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A series about Marco Polo is just the latest venture for the man with a shameful past
Potential guides to Marco Polo, the 13th-century explorer, must be thin on the ground. Are there, in fact, any out there who’ve never been described as “handsy”? And, for preference, never broken their partner’s nose? An attractive on-screen personality being, like the ability to comply with Covid regulations and to not insult the public, an advantage, but by no means essential.
Asking only because a week after three women identified him as a specialist in unwanted touching, the – to give him his full title – father of the prime minister, was announced as the presenter for a forthcoming documentary series about Marco Polo’s route through China. By way of qualifications: Stanley Johnson once, it’s understood, went quite near there as a student.
Johnson will, admittedly, have some back-up: another Johnson from that inexhaustible supply. Max Johnson, 36, turns out to be a son, a Hong Kong businessman and the half-brother of the prime minister. The value of this novice presenter (Johnson senior having appeared on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! and countless TV sofas) seems to reside, supposing his genes don’t speak for themselves, in his business know-how. Max reportedly hopes, though presumably not actually on screen, “to promote tech and investment from China”. He further aspires, according to a Tatler interview last year, to be an actor and seeks a publisher for his 80,000-word memoir.
It may hearten any Uyghurs who get to hear of a project likely to take the Johnsons through lands where their people are being killed and persecuted that the presenting choice of two China advocates has been noted. Johnson’s promotion of China despite its human rights abuses has previously aroused suspicion, while mini-Stanley appears, if anything, more ardent on Sino-UK bonding, with Tatler recording that he’s “disappointed in the west’s pivot away from China”. The Johnsons’ producer, Dale Templar, told the Times: “This is not a political piece. I want to show China as a fantastic country.”
It remains a mystery, however, why Ms Templar should wish also to show Johnson as a fantastic person. Well before the MP Caroline Nokes described how he smacked her “hard” on the bottom, the New Statesman journalist Ailbhe Rea said she’d also experienced unwanted touching, while his supporter Isabel Oakeshott confirmed, perhaps carelessly, Johnson’s reputation as “handsy”, he was known to have put his first wife, the late artist Charlotte Wahl, in hospital.
That her nose was broken by Johnson was not denied, when the incident was revealed in Tom Bower’s 2020 biography of the prime minister. Rather, friends explained, it was a regrettable “one-off” that occurred when his physically weaker victim “flailed” at him. Johnson was subsequently spared, as a one-off nose-breaker, anything approaching the condemnation that has recently been heaped upon, for instance, celebrities who composed offensive tweets as teenagers, on authors who used disappointing language or who have aired, as with Margaret Atwood and JK Rowling, contested opinions. Publication of Johnson’s books continued undisturbed, unlike Woody Allen’s latest, by staff walk-outs. Television producers have been unflinchingly loyal. Post-Bower, he was invited, for instance, to expatiate on subjects from the climate crisis (BBC’s Newsnight) to TB in alpacas (BBC’s Today programme) and to perform on Countdown (Channel 4).
Regarding domestic violence and its long-term impact on children who witness it, we await, alas, his expert input. “Stanley’s violence has forever haunted Boris,” is among the conclusions in Bower’s book.
Shortly after it was published, the Conservative Environmental Network announced the arrival of Johnson as its “international ambassador”, which he remains. Plausible groping accusations seem likely, along with Johnson’s disrespect for their authors, likewise to be classed as environmentally sustainable. Perhaps because initial newspaper serialisation did not reflect the extent of the violence detailed in Bower’s book, the nose-breaking, explained away, was insufficient to pause Johnson’s career. But his ex-wife had described mistreatment that began early in their marriage. “He resented that I cared about my friends,” she said, echoing many fellow survivors’ accounts, “and that’s when he first hit me”. Later, she said, doctors and her parents were made aware and spoke to Johnson about his abuse, which was known to their children. “He had hit me. He hit me many times, over many years.” She told Bower she wanted “the truth told”.
Well, now it is on record and Johnson the broadcaster, with the new accounts of inappropriate touching to add to Wahl’s extended character reference, remains sublimely uncancelled, even despite growing evidence that hiring a Johnson or 10 offers programme makers no significant protection against Nadine Dorries.
The latest promotion of Johnson could hardly be better timed to shed light on the normalisation of domestic violence
Last week, the Office for National Statistics marked the UN’s Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women with figures showing record levels of domestic violence: calls to the UK domestic abuse helpline rose during the pandemic by more than a fifth. The latest promotion of Johnson could hardly have been better timed to shed light on the normalisation of domestic violence. How serious can it be, after all, if a man so credibly accused can still be introduced, with neither talent nor repentance to account for the dispensation, as a broadcasting asset?
On the contrary, with his history of flouting pandemic regulations, his efforts for China, his frequent-flyer environmentalism and jibes about the public’s intelligence, to say nothing of the interminable “my son the prime minister” partisanship, Johnson might be considered, even without his mistreatment of women, among the more disposable talents to have afflicted broadcasting. Though it would be unfair to blame this shameless exhibitionist, alone, for his contribution to trivialising domestic violence. For Nadine Dorries he remains “a gentleman”, more trustworthy than the woman MP whose bottom he hit. Johnson could not have outlasted Johnny Depp without the help of patrons, media and otherwise, who are aware of the brutality his ex-wife finally made known and happy to advertise their indifference.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist