Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Boris Tape

Tomorrow evening, Channel 4's Dispatches profile of Boris Johnson will include parts of a taped conversation between him and his old school friend Darius Guppy. Channel 4 is able to broadcast these extracts because I supplied them with a copy of the tape, which I was able to do because I recorded it in 1990. This post explains why, after initially refusing, I decided to let them have it.

The tape includes discussion of a plot to have a News of the World reporter, Stuart Collier, beaten up. Guppy was hiring two South London heavies to do the beating up and he wanted Johnson to supply Collier's home address. Johnson expressed concern that the man wouldn't be too badly beaten, discussed the plan at some length, and was very anxious that his role never be made public.

Although Johnson, on the tape, sounds as though he is cooperating with Guppy, he never did supply the address. The journalist was not beaten up. My own feeling is that Johnson was just going along with Guppy, humouring him, and had no intention of helping. I knew Guppy at that time and he was forever coming up with plans that he would insist on explaining to people, often soliciting their involvement in some way. Humouring him was the quickest way to get it over with.

I refused, initially, to give Channel 4 a copy because I felt that broadcasting it would just be salacious and not justified by any public interest argument. I debated this at some length, face to face, on the telephone and in emails, with the Channel 4 journalist making the programme and in the end he accepted my decision with good grace. And there the matter rested.

Until, a week or two later, I saw this question and answer from 1999, in the Independent. It includes the following exchange:

Do you ever regret meeting Darius Guppy?

K Bower, London SW15

No I don't regret meeting Darius, in many respects a great guy. I do regret his criminal ventures, but then so, I am sure, does he.
Far from regretting his "criminal ventures", Guppy was and remains openly boastful of them. He had released a book by then that was openly boastful of his criminal activities. In other words, Johnson knew this to be untrue.

That might seem like a small thing, a white lie to support his continuing relationship with an old school friend, but this particular pal was a criminal whose technique had included the manipulation of his social connections. The taped conversation actually illustrates this; Guppy was trying to use a member of his old boy network to get the address of a man he wanted to have beaten up - something that would have been a criminal act. As I have said, conversations like that were, with Guppy, commonplace.

Guppy had got his hands on £1.2 million of shareholders' funds to steal because he used the father of one of his friends as Chairman when his company was floated and this Chairman had an illustrious business record that tempted people to invest, another example of the way Guppy used his connections in ways that furthered his crimes.

In 1999, this didn't matter much. Johnson was editor of The Spectator, not Mayor of London. Today, it matters much more. Does Johnson still have connections with Guppy?

To my knowledge, Johnson has never addressed these issues directly. According to The Observer today:
A spokeswoman for the mayor's office did not return calls yesterday. However in a statement to Dispatches the mayor's office described the Guppy tape as a "colourful" tale from the past that bore no relevance to Johnson's current position. The mayor has always dismissed the tape as a joke.
One blogger commented:
The Mayor of London has opened up a new line of defence for criminals. If the crime was committed a few years back, Boris thinks criminals should be able to plead innocence on the grounds that it's just a colourful tale from the past.
But of course, that's not what Johnson is doing. I'm quite certain he doesn't feel the relaxed attitude he has shown to his old school friend should also be shown to other criminals. There's a sense in all this that Johnson does not feel that petty bourgeois morality applies to him and his social circle.

This is where my own feelings entered into my calculations. I'm sick of the political class applying one set of rules to the population of the country and quite another to themselves, their friends and families. Expenses claims and scandals in which Parliamentary allowances were skimmed off in salaries for family members have become so frequent, so commonplace, that we now hardly notice them; dole claimants who behaved in the same way would be fined or imprisoned. Smoking has been banned in pubs but not in the bars of Parliament; their drink remains subsidised by the taxpayers even while they debate raising taxes on alcohol for the rest of us.

And Boris Johnson is a senior politician with some responsibility for policing in London, yet he is a man who has consistently refused to condemn or distance himself from his criminal friend. If the Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police had maintained such a connection and it were discovered, he'd have to resign.

I don't want Johnson to resign as things stand. I am delighted he managed to displace Ken Livingstone. In fact, a part of my calculation about whether or not to release the tape was that we are in a good part of the electoral cycle for this to come out, from Johnson's point of view. Before the election would have compromised his chance of winning, too near the next election might have a similar effect. Now he has an opportunity to put this to bed so it can be forgotten about.

I gave Channel 4 the tape with an explanation of why. I told them I wanted to make it possible for them to put the utmost pressure on Johnson to make a proper statement about this. Not so much about the incident from 1990, though he should unequivocally condemn anyone who seeks to have people beaten up, but more about the present: does he still have contact with Guppy?

In response to a freedom of information request from Channel 4, the mayor's office said he had not had any official contact with him. How about privately? It might not seem to be the most significant thing in the world; Guppy is a nonentity, just another dodgy expat living in South Africa. While he seems to have no visible means of support, there's no direct evidence he's still a criminal. But the principle is of great importance. Elected politicians should not be able to evade questions about their connections with criminal conspiracies or criminals.

