David Cameron, the Pig Story, and the Media: Some Thoughts

I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t been amused by satirical responses to a recent report that Prime Minister David Cameron, while at university, once indulged in a prurient initiation ceremony – or, alternatively, a drunken prank – that involved placing his genitals into the mouth of a severed pig’s head. There has also been some grim satisfaction that a man who owes so much to the power and influence of News International, and who not long ago went out of his way to kowtow to the revolting Guido Fawkes smear machine, should be on the receiving end of an attempt at personal destruction through salacious muckraking (not to mention the small matter that the Conservative Party under Cameron has failed to act on evidence of paedo-smearing by local-level activists).

However, I can think of several reasons to dry one’s eyes for a moment and reflect:

1. It appears that Cameron broke a promise to Michael Ashcroft that he should never have made; but even so, the publication of this story is still the petulant revenge of a billionaire who felt entitled to buy his way into government.

2. The story is a rumour, and the only way it has made its way into the press is because it has been published in a book funded, and essentially self-published, by a man with a grudge. That means it has appeared without any proper editorial checks and balances. According to Ian Kirby, writing in the Spectator:

When I was the News of the World‘s political editor, I was on the lookout for stories – and for scandal. That’s what political journalists are paid for. But had I gone to Rebekah Brooks or Andy Coulson when they were editing and said that I had a story about David Cameron’s honourable member and a pig’s head, their first question would be: ‘where’s the proof?’

…The easy way for a newspaper to publish a scandal nowadays is simply to serialise a book, preferably one by a ‘name’, and then print whatever they say about someone you know doesn’t have the time or the inclination to sue… The reputation of the author, not the newspaper, is on the line.

There are a number of problems and doubts about the story, which has been sourced from an anonymous MP who claims to have a seen a photo of the incident that is in someone else’s possession. The photograph would have had to have been kept by someone for several years before it became potentially newsworthy; and it seems odd that someone would show the photo around privately but not sell it to a newspaper. The idea of a ceremonial or hazing context for the incident seems to have collapsed, too; according to the Independent:

One insider said: “The Gav [as the club is colloquially known] doesn’t have initiations like other societies – it’s not like that at all, really. Maybe this happened at a Gav event, but I’ve never seen anyone in the Gav do something like that, or even heard of it. Drugs and some tame sex in bushes, maybe. But I’m not sure I believe the story.”

…Another well-placed source, when asked if he believed the claims, said: “Not completely. I imagine how the story came about – there was some sexual debauchery at a Piers Gav party, a pig was around and people have added 2 and 2 to get 5.”

A reminiscence by Aidan Hartley in the Spectator suggests the presence of pigs’ heads may have been conflated from a different context (although they are attested here), and he suggests that Cameron wasn’t even a member of the society anyway. None of this proves that the incident didn’t happen, but any responsible discussion of the story (if we really must have one) needs to include counter-evidence such as this.

Presumably, Ashcroft’s book would have been legalled prior to publication, and the pig story would have been flagged up as a potential libel risk – and the extract published by the Daily Mail raises the possibility of “mistaken identity”, which is token attempt at distancing. Ashcroft is the majority owner of the book’s publisher, Biteback, but the Managing Director (who also owns a share) is of course Iain Dale. Dale, although devious, is an intelligent man, and he would have been able to identify the problems with the story for himself.

On Twitter, Dale has attempted to justify inclusion of the anecdote as a matter of principle, claiming that the alternative would have been censorship; however, when asked whether he had seen the alleged photograph, he became tetchy, telling enquirers that it was “none of your business”. We already know that the answer is “no” (according to the Daily Mail report, “The owner… failed to respond to our approaches”), but such a reply indicates that for Dale to respond plainly would be an admission of not having done his job. Clearly, he is in a difficult position: unable to treat his business partner like an ordinary author, and needing a sensational hook on which to advertise his book, while wanting to maintain the appearance of being a serious and responsible publisher and media figure.

3. The “pig story” has overshadowed the rest of the book (to even Dale’s annoyance), although it seems that the journalist funded by Ashcroft, Isabel Oakeshott, has uncovered some significant material relating to other matters. But what does it say about journalism in the UK that such material has only come to light because of the private resources of a billionaire motivated by spite?

UPDATE: Iain Dale has posted his side of the story:

Well, this week certainly has not been dull. And as with any roller coaster ride, it’s had its highs, its lows, and I’m still a bit dazed. I published and was then damned!

