On 12 November, Tom Newton Dunn, political editor of The Sun, published a story claiming Boris Johnson would accuse Jeremy Corbyn of “political onanism” over Brexit.
The piece claimed that Johnson, while addressing supporters at a West Midlands car factory, would say: “We face a historic choice. We can honour the wishes of the people, or else we can waste more time, at the cost of a billion pounds per month, and have two more referendums, one on Scotland and one on the EU — an expense of spirit and a waste of shame, more political self-obsession and onanism.”
When the prime minister delivered his speech he did not accuse Corbyn of political onanism. When Newton Dunn challenged Johnson over the missing line, the prime minister tried to laugh off question and said “all I can say is that a stray early draft seems to have somehow found its way into your otherwise peerless copy, by a process that I don’t pretend to understand, but I will make inquiries.” No such inquiries are known to have have happened, and they would be pointless. The “stray early draft” was fed to Newton Dunn deliberately with the intention that he would publish the reference to “onanism” (and explain that this was a synonym for masturbation.)
However, Newton Dunn’s story generated heavy criticism of Johnson’s crude reference. Having served its (presumed) purpose of making a schoolboy joke at the expense of the Labour leader, it was withdrawn from Johnson’s speech.
This was by no means the first time Boris Johnson has made references to masturbation. He claimed that the police “spaffed up the wall” resources on child abuse investigation. In 2015, he described jihadist terrorists as “literally wankers, severe onanists.”
Johnson’s arch suggestion that Newton Dunn had published “a stray early draft” was wilfully misleading, and a slur on his competence and integrity. Johnson’s claim that the line had found its way to Newton Dunn “by a process I don’t pretend to understand” was equally incredible. The entire episode shows that even friendly journalists and media enjoy no favours when Johnson and his advisers want to manufacture a story. They are expected to behave as passive regurgitators of any falsehood which is fed to them. Incidentally, the story repeats the centuries-old misrepresentation of onanism as an eponym. As portrayed in the Old Testament, the original Onan was almost certainly practising coitus interruptus rather than masturbation.
Note: the great New Yorker wit Dorothy Parker named her pet canary Onan because he spilled his seed upon the ground.