Did the prime minister have sexual relations with that (dead) pig? This was the question that set Twitter alight with photoshopped images, video memes and endless pig-related jokes and puns under the #piggate hashtag.
The story came out of a series of explosive extracts from the unauthorised biography of prime minister David Cameron by former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Ashcroft and journalist Isabel Oakeshott, published in the Daily Mail.
Following on from the unlikely headline, British prime minister and an obscene act with a dead pig’s head, the article described how “the future PM inserted a private part of his anatomy into the animal’s mouth” as part of an initiation ceremony for an exclusive Oxford University dining society.
Although Ashcroft has disclosed that he has a “personal beef” with the PM, the story of Cameron’s alleged porcine intimacy came from an apparently credible source; an MP who was a contemporary of Cameron at Oxford. However, the story remains unconfirmed despite repeated attempts at verification.
“It is an elaborate story for an otherwise credible figure to invent. Furthermore, there are a number of accounts of pigs’ heads at debauched parties in Cameron’s day,” Ashcroft and Oakeshott noted.
The article also contained allegations that Cameron had been involved in drug-taking at Oxford parties. But, as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw put it, writing for the Daily Dot: “No one cares when there’s a pig sex anecdote lurking elsewhere in the story.”
Happier than a pig in …
The ridicule poured over Ed Miliband for his poor bacon sandwich eating skills suddenly seemed ancient history, as Twitter took delight in #piggate. A new cassetteboy production, Gettin’ Piggy With It went viral. Countless tweeters dug up or manufactured images of David Cameron with pigs.
Miss Piggy experienced a renaissance, while a significant number of Twitter accounts for Cameron’s pig sprang up.
Charlie Brooker, whose dark satire Black Mirror featured a prime minister blackmailed to have sex with a pig on live television, tweeted: “Shit. Turns out Black Mirror is a documentary series.”
Corbyn’s pig break
The mainstream media took a rather different approach to the story: the BBC focused on Lord Ashcroft’s motivations for making the allegations and the fact that the PM’s spokesperson did “not see the need to dignify the book by offering any comment”.
The claims come at an interesting time. It represents a stunning turnaround in the news agenda when for weeks, the right-leaning newspapers have struggled to dig up dirt on Jeremy Corbyn; first during his campaign to win the Labour leadership and now in his new role as elected opposition leader.
The day before The Daily Mail published the #piggate allegations, the Mail on Sunday’s front-page story was based on an interview with the Labour leader’s first wife, Jane Chapman, who recounted the travails of their marriage break-up in 1979. Corbyn’s lover, Diane Abbott – now a member of the shadow cabinet – allegedly confronted Chapman, telling her to “get out of town”.
On the same day, the Daily Express went even further back in history, revealing that Corbyn’s great-grandfather was an “evil monster” who was the master of a workhouse in Farnham, Surrey. This story was based on a report made to The Lancet in 1867.
It may be that #piggate has offered a brief respite from the relentless attacks on Corbyn, but there is something more profound at stake here. The sociologist, John B Thompson, has argued that the emergence of mass media – particularly since the birth of television – has caused a “transformation of visibility”
This transformation means that today’s political leaders are under incessant scrutiny and that everything they have ever done – whether in public or in private – can and will be used against them. This was clear when Chuka Umunna quit the Labour leadership race because he was not comfortable with the “added level of pressure that comes with being a leadership candidate”.
What political events of the last few weeks tell us is the transformation of visibility does not have the same consequences for all politicians. David Cameron has always managed to shrug off allegations of drug-taking and other indiscretions – acts that might have brought down other politicians but have left him unharmed.
This is not because Cameron is particularly Teflon-coated but because the predominantly right-wing newspapers have tended to treat the PM with kid gloves. By contrast, Corbyn’s left-wing politics have made him fair game.
Hamming it up
All politicians may have done silly things at some point in their lives (though, I’ll wager a bet, relatively few of them have done silly things involving their private parts and the heads of dead pigs). But the extent to which these silly things are amplified through mass media depend, now perhaps more than ever, on ideology rather than on the substance or outrageousness of the alleged transgression.
This may be one reason why #piggate played so well on Twitter: making jokes about David Cameron and pigs allows us to turn the tables on the privileged and powerful. Social media have made the way we communicate more complex and given a new twist to the visibility of political figures – they no longer have to worry just about the power of traditional media, but also must reckon with the force of the public.
In the Twittersphere, party political ideology appears to matter less than the fact that sexual acts with a pig are inherently hilarious. On balance, this is good news for democracy.