Former journalist Boris Johnson has generated a splash with his career advice to schoolchildren, in which he suggested journalists are “always abusing people”.
The prime minister, who took part in an online class at Sedgehill Academy in Lewisham, south London, on Tuesday, used the visit to reflect on his own past as a newspaper reporter and columnist.
Scroll down to read Jon Craig’s take on what could have prompted the PM’s comments
“When you’re a journalist it’s a great, great job, it’s a great profession,” Mr Johnson said.
“But the trouble is, sometimes you find yourself always abusing people or attacking people.
“Not that you want to abuse them or attack them, but you are being critical, when maybe you feel sometimes a bit guilty about that, because you haven’t put yourself in the place of the person you’re criticising.
“So I thought I’d give it a go,” he added, referring to his career change.
The prime minister worked for The Times, the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator before entering politics when he was first elected as an MP at the age of 36.
And Mr Johnson added his “strong advice” was “don’t do politics immediately, do lots of other things first”.
Early in his career as a journalist, Mr Johnson was sacked from The Times over allegations he fabricated a quote for a front-page story.
His later career as a columnist, which he continued up until becoming prime minister in 2019, also provided a number of controversies.
Mr Johnson’s writing has been heavily criticised for remarks in his past newspaper columns, which have included references to “flag-waving piccaninnies”, Africans with “watermelon smiles” and “tank-topped bum boys”.
Asked about the prime minister’s remarks on Tuesday, Mr Johnson’s press secretary Allegra Stratton told a regular briefing of Westminster journalists: “That is the prime minister talking about the fact that all of you, as journalists, your job is to challenge and that makes us in government better.
“I think that’s what he meant.”
Labour’s shadow media minister, Chris Matheson, called on the prime minister to “withdraw these remarks and apologise”.
“For Boris Johnson to say journalists are ‘always abusing people’ probably says more about his own career,” he said.
“It is particularly troubling coming so soon after the prime minister stood by one of his ministers who attacked a journalist who was just trying to do her job.
“We know from Donald Trump that these kind of assaults on the free press are dangerous and designed to stir up distrust and division.”
Analysis: What provoked the PM’s extraordinary and apparently unprovoked outburst?
by Jon Craig, chief political correspondent
So what put Boris Johnson – an ex-journalist himself – in such a bad mood about those of us employed in his former profession?
Almost certainly, he will have had in mind lurid reports at the weekend about his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, and their dog – yes, really – their dog, Dilyn.
These reports were essentially about a vicious power struggle inside the prime minister’s inner circle, but the embarrassing details veered between excruciating soap opera and farce.
First, it was revealed that Dilyn relieved himself all over the handbag of a former No. 10 staffer in the Downing Street garden.
Next came the disclosure that at Chequers the pesky pooch chewed the furniture, soiled the carpets and once darted under the PM’s feet with an antique book in his mouth.
At that point, Mr Johnson is said to have shouted: “For God’s sake, I’m going to get another £1,000 repair bill! Someone please shoot that f****** dog!”
One can only imagine how Carrie – increasingly being described in the public prints as a Lady Macbeth figure inside No. 10 – would have reacted to reading that threat of extreme animal cruelty!
And it perhaps goes some way to explaining the PM’s extraordinary and apparently unprovoked outburst against journalists during a careers advice session at a south London school.
“You sometimes find yourself always abusing people or attacking people,” he claimed, prompting the inevitable reference to pots and kettles from opposition MPs.
The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Louise Haigh, tweeted: “As a former journalist who tried to have another journalist beaten up, the Prime Minister speaks from first-hand experience here.”
That was a reference to the disclosure in 1990 that Mr Johnson, then a Daily Telegraph journalist, was asked by a friend, Darius Guppy, to find the address of a News of the World journalist so he could have him beaten up.
Two years earlier, Mr Johnson was sacked from The Times for making up a quote. But despite that setback, his career took off when he became the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent.
Straight bananas, square cucumbers, a Brussels ban on prawn cocktail crisps and even harmonising condom sizes: these stories propelled the Euro-sceptic Johnson to superstar status in Fleet Street.
But his former editors have not always been kind about his journalistic career. Max Hastings has said Mr Johnson wouldn’t know the truth – in his private or political life – if confronted by it at an identity parade.
And even Charles Moore, an admirer of Mr Johnson then and now, has complained that his star reporter was always late – “terribly late” – filing his copy.
As a classical scholar, Boris Johnson must surely be familiar with the famous quotations of another Tory classicist, Enoch Powell.
In a quote Tony Blair was fond of repeating, Powell memorably said: “Politicians complaining about the press are like sailors complaining about the sea.”
The irony of the PM’s uncharacteristic outburst is that during the previous 24 hours the press coverage of his roadmap to freedom had been pretty favourable.
Just don’t mention his fiancée. Or his dog!