Boris began his journalism career at The Times, he later became the Daily Telegraph's Brussels correspondent, with his articles being credited as heralding the start of a Eurosceptic sentiment among the British right-wing. He became assistant editor from 1994 to 1999 before moving on and taking up the editorship of The Spectator from 1999 to 2005.
Boris is paid extremely well to write as a Telegraph columnist, and his column affords him a fantastic PR opportunity, because he can also use that column as his mouth piece. He can, and often has, used the column to champion his latest cause – the most recent obviously being the Leave campaign in the UK EU Referendum. This is brilliant from a PR point of view, what more could you ask for than your own platform in a national newspaper from which to proclaim your thoughts but is it ethical?
In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit result, the absence of any public announcements from Boris sent people looking to his column to find out what he was thinking and his plans for the future. All of which must of course have made the Daily Telegraph very happy indeed. As a PR agency we say ‘brilliant stuff… if you can get it!’
As it happened, the column Boris wrote immediately after Brexit did not do him any favours in his then leadership bid but from the Daily Telegraph’s point of view it must have been very helpful for stimulating readership.
But it raises a bigger question – is it ethical that an MP, now foreign secretary, also work as a journalist and have a platform from which to speak directly with the public. We would argue that this is a problem of ethics. I am sure every politician would like their own column in a national newspaper but I don’t think it would lead to high quality, unbiased, news journalism. Furthermore, will Boris have time to be a key member of cabinet and also work for a newspaper – both notoriously demanding jobs?
In our view, both Boris and the Daily Telegraph need to consider the ethics of this situation carefully. It seems some in the news media also think hard questions need asking. See a piece in the Guardian here.
Winston Churchill was, very similar to Boris in this respect. He too was a journalist, between 1895 and 1900, Churchill covered wars of empire in Cuba, India’s North-West Frontier, the Sudan, and South Africa as a correspondent for several London newspapers. He also wrote pieces for the Daily Telegraph, coincidentally Boris Johnson wrote a piece entitled “How Winston Churchill's work for The Telegraph helped him defeat Hitler” for the Telegraph last June which showcases a few of the most powerful of Churchill’s articles. If you’re interested in the full story of Churchill’s time at the Daily Telegraph you can read all about it in a book 'Winston Churchill at the Telegraph', edited by Warren Dockter.
Boris says “it was the Daily Telegraph that had the immeasurable moral distinction, in the 1930s, of sticking with Churchill – and publishing his views on Germany – even when they were unfashionable, and when other London newspapers were either refusing his copy or actively promoting appeasement of Hitler. It was the Telegraph that published his denunciations of Nazism right up until the outbreak of war, and it was Viscount Camrose of the Daily Telegraph who was indispensable to
the solution of Churchill’s financial problems, setting up the trust that enabled him to continue to live at his beloved Chartwell. Winston Churchill owed a huge amount to the Daily Telegraph – and the world owes an incalculable debt to that journalistic relationship.” Of course, Boris would praise the Daily Telegraph’s role in supporting Churchill’s journalism, but we’re also very glad they did too.
Using your newspaper column as a mouth piece may be great for PR, but is it entirely ethical from a newspaper’s point of view? It’s not at all unusual for newspapers to be politically aligned with one particular party – the Daily Telegraph is, after all, known as the Torygraph because of its close association with the Conservative party – so perhaps that would appease any ethical question for them. As for the general public…we’re not so sure it is a good thing, what do you think?