Elliott Johnson Suicide: Some Notes on False “Row with Parents” Claim

From Simon Walters at the Mail on Sunday:

The parents of the Tory activist whose suicide sparked a bullying scandal last night hit back at claims that his death was linked to a family row over him being gay.

Ray and Alison Johnson released a heart-rending suicide note in which their son Elliott repeatedly tells them he loves them, thanks them for their ‘awe- inspiring help’ – and signs off with 16 kisses.

The note suggests the main cause of his death was bullying triggered by a vicious Tory power struggle – as well as losing his job and going broke as a result.

…‘It is totally wrong to say we argued with Elliott over being gay,’ said Mr Johnson. ‘Nor is there any mention of rows in the police report into his death. It is a distortion. I want to know who leaked it and why. It looks like a smear…’

I discussed some of the background to the story of Johnson’s suicide here, and how it relates to Conservative activism here.

The “claims” referred to above actually first appeared in the Daily Mail, in a piece by Andrew Pierce. According to that article:

Tatler Tory victim rowed with his parents about being gay: Activist whose suicide sparked bullying scandal had battled depression for years, police report finds

Elliott Johnson, 21, tried to kill himself three times in his teens, and had found it difficult that his parents struggled to accept his homosexuality, detectives found.

…The eight-page dossier, seen by the Daily Mail, describes how the young activist battled depression after coming out as gay in September 2010.

…Mr Johnson’s first suicide attempt was in spring 2011, when he threw himself in the River Nene at Wisbech…

The teenager visited his local GP with his parents, and the report describes ‘the difficulties he was having at his parents’ non-acceptance of his sexuality’.

In May 2011, having lost a boyfriend in a car accident a few weeks earlier, he ate poisonous leaves in his bedroom, believing he had taken enough to kill himself.

In November he made another suicide attempt while at a club for a friend’s birthday.

(A Sunday Times report confirms that “November” also refers to 2011)

The above headline is misleading in two ways: first, it extrapolates wildly from “struggled to accept” to “rowed with”, and it gives the false impression that an argument with his parents triggered his decision to end his life. Further, it is not quite clear from the above how the spring 2011 incident relates to “difficulties he was having at his parents’ non-acceptance”, and it is reasonable to infer that this means that there is no clear linkage, despite Pierce’s juxtaposition. The Times followed up with “Tory who took his life had row with parents over being gay” [UPDATE: this article has since been removed].

There was already evidence in the public domain that Elliott Johnson had struggled with negative thoughts – at some point after 30 March 2015 he had “Liked” a YouTube video by a young gay American vlogger named “GayGod”, entitled “Thoughts of Committing Suicide”. GayGod’s post discusses how he had attempted suicide due to clinical depression, but he ends by advising people to seek help and by thanking his viewers for their support. Johnson’s “Like” was noted by the Sun in December, although the video was grotesquely mis-described as a “suicide video” and as a “suicide clip”.

However, the earlier suicide attempts are new information. On Friday night Newsnight carried an interview with Ray Johnson, in which he explained why the family hadn’t referred to them before now:

We knew that at some stage it would come out, because it would become part of the medical evidence at the coroner’s enquiry… Five months ago we were struggling with the loss of our son, and we were worried, I suppose, that if we’d have raised the point that Elliott had mental health issues a number of years previously, that would have made it more difficult for us to get justice for Elliott. I think people would have just thought “this is just another vulnerable young boy with mental health issues, who decided to commit suicide”, and would not have looked any further back to the fact of what drove our son to commit suicide… It’s not relevant. Elliott took his life because he’d been bullied, and picked on generally, by certain persons and let down by other organisations around the Conservative party.

Suicide in such circumstances is by definition the manifestation of a mental-health problem – Johnson was a young man with a lot going for him, and his self-assessment as being a “failure” was obviously distorted and out of proportion to his setbacks. But the bottom line is that when a victim of bullying decides to end their life, the perpetrator must have that death on their conscience. Suicide may not have been the expected outcome, and other factors may also need to be taken into account – but it is a foreseeable consequence when someone engages in aggressive behaviour that a reasonable person would regard as malicious and gratuitous. Of course, there are cases where suicide (or an attempt) is a manipulative act calculated to make others feel or appear guilty, or where the alleged bullying is either imagined or an unreasonable interpretation of a dispute, but in this particular instance the contextual evidence indicates that Johnson had a genuine reason to feel victimised.