Some of you will say, “serves you right, you shouldn’t publish books that question anything about David Cameron or his government”. To that, I say ‘bollocks’.

That way of presenting critics as putting forward an unreasonable suggestion is a typical Dale move. Of course, nobody is saying any such thing.

As regards the pig story:

I don’t like being censored. And this comes to the crux of the matter on whether the ‘piggate’ story – an anecdote in CALL ME DAVE that caused such a global sensation it almost broke the internet – should have been printed at all. I am still in no doubt it was right to keep it in the book. Whether it would have made the credibility threshold for a newspaper is a side-issue. This is a book, not a newspaper. When I first read it in the manuscript I certainly noticed it was only single-sourced, but the authors were entirely upfront about that. Contrary to much of the sloppy reporting of the story, it was never presented as fact. I was comfortable with the way it was written up and, more to the point, so were the lawyers.

…It is no more than a tale of student high jinxs, and the authors leave readers to judge for themselves whether it happened or not

My view is that it would have been reasonable to have left it out, as being tawdry and unsubstantiated. However, having decided to publish the story, it would have been responsible to have included some proper discussion of plausibility. The authors tell us that “the late Count Gottfried von Bismarck, an Oxford contemporary of Cameron’s, reportedly threw dinner parties featuring the heads of pigs”; presumably this is included as evidence that the story might be true, so why not go into the context more deeply?

And, once again, if Dale is so “comfortable”, why the tetchy “none of your business” response to enquiries about the supposed photo?

Dale also discusses his relationship with Ashcroft:

The other thing that has royally pissed me off this week is that this is some sort of vanity publishing exercise subsidised by Michael Ashcroft. Let me lay that one to rest too. Michael has exactly the same terms as any other of our authors. Same royalties. Same terms and conditions. There has been no subsidy to Biteback Publishing. Not a penny. The only difference is that he is giving his royalties to military charities.

We’ll have to take Dale’s word for it that the manuscript was treated the same way as any other – but when a publisher uses his or her own business venture for their own book, it’s obvious that that creates a certain impression. Ashcroft could have avoided that impression by taking the manuscript somewhere else, as other publisher-authors have sometimes done. The issue of “subsidy” is misdirection; Ashcroft’s funding of the book took the form of supporting Isabel Oakeshott (who presumably did most of the actual work), and  no-one is suggesting that he made any kind extra payment to Biteback to cover costs.

UPDATE 2: Cameron has responded to the claim:

Asked about his feelings towards Ashcroft and the pig allegation, Cameron said: “Everyone can see why the book was written and everyone can see straight through it. As for the specific issue raised, a very specific denial was made a week ago and I’ve nothing to add to that.”

In fact, Downing Street has said nothing about the anecdote on the record, although Conservative sources have described the book’s claims as “utter nonsense” and “untrue”.

UPDATE 3: From among Conservatives, the book has come under particular attack from the former MP Louise Mensch. Writing on her website, she observed:

Oakeshott knew how her quote would be spun – Ashcroft did not. She was the national editor, he is a businessman and pollster. I would bet Lord Ashcroft is shocked and dismayed at how this one unsourced piece of hogwash (eye thank yew) would ruin all the other parts of his work. It was Oakeshott’s job as a journalist to say to her co-author who hired her, ‘Look, we can’t use it because we can’t stand it up.’

As I read it, her alleged “source” doesn’t even claim to have witnessed the pig incident. But he says he knows somebody who did and has a pic. So it’s not single-sourced – it’s zero sourced. She hasn’t got a witness. She’s got a guy who says he knows a guy who knows.

Mensch’s portrayal of Ashcroft as an innocent sold short by Oakeshott is risible, and her sudden conversion to the importance of accuracy and proper sourcing is hard to take. However, her point about the dubious provenance of the pig story is reasonable enough. She pressed the point on Dale’s blog, and also on Twitter, eventually prompting Dale to respond:

You really are a piece of work. I never thought I’d do this but I no longer want to listen to your bile and poison. Blocked.

Followed by:

Fuck. Right. Off.

UPDATE 4: Oakeshott appears to be back-peddling; from the Guardian:

The beastly episode during Cameron’s University of Oxford years was relayed to Oakeshott by an MP, who, she accepted, “could have been slightly deranged”.

“The thing to point out about that story is that there is no need for burden of proof on a colourful anecdote where we’re quite upfront about our own reservations about whether to take it seriously.”