Boris Johnson has suggested journalists are “always abusing people”, as he said he left the profession because he felt “a bit guilty” over the criticism he doled out.

The Prime Minister, who has long been criticised for using highly-offensive language in newspaper columns, told schoolchildren on Tuesday of reconsidering his career when a “light bulb went off in my mind”.

He told pupils at Sedgehill Academy in Lewisham, south-east London, of his career as a journalist, during which he was the editor of the influential conservative magazine The Spectator and covered the European Union as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent.

“But when you’re a journalist – it’s a great, great job, it’s a great profession – but the trouble is that you sometimes find yourself always abusing people or attacking people,” he said.

“Not that you want to abuse them or attack them, but being critical when maybe you feel sometimes a bit guilty about that because you haven’t put yourself in the place of the person you’re criticising.

“So, I thought I’d give it a go.”

Shadow media minister Chris Matheson urged the Prime Minister to apologise and withdraw the remarks, highlighting they came after equalities minister Kemi Badenoch launched an online tirade against a reporter.

“For Boris Johnson to say journalists are ‘always abusing people’ probably says more about his own career,” the Labour MP said.

“It is particularly troubling coming so soon after the Prime Minister stood by one of his ministers who attacked a journalist who was just trying to do her job.

“We know from Donald Trump that these kind of assaults on the free press are dangerous and designed to stir up distrust and division.”

Mr Johnson has previously used journalism to deploy racial slurs such as “piccaninnies” in describing then-prime minister Tony Blair being met by “tribal warriors” with “watermelon smiles” on a trip to the Congo.

The Prime Minister once referred to gay men as “tank-topped bum boys” and in a 2018 newspaper column – long after his supposed light bulb moment – described veiled Muslim women as “looking like letter boxes”.

Mr Johnson lost his first job in journalism, as a graduate trainee at the Times, for inventing a quote he attributed to his godfather.

The Prime Minister, who would later lead the UK out of the EU, secured a new role on the Brussels beat for the Telegraph, during which he was known for writing critical stories about European bureaucrats, some of which stretched his credibility among peers.

His press secretary, Allegra Stratton, insisted Mr Johnson was commenting on the media’s role in holding the Government to account.

She told reporters: “That is the Prime Minister talking about the fact that you, all of you – and indeed James Slack (the No 10 director of communications) and myself once upon a time – as journalists your job is to constantly challenge and that’s something that makes all of us in Government better.”