Pierce’s Daily Mail article appears to have been an attempt to change the narrative, and as the Newsnight interview went out Paul Staines tweeted “Watching #Newsnight doing a huge reverse ferret over the Elliott Johnson suicide”. The implication was that we now have a new understanding of his death that undercuts the whole “Tory bullying” story. However, Staines – whose column in the Sunday Sun initially downplayed the bullying allegations against Mark Clarke (scroll down to the very bottom here) – was careful to avoid the appearing unsympathetic to Ray Johnson, adding: “What #Newsnight did there was pass the buck on to Ray Johnson for poor journalism.”

UPDATE: The Guardian adds:

[Ray] Johnson told the Guardian: “…The past history was five or six years prior. Since those instances, he’d gone on to university and there were no further instances, no further issues with regards to mental health. He had matured. He was a young man. He’d moved on. He was looking forward to his life as a political journalist. I think what happened in September was completely unrelated to what happened five or six years earlier.”

…”He came to us and said he wasn’t sure about his sexuality. He said he liked girls, but he said he liked boys as well. He got really upset about it. We spent several days talking to him, getting him to understand he was young, only 16, not quite 17, we said in a few years time, when you’re older and more mature you’ll know. In the meantime, don’t worry about it.”

UPDATE 2: As I was writing this post, the BBC’s Sunday Politics was broadcasting an interview with André Walker, a man variously described as Mark Clarke’s “henchman” or “acolyte”, and who was accused by Elliott Johnson of having “betrayed” him in a suicide note. In December, the Sunday Times stated that according to “five friends”, Johnson and Walker had been lovers, although Ray Johnson says there is no evidence for this. Walker appears in the audio made by Elliott Johnson in a London pub shortly before his death, in which Walker and Clarke are heard speaking aggressively to Johnson, warning him to withdraw a complaint against Clarke.

The BBC interview refers only to a “relationship” between Walker and Johnson, and Walker said that “as far as I was concerned” this had continued until the day Johnson died. According to him, the audio captured an “argumentative” moment when he was frustrated with Johnson, but the evening had ended with the two men on good terms and with Walker staying over with Johnson. He also said this:

…We’ve got to discuss the issue of homophobia, and we’ve got to discuss why people, even as close to him as me, weren’t told about the mental health problems.

Walker comes across as plain speaking, but it seems to me that his Northern accent is deceptive here. Johnson did not commit suicide due to “homophobia”, and Johnson’s troubles from 2011 indicate a vulnerability rather than an ongoing clinical condition. Is Walker really suggesting that the tragedy unfolded because someone failed to tell him and Clarke about Johnson’s past?

Ahead of the broadcast, Walker made a posting to social media, addressing friends (again, Tim at Zelo Street has the goods):

The Coroners investigation is over and I will be on Sunday Politics tomorrow. I hope you’ll feel vindicated about s[t]icking with me after you see it.

In fact, the coroner’s inquest is just about to start (with a pre-inquest hearing); Walker seems to have confused this with the police report that was leaked to Pierce.

UPDATE 3 (2 March): The Guardian adds further:

As for his sexuality, Ray admits he is rather old-fashioned and that he did initially struggle when his son came out. So they did row? “No!” he says.

Alison smiles when she remembers the first time he talked about it. “He took us upstairs, shut the door and said I’ve got something to tell you. He said I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think I might be bisexual. I said what makes you think that? He said ‘Well, I like boys and I like girls.’ And I said well if I were you Elliott I’d sit on the fence and just see what side you land on. When he took us in the room we thought he was going to tell us he’d done something terribly wrong like rob a bank!”

The only time Ray says he had cross words with him is when he had just had a heart attack, and Elliott was worrying away at his sexuality with his mother. “Alison had so much on her plate. I phoned him and said Elliott, there are more important things going on at the moment.” Did they fall out? “No – I phoned him back a couple of hours later to apologise.”

“It feels like people are trying to undermine us, put a smear on our family, suggesting we are nasty parents.” Alison says. “We don’t need this.”

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