Celebrity politicians and populist media narratives: the case of Boris Johnson

Celebrity politics has become common-place in modern political communications. P. David Marshall has commented that politicians construct ‘public personalities,’ which have an ‘affective function’ in the organisation of issues. In turn, Liesbet van Zoonen argues that celebrity politics is founded upon a paradoxical combination of an individual’s ability to be mediated as being both ordinary and extraordinary. Thus, for van Zoonen celebrity politicians (CPs) try to strike the balance between being ‘ordinary and just like us’, while demonstrating they have extraordinary leadership abilities:

“The ultimate celebrity politician [is], then, the one who … projects a persona that has inside experience with politics but is still an outsider; his (or, in some cases her) performance builds on a unique mixture of ordinariness and exceptionality.”

During the European Union (EU) Referendum campaign the Conservative Cabinet member, former Mayor of London and ‘Brexiteer’ Boris Johnson provided a problematic example of van Zoonen’s ultimate CP.

the populist media narrative in the Brexit-led newspapers reinforced the view that Johnson was standing up to the dysfunctional European elite which has undermined Britain’s economy, sovereignty and self-confidence.

Johnson emerged within the public’s consciousness through his ‘mediated persona’ – or individual public image – to attain admiration to effect political expression. He adopted populist strategies such as appearing on satire programmes and chat shows, while making numerous, outrageous statements that have commanded media attention. Consequently, as a maverick and ‘humorous’ political figure Johnson reached the ultimate in brand recognition as he became known by his forename ‘Boris.’ Yet, while acting as a political ‘superstar,’ Johnson had serious political ambitions. His rivalry with Prime Minister David Cameron was played out in public in terms of class, entitlement, education and wit.

Thus, Johnson took a calculated risk to campaign for ‘Vote Leave’ as he perceived Cameron’s weakness concerning the EU. He fashioned his appeal to two constituencies – the general public and those Conservative Party members who are strongly Europhobic. Johnson believed that his Brexit stance would enable him to establish a post-Referendum leadership challenge. ‘Project Boris’ was launched in January amidst a media scrum that engulfed Johnson’s decision to ‘Leave.’

Throughout the campaign, Johnson maintained his maverick appeal in which he engaged (with Michael Gove, Chris Grayling and Ian Duncan Smith) in a ‘Blue-on-Blue’ descent into personal abuse against Cameron and George Osborne. Essentially, for Johnson the EU Referendum was characterised as a ‘Bullingdon’ club spat in which varying forms of ‘blue blood’ privilege became conspicuous. Moreover, taking his cue from the United States’ (US) Republican Party’s Presidential nominee Donald Trump, Johnson employed hyperbole, distortion and outright lies to sustain his public image. This occurred within his visceral attack on US President Barack Obama’s ‘Remain’ intervention and through his comparison of the EU ‘Superstate’ with the ambitions of Nazi Germany’s Fuehrer Adolf Hitler.

In this respect, the populist media narrative in the Brexit-led newspapers reinforced the view that Johnson was standing up to the dysfunctional European elite which has undermined Britain’s economy, sovereignty and self-confidence. This led to comparisons being made between Johnson and Britain’s ultimate maverick politician – Sir Winston Churchill. In the biggest televised EU debate at Wembley Arena on 21st June, Johnson concludedthat Brexit would become the United Kingdom’s (UK) ‘Independence Day.’ Along with his fellow Brexiteers, he repeated the xenophobic falsehoods that a Vote Leave outcome would Canute-like turn back the ‘waves’ of immigrants who were ready to pounce from Eastern Europe.

Johnson’s cavalier attitude to the truth received a significant hearing throughout the news and social media during the EU Referendum Campaign. Jonathan Freedland compared Johnson with Trump by declaring him to be a ‘post-truth’ politician:

“Johnson reminded us that he has more in common with Trump than just a lovingly styled, idiosyncratic head of blond hair. … On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Johnson reminded listeners how slippery his grasp on the truth has long been. … As with Trump, humour plays a crucial part. … Too often, radio and TV interviewers want to appear in on the joke, to share in the chuckle … but it’s clear why this matters … (as) … how can we have a functioning democracy when we cannot agree on the most basic facts?”

By engaging in a race to the bottom, Johnson’s unreliable political discourse (along with that of UKIP leader Nigel Farage) meant that his arguments concerning the EU debate were distorted around immigration. Therefore, Johnson’s wilful irresponsibility (with Gove, Grayling, Duncan Smith, John Mann and Frank Field) was a contributory factor to the ‘ugliness’ that surrounded the national conversation about the referendum. And as Polly Toynbee argued this corrosive intolerance provided the backdrop for the terrible actions of a disturbed mind in the unprovoked murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox on 16 June 2016.


Comedian Eddie Izzard speaks at the University of Sussex, Brighton in a final push for the Remain Campaign in the EU Referendum.

Picture by: Hannah McKay / PA Wire/Press Association Images.