Rob Ford isn’t the only mayor who gets a hard time from media. As Mr. Ford was facing press allegations that he was acting intoxicated at a military ball, London’s Boris Johnson was enduring a good going over from BBC journalist Eddie Mair.
In a television interview linked to a new documentary on the tousle-haired Conservative mayor, Mr. Mair grilled him about reports that he denied an extramarital affair to his boss, doctored quotes when he was a young reporter and once offered to help an old schoolmate who wanted someone beaten up.
As Mr. Johnson smiled uncomfortably and looked at the floor, Mr. Mair accused him of “making up quotes, lying to your party leader, wanting to be part of someone being physically assaulted – you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”
What is significant is not the substance of the charges, all of which date from a decade or two ago and none of which is new. What matters is how Mr. Johnson reacted. Did he call Mr. Mair a pathological liar? Did he accuse the interviewer of joining a conspiracy to overthrow him? Not a bit of it.
In the interview itself, he merely said, rather mildly for him, that “all three things I would dispute” and that Mr. Mair was not being “wholly fair.” Later, when reporters asked him whether he felt burned, he replied: “Some people say Eddie Mair was too hard on me. You cannot be too hard on politicians. It is the function of BBC journalists to bash up politicians, particularly people like me.” He added: “Fair play to Eddie, he landed a good one.”
Now, a cynic might say that Mr. Johnson, famous for his rumpled charm, was only trying to curry favour with the media, heeding the adage about never arguing with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Maybe so. But, as a former editor of The Spectator, he may actually believe the press should be allowed to have a run at him.
In a recent column in the Telegraph, he said it would be a mistake for the government to legislate curbs on the press, even after the phone-hacking scandal. “Like any strong detergent, the work of the British media may cause a certain smarting of the eyes. But if you want to keep clean the gutters of public life, you need a gutter press.”
Whatever his motives, he seems to accept that the media is going to scrutinize his behaviour, even long-past personal behaviour that might say something about his character and fitness for high office. (Mr. Johnson is often spoken of as a possible successor to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.)
That is not something you can say of our own dear mayor, who greets every critical article with a howl of wounded outrage and blames a hostile press for plotting against him. Last year, his brother, Doug, called the media “sucky little kids” who “whine and cry and moan” and “sensationalize and lie through their teeth.”
No one is saying the Fords should just lie down and take it when they are under attack. Mr. Johnson certainly doesn’t. When London city councillors snubbed him by declining to question him over his latest budget last month, he called them “great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies.”
He was equally sharp, if not quite as quotable, when I dropped by London City Hall during a recent visit to England. London has a wonderfully democratic ritual called Mayor’s Question Time. Ten times a year the mayor takes questions from the 25 members of the London Assembly, who sit in a horseshoe-shaped array of desks with the mayor facing them at single desk of his own. (Try to imagine Mr. Ford subjecting himself to such a cross-examination.) The session lasted three straight hours.
Mr. Johnson gave as good as he got, accusing his Labour Party inquisitors of “absolutely brilliant incoherence,” among other things, and fiercely defending his efforts on air quality and housing.
The lesson for Mr. Ford: You don’t need to be a doormat to see the merit of accepting reasonable scrutiny from your critics.