In the run up to Boris Johnson’s first bid for London Mayor in 2007, I got a call. A menacing male voice told me to stay away from the town centre (part of Johnson’s Oxfordshire constituency) the next day, or else. At first I thought it was Brian True-May, (then producer of Midsomer Murders who was later sacked amid claims of alleged racism) who often cordoned off large swathes of the town when filming in the area. It struck me as wholly inefficient to make house to house phone calls when the town’s newsletter would have sufficed. Everyone reads that. How else would we keep abreast of the WI’s forthcoming events.
For anyone who’s interested, the next one is a "Make do & Mend" talk by lady Clamidia Bottomley de Nuit, who graduated from the prestigious, Blessed Heart of Lost Souls and Causes, Girls School (only up the road) in 1942, before going on to court and later marry Lord Bottomley de Nuit of Bognor, who, some years later was convicted for fraudulent misconduct, but claimed it was part of his job description (he was a banker). This proved to be an unwise defence as it landed him in the slammer, where he will remain at her majesty’s leisure or until he pops his clogs, which is thought to be imminent (he’s 101), thus assuaging his burden on the taxpayer. At the age of 90, the now bankrupt Mrs Bottomley, is having to revert to skills acquired during the war, i.e. making do and mending. A lot. Having invested her last £100 in a 5 minute consultation with a life coach, she decided to turn her USP into an income generator, which takes us back to the next WI talk. See Newsletter for details. I digress.
Back to my mystery caller. My suspicions were further alerted when the man [with the menacing voice] indicated that he knew where I lived, but not in a good way. At that point I thought I was actually in an episode of Midsomer Murders, and was about to become yet another unsuspecting victim in a flammable crimplene nightie.
As the chat/salvo of intimidation continued, it became apparent that a piece I wrote for The Independent, as well as local Press, had caused a bit of a stir. A local Tory councillor refused to remove golliwogs from his upholstery shop window in the town centre, despite receiving numerous complaints from locals who found the display offensive. In fairness, there was a BOGOF at the time: buy a golliwog and get your sofa reupholstered free, but they still didn’t shift. So, there they languished in the window, sticking 2 (metaphorical) fingers up at anyone foreign/foreign looking, lest they harbour any notions of being welcome in this town. He did eventually concede to pressure. Either that, or Brian True-May had a lot of sofas reupholstered that week.
The mystery caller didn’t say which, if any, organisation he represented and wouldn’t be pressed to divulge his name. I was pregnant at the time and, although my radius was limited to the availability of public toilets (bladder control was a challenge), I was determined to go into town as an act of defiance. If only to stock up on big pants. However, having had a miscarriage a year earlier, after receiving a death threat (in person) at a human rights demonstration I had organised, I knew I couldn’t go. My first duty was to protect my unborn child. Who knew pregnancy could be so career limiting…
Although there is no evidence to suggest Boris Johnson had any knowledge of the threatening call, nor am I suggesting any connection, the fact that he had a conversation (with Darius Guppy), about roughing up a journalist renders him unfit, in my view, for public office. Eddie Mair did a sterling job exposing Johnson for “the nasty piece of work” that I also think he is. But why has the media protected him for so long?
Deference has no place in good journalism (unless you’re interviewing Tony Benn, Nelson Mandela or Paloma Faith). Integrity and pursuit of truth should be at the heart of what we do. It involves forensic research and the ability, and willingness, to ask the tough questions. People in power should never be given a free ride. They should always be sitting on the edge of their seats. Buttocks shifting from one to the other, knowing a journalist worth their salt will hold them to account. It wasn’t just the Financial Services Authority that was asleep at the wheel in the lead up to the greatest economic crash of our time, it was also the media. If Leveson bequeaths any legacy, it should be that anyone with a penchant for sycophancy is better suited to a career in sales, or as PA to Simon Cowell. Journalists should not have to contend with death threats, but at least you know you’re doing your job right when they outweigh dinner invitations to Chequers.