Boris, Barbra and the curious case of the missing Times article

June 22, 2022

Like a magician’s vanishing trick, blink and you missed it. Or did you?

It was the story that never was. The accusation that Boris Johnson had tried to appoint his now wife Carrie Johnson as chief of staff while he was foreign secretary – which, to any neutral observer, looks as close as you’ll ever get to a conflict of interest.

I’ll bite my tongue and refrain from discussing the politics.

Anyway, on the face of it this seemed like one heck of a scoop. The Times ran it in its morning edition, page 5, on Saturday 18 June. The Mail Online, catering to its reported 25 million or so readers, followed it up shortly thereafter.

Then, it was tanked. The Mail Online took it down, The Times replaced it in later editions of the print paper and didn’t run it online either.

And so the inquest began. Just what had happened?

Simon Walters, whose by-line was on the original article in The Times stuck to his guns, going public in The New European and saying that there had been no on or off the record denial of the accusations.

In the ensuing days, Carrie Johnson’s spokesperson did end up denying the claims, while it also became clear that No 10 representatives spoke to The Times post-publication – but without legal action being taken.

In the absence of a specific defamation suit or injunction it seems as though The Times, and latterly Mail Online, took the decision to spike the story on a purely editorial basis.

This, to put it mildly, seems odd. Not least given that exactly the same claims regarding Boris Johnson’s chosen appointee for FCO chief of staff have previously been made by Lord Ashcroft – and reported by Mail Online. That story, and the details of the claims, are still available online.

We may never know exactly what happened.

However, a few things are clear.

Firstly, The Times has suffered some real reputational damage – a huge shame given its excellent standing internationally. Social media has been awash with complaints, digital activism and cancelled subscriptions. To take a proxy of the scale of the feedback, tweets tagging The Times saw massive spikes of negative sentiment, anger and sadness following in the aftermath of #carriegate (which itself has had almost 100,000 mentions since The Times pulled the story).

Secondly, and as The Guardian rightly notes, Carrie and Boris have almost certainly fallen prey to the Streisand Effect.

The term was coined back in the early 00’s when Barbra Streisand tried to suppress an aerial photograph which showed her Malibu mansion from above and, far from protecting her privacy, when news of the legal action got out downloads of the photo shot up, as did unwanted visitors to her home…

The point being that seeking to suppress a story can in many cases serve to exacerbate its exposure.

#Carriegate has basically ended up everywhere: ITV, BBC, The Spectator. You name it.

The impacts of the Streisand Effect have become all the more pronounced with the growing all-pervasiveness of social media.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked whether it is OK to, say, delete a negative tweet or negative review aimed at a brand.

The answer is almost always no.

Someone will have taken a screenshot, and then the shame-game will begin, calling out the brand for trying to suppress the ‘truth’. It is, in nearly all cases, far more effective from a reputation management point of view to be seen to be handling an issue, rather than to be perceived to be hiding it (or ignoring it).

And lastly there is an interesting footnote here regarding the continued value and longevity of print media.

Its death knell has often been sounded, and when I’ve spoken to PR and marketing students in the past I’ve been asked if we really need to bother thinking about print any more given that a) online is more effective anyway in terms of connecting the dots between marketing and PR (this is true to an extent) and b) that newspapers just end up as tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers (also true to an extent).

But print is also, in very meaningful way, immutable. In contrast to online news which can be edited, or deleted altogether (as we’ve seen this past week) the printed version is permanent.

Subsequently, photos of Simon Walters’ article have been doing the rounds on social media, likely reaching a far wider and much more diverse audience than simply subscribers to The Times.

So, even if you weren’t meant to see it, I bet you have. This is PR in the new normal.

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