In the end, the Dispatches programme adopted the line of examining a number of incidents from Johnson's past, including the 1990 Guppy conversation, as well as Johnson's relationship with a property developer and with the owners of the Telegraph, for which he writes at a higher salary than he is paid as Mayor. They suggest there could be potential conflicts of interest and pose the question: does all this reflect well on Boris's judgement?

They couldn't force Johnson to give them a formal interview in which these questions could be put directly, and in the end no such interview took place. I think it should. Unlike Livingstone, who came to show open contempt for anyone who questioned him, Johnson should accept that where there are matters of genuine public interest, he has a duty, an obligation, to explain himself fully.

What is the nature of the relationship between the Mayor of London, Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and the unrepentant criminal Darius Guppy? I think we should be told.


dearieme said...

Fair enough. I too loath the way that our rulers exempt themselves from the laws and rules that they impose on everyone else. But a word of caution: much of the population would snigger at the implication of "dole claimants who behaved in the same way would be fined or imprisoned". Who on earth believes that there's any consistent, substantial effort made to police the dole claimants' frauds? I bet they overwhelmingly get off as scot-free as the bankers.

tired and emotional said...

You shit. Really. I had considerable respect for your clearly stated position that by handling the conversation in the way that he did Johnson prevented or at least impeded a journalist from being beaten up. Why should Johnson now have to throw a friend or former friend under the bus just because you feel that a general group of people are offensive in their behaviour? Don't you think that the willingness to reject a friend, no matter how flawed, just because the media pressure is on is actually a symptom of the kind of dishonesty that you claim to dislike rather than some sort of badge of honour or integrity? Ultimately, if you are worried about Boris' judgement as Mayor then question his actions as Mayor, not his private relationships with old school friends.

Peter Risdon said...

T&E, I'm appalled you're happy to set aside rules you'd insist applied to political opponents when it comes to people whose politics you agree with.

tired and emotional said...


I apologise for calling you a shit. You don't come across as one and I shouldn't have said it. You are entitled to do what ever you like with your tape recording, I just find it hard to believe that you've changed your mind on the basis of reading a two line exchange reported in the Independent in 1999.

I'm also struggling to see what it is you want Boris to do here - is it a public humiliation that you are after a la Jacqui Smith's poor husband? Do you want Boris to publicallly repudiate and condemn Guppy, some 18-19 years after your recording? What is the point of co-operating with Channel 4 on this?

And, while I do broadly support Boris (he's a little left-wing for my taste), I am not sure how I would feel about a genuinely left-wing politician who was in a similiar position.

One of the elements I like least about politics - and the media - is the tendency to smear and destroy people when they themselves cannot be shown to have acted illegally or improperly in relation to the events that have occasioned comment.

That should apply across the board regardless of political views (though I won't claim to live up to this aspiration 100%).



Peter Risdon said...

T&E, that's OK. I expect to take some flak for this.

I don't care at all about the incident 20 years ago. It was irrelevant then and it's irrelevant now. Boris didn't help. End of story.

What I am concerned about is now. Does Johnson maintain a relationship with an unrepentant criminal whose modus operandi included the deliberate and calculated leveraging of the power, influence and connections of his contacts? The Mayor of London is a powerful contact for such a man.

I broadly like Boris too, and an earlier post of mine, while entirely true in every respect, was timed to help his election campaign and, I think, had that effect. And thank goodness he got rid of the appalling Livingstone.

This was a very hard decision to make. I actually canvassed opinion from others in the political blogosphere, who will remain nameless because the decision was mine.

But I concluded this is too important. As it happens, and as I had feared might be the case, I think Dispatches dropped the ball and didn't follow up this point with the vigour it deserves.

tired and emotional said...

I don't know where we should draw the line between the public and the private. Should there even be a line? Is everything up for grabs - and saleable for public consumption and titillation - just because someone asks about something? Is there any rumour or suggestion that Guppy has gained favours from the Mayor of London? Or does the mere fact of the possibility, despite Boris' prior refusal to so help at a time when he had much less to lose, force Boris to perform a mea culpa in the 'court of public opinion'?

Peter Risdon said...

Well, if Guppy has gained favours then Johnson would have to resign. I don't think that's the case and as I said in the main post, Johnson's resignation is not something I'd like to see.

I think huge areas of a politician's life should remain private, unless they happen to be seeking to impose laws on the rest of us that they contradict with their private behaviour.

This issue, though, cannot fall into the private. You can't condone and excuse law breaking - even in old school friends - and at the same time have political power over a part of the legal process.

I think Johnson has a public duty to make it clear he agrees with this.

tired and emotional said...

I don't buy the argument that Boris he has condoned or excused Guppy's behaviour. I am not really sure this is in the public interest, really, as we are unlikely to be treated to anything more than the repetition of rumour.

ad said...

There was a time when someone in Boris's social circle would be expected to cut dead "one whose friend had misappropriated cash".