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.