One Monday morning last September, Britain woke to a depraved news story. The prime minister, David Cameron, had committed an “obscene act with a dead pig’s head”, according to the Daily Mail. “A distinguished Oxford contemporary claims Cameron once took part in an outrageous initiation ceremony at a Piers Gaveston event, involving a dead pig,” the paper reported. Piers Gaveston is the name of a riotous Oxford university dining society; the authors of the story claimed their source was an MP, who said he had seen photographic evidence: “His extraordinary suggestion is that the future PM inserted a private part of his anatomy into the animal.”
The story, extracted from a new biography of Cameron, sparked an immediate furore. It was gross, it was a great opportunity to humiliate an elitist prime minister, and many felt it rang true for a former member of the notorious Bullingdon Club. Within minutes, #Piggate and #Hameron were trending on Twitter, and even senior politicians joined the fun: Nicola Sturgeon said the allegations had “entertained the whole country”, while Paddy Ashdown joked that Cameron was “hogging the headlines”. At first, the BBC refused to mention the allegations, and 10 Downing Street said it would not “dignify” the story with a response – but soon it was forced to issue a denial. And so a powerful man was sexually shamed, in a way that had nothing to do with his divisive politics, and in a way he could never really respond to. But who cares? He could take it.
Then, after a full day of online merriment, something shocking happened. Isabel Oakeshott, the Daily Mail journalist who had co-written the biography with Lord Ashcroft, a billionaire businessman, went on TV and admitted that she did not know whether her huge, scandalous scoop was even true. Pressed to provide evidence for the sensational claim, Oakeshott admitted she had none.
“We couldn’t get to the bottom of that source’s allegations,” she said on Channel 4 News. “So we merely reported the account that the source gave us … We don’t say whether we believe it to be true.” In other words, there was no evidence that the prime minister of the United Kingdom had once “inserted a private part of his anatomy” into the mouth of a dead pig – a story reported in dozens of newspapers and repeated in millions of tweets and Facebook updates, which many people presumably still believe to be true today.
Oakeshott went even further to absolve herself of any journalistic responsibility: “It’s up to other people to decide whether they give it any credibility or not,” she concluded. This was not, of course, the first time that outlandish claims were published on the basis of flimsy evidence, but this was an unusually brazen defence. It seemed that journalists were no longer required to believe their own stories to be true, nor, apparently, did they need to provide evidence. Instead it was up to the reader – who does not even know the identity of the source – to make up their own mind. But based on what? Gut instinct, intuition, mood?