27 Sep 2015

Piggybacking on a political attack

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 27 September 2015

The media here rolled out pig puns for fun when that story about David Cameron broke in the UK. But was that fair? The controversial claim came in a book backed by a wealthy enemy out to get him, and even the author doesn’t know if the story of ‘the PM and the pig’ is really true.

mediawatch@radionz.co.nz; @mediawatchnz

screenshot of author Isabel Oakeshot grilled by biographer Anthony Seldon on the BBC's Newsnight show.

Author Isabel Oakeshot grilled by biographer Anthony Seldon on the BBC's Newsnight show. Photo: screen shot

When Guardian reporter Julia Langdon appeared on Morning Report last Tuesday to talk about headline-making allegations concerning the UK prime minister David Cameron, she struggled to find the words to describe the one about the pig.

"The good people of New Zealand probably don't want to know anything about the circumstances," she said.

But the media here seemed sure we did want to know more.

On his TV3 morning show, Paul Henry told another British political reporter he was sure the pig claim was true, but TV3's 7pm show Story reckoned it was "too dodgy" to talk about at teatime. Instead they ran through puns and jokes circulating on social media, and urged viewers to go online to find out what made them so funny.

"If you're not on Twitter, it might be worth joining just to see what people are saying about this," host Heather Du Plessis Allan told her viewers. 

screen shot from facebook

TVNZ's Seven Sharp show acting the goat for the pig story on Facebook Photo: screen shot

Over on TV1 that night, the Seven Sharp show joined the party. Online, its report is titled: "Did it really happen?" But most of it is taken up with more heavy-handed pig gags, and TVNZ's new London correspondent reading out tabloid headlines and tweets.

At the very end, Mike Hosking asked her if there was any evidence, and Emma Keeling replied:

There is talk of a photo, but where that is I don't know. Information is meant to have come from an MP,  and they're on the search now for this MP to verify these allegations.

At The Spinoff, Toby Manhire pointed out that "a single, anonymous source is hardly rock solid evidence, especially in an unauthorised biography from a man reported to have fallen out with Cameron". And In the Daily Mail's first sensational extract of the book Call Me Dave, Lord Ashcroft  - the man behind it - made this admission:

The MP also gave us the dimensions of the alleged photograph, and provided the name of the individual who he claims has it in his keeping. The owner, however, has failed to respond to our approaches. Perhaps it is a case of mistaken identity.  

In fact, not even the main author of Call Me Dave, political reporter Isabel Oakeshot, knows whether the photo really exists. On the BBC’s Newsnight last Tuesday, David Cameron’s authorised biographer Anthony Seldon asked why she would put the incident in the book without real evidence. 

She replied:

"It's quite normal to present information and allow people to make make up their own minds. Newspapers do that every day. It is a few paragraphs in a book 200,000 words long".

But more words have been written in the media about those few paragraphs than the rest of the book put together, and not much of the coverage of the pig claim has explored whether there's any good reason to believe it. 

What is clear is that the book is, as one critic put it, "unambiguously hostile" to David Cameron. Lord Ashcroft is a billionaire destabilising an elected prime minister after falling out with him, and the book has been serialised by a British newspaper critical of Cameron's leadership and it's been drip feeding politically-damaging claims all week. 

These are compelling reasons not to give what is for now only an embarrassing and unverified smear the oxygen of publicity.