the costly renovation of the Johnsons’ official Downing Street residence, which was originally paid for by a Conservative Party sponsor. The reports were especially embarrassing for Carrie Johnson, who led the project.

Among Walters’ biggest supporters was Jordy Greig, who was then editor of the Mail and recruited him into the tabloid. Last November, Greig was forced to leave his job due to a power struggle. Since then, according to media critics, the Mail has become much less critical of Johnson, most notably at the Downing Street lockdown parties, a scandal that nearly cost the prime minister his job.

Shortly after Greig’s departure, the Post fired Walters. Since then, he has worked as a freelance journalist, still with the Mail, but writing for other newspapers, including the Times. Last month, Walters reported tense relations between the Johnsons and the head housekeeper at Checkers, the prime minister’s country residence, leading to the housekeeper’s resignation.

The sequence of events that led to the withdrawal of the last article remains unclear.

Times editor John Witherow was recovering from a medical procedure and was off duty last week when the article was published. This left the document in the hands of his deputy, Tony Gallagher. None of the editors commented, and Walters declined to discuss his exchange with the paper.

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