Carrie Johnson and the curious case of the vanishing Times story

At first glance, the story appeared to be the political scoop of the weekend.

On Saturday, the Times reported claims that Boris Johnson had tried to hire his now wife as his chief of staff when he was foreign secretary.

But almost as soon as the article hit the printers, it was withdrawn, without explanation or clarification.

The piece, written by the veteran lobby journalist Simon Walters, formerly of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, appeared on page five of some early print copies of Saturday’s Times newspaper but was dropped for later editions.

It does not appear that the article was ever published on the Times’ website.

The story expanded on claims in a biography of Carrie Johnson by the Tory donor and peer Lord Ashcroft that Johnson had tried to appoint her to a £100,000-a-year government job when he was foreign secretary in 2018.

It said the idea had fallen apart when his closest advisers learned of the idea to hire the Tory press chief, then known as Carrie Symonds, whom he later married. Johnson was then still married to Marina Wheeler, a barrister.

A source with knowledge of the situation told the Guardian this account was correct.

However, a spokesperson for Carrie Johnson was categoric. “These claims are totally untrue,” she said.

Downing Street declined to give an on-the-record response to the story but a No 10 source also said the story was untrue – and suggested it was sexist.

“This is a grubby, discredited story turned down by most reputable media outlets because it isn’t true. The facts speak for themselves.”

Walters told the Guardian: “I stand by the story. I went to all the relevant people over two days. Nobody offered me an on-the-record denial and Downing St didn’t deny it off the record either.”

Journalists at the Times were baffled by the decision to withdraw Saturday’s story, with multiple sources suggesting there had been a high-level intervention to remove it.

The paper’s editor, John Witherow, is reported to be off work. His deputy Tony Gallagher edited the newspaper on Friday, with multiple sources saying he made the call to drop the story from later editions.

A spokesperson for News UK declined to comment on why an article that appeared prominently in potentially hundreds of thousands of print newspapers had been removed from later editions, without any explanation.

Walters recently left his senior position at the Daily Mail, where he first revealed the scandal over Carrie Johnson’s renovations of the Downing Street flat.

MailOnline rewrote the Times’ story about the proposed government job for Carrie Johnson in the early hours of Saturday morning but has since also deleted its article without explanation or an editor’s note. News aggregation sites have also deleted their copies of the MailOnline article.

Removing the article may be an example of the Streisand effect – where attempts to delete information from the internet make the public much more interested in it.

Alastair Campbell, the former No 10 director of communications under Tony Blair, tweeted on Sunday that the disappearance of the story appeared to be “further evidence that much of our media is essentially an extension of the press office of a liar and a crook”. He also said that the Times owner, Rupert Murdoch, had “done so much damage to journalism”.

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