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Golden showers and pigs heads: welcome to the era of trash news

13 January 2017

4:41 PM

13 January 2017

4:41 PM

While observing reactions this week to allegations against America’s President-elect my mind has been ineluctably returning to 2015 and the story so inventively known as ‘pig-gate’. In case anyone has forgotten, this was a story which was pumped into the British press and then into the world’s media about the then Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron. A former Conservative party donor – Lord Ashcroft – had fallen out with David Cameron years before because Cameron would not give Ashcroft a position in the British cabinet. Being a man of means and owning a publishing house, among other things, Ashcroft had his revenge in an inventive and thoroughly modern manner.

In a long work written with the help of an expensively hired political journalist and published by his own publishing house Lord Ashcroft was able to insert an allegation that any normal publisher or newspaper would not have published. Based on the hearsay of a single source it made the lurid allegation that David Cameron while a student at Oxford had inserted his penis into the mouth of a dead pig. The paper which had paid to excerpt the book could hardly ignore the published claim and so ‘pig-gate’ began. It is at moments like this that societal manners shift.

Because as Ashcroft and his co-author must have known, in the internet age different standards apply. For an unverified claim to be inserted into the public mind today it is no longer necessary to have evidence. Nor is it necessary to persuade a serious publication into standing up and publishing it. In the damaged world of 21st century media it is merely necessary to find someone, anywhere willing to ‘drop’ the allegation. From there the more serious media – who would not ordinarily have touched the story – are in an impossible position. They know that their readers will hear of the ‘explosive’ claim through the social media grapevine. They also know that their readers will shortly be typing questions into Google in order to satisfy their curiosity about the story. And so eventually papers and broadcast media that would never have run the story end up running the story. The originators or disseminators of the claim may get some pushback but then they can fall back on the claim (as Ashcroft’s co-author did) that they are merely ‘putting the information out there’ in order to ‘let the public make up their own minds’. As though that was remotely the aim of the exercise.


If the ‘fake news’ – as we now call it – is lurid enough (PM shags dead pig, President hires prostitutes etc) of course it will dominate everything. For at least a couple of days, and possibly far longer, all press conferences will at the very least be dominated by barely-concealed titters. The late night talk-shows will be filled with the story. So will the political programmes. For who could avoid the temptation? On the one hand you could run a programme on the collapse of the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland and from there to the potential collapse of the Good Friday Agreement. On the other you could do ‘Piss-gate’. Which will get you the bigger audience?

Of course if you are someone who wants to damage a political figure there is the additional bonus that they are very, very unlikely to sue. Lord Ashcroft correctly guessed that David Cameron would not want to end up standing in a witness box testifying to where he had or had not put his penis. BuzzFeed likewise assume that the incoming President of the USA does not wish to spend time being cross-examined on precisely which things he has done where. So the allegation not only doesn’t need to be true and doesn’t need to be publishable in order to be published – it relies on being as outlandish as possible in order to be disseminated as widely as possible.

For the rest of David Cameron’s life there will be people who will think that at the very least there was ‘no smoke without fire’ when it came to the porcine allegation. Likewise the incoming President of the USA will have to spent part of the period in which he should be worrying about running the country instead worrying about how long the ‘shower’ jokes will hang around? We have already had the fnar-fnar-ing on mainstream television. Everyone is at it. The BBC. The broadsheets. It’s irresistible. Of course it is.

I have no more idea than anyone else about the truth or otherwise of the allegations against Donald Trump. I wasn’t a particular admirer of David Cameron. But shouldn’t we at least be trying to consider the implications of all of this? If it is possible for a dossier got up by campaigners for a political opponent to end up being leaked to the press and a single claim by a single unverifiable source to find its way into the whole world’s media then that claim had better be true. The great media problem of our age is that it no longer needs to be. It simply needs to be as lurid as possible and it will find pickup from some desperate media outlet and from there will dominate the news cycle. Some people evidently find this cathartic when it is directed against their political enemies. Almost everyone seems to enjoy the thrill of focussing on the naughtiest story of the moment. But what we should be worrying about is what this is going to do in the long run to our politics and to our societies as a whole.

The truth – and the necessity of verifying the truth before it is pumped out – ought to matter. Apparently it no longer does. ‘Let the public decide for themselves’ people say. Well we can’t. Not if the information we receive is continuously filled with untruths as well as truths. All the sluices are up. The political expedience and titter of a moment is scant reward for the mountain of slurry that will follow.

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