How the David Cameron 'piggate' allegations left the broadcast media hamstrung
There can be no doubt which story is dominating conversations around Britain's office water coolers and across social media and it involves David Cameron and what he did or didn't do to a dead pig's head back in his Oxford University student days.
David Cameron – the subject of a controversial new book
But it's a story that simultaneously delighted tabloid editors while throwing TV and radio producers and lawyers into a total dilemma that arguably had more to do with issues of taste than strict libel concerns.
Cue the BBC producer who called me to do an interview but insisted: "We'd like to ask you about the drug allegations, but the lawyers insist that we don't mention the pig allegations for libel reasons."
"Libel reasons," I queried. "But they're both allegations and, let's be honest, it's the claim that David Cameron once put his non-parliamentary member into a dead pig's mouth that's got everybody talking."
"I know, I know", concurred the rattled producer, "but those are the orders from above and we'll have to cut you off if you mention the pig. Just stick to the drugs."
Well, considering there's plenty of other controversial fodder in former Tory treasurer Lord Ashcroft's unauthorised biography of his former chum the prime minister, I agreed to leave the pig off the discussion menu.
But I couldn't shake off the thought that a prominent 'alleged' qualification around any mention of the pig episode would have sufficed and that this appeared to be a strange, no surreal, case of 'censorship' surrounding the story that millions were chewing over in the office, on the factory floor, down the Dog and Duck, across cyberspace and anywhere else I could possibly think of.
Another thought came to mind: could I seriously see David Cameron embarking on a mass libel action against the media over whether he did or didn't once drunkenly engage in a close encounter of the porcine kind? It would be the libel trial of the century, without a doubt. Lol, as David Cameron once famously said.
Or could this be the plotline for the most outrageous episode of 'The Thick of It'....or 'The Thick Cut of It', perhaps?
Elsewhere, mainstream broadcasters were having similar issues with the saga of David and the dead pig. Even Sky News, traditionally bolder than the Beeb or ITN, were proving rather coy.... with the Daily Mail's story being strikingly omitted from the regular newspaper review, which must be a first.
Over at Channel 5, my old newspaper colleague Matthew Wright, host of the 'The Wright Stuff', swiftly admonished and cut off a phone-in caller who had the temerity to refer to the claim David Cameron 'put his c**k into a dead pig's mouth'.
Quite how Newsnight and Channel 4 News will play it was the subject of frenzied media village speculation. The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 devoted considerable airtime to discussion of the Ashcroft book, the Mail serialisation, the motives and political machinations behind it, et al.... but somehow the pig didn't rate a single mention.
Across social media, however, the debate was fast and furious and the amateur headline writers and photo mock-up artists were out in force. Example: An archive shot of the PM alongside a pig with the headline: 'Cameron: I did NOT have sex with that pig'. Eat your heart out, Bill Clinton?
The revelation that David Cameron is this evening due to host a reception for the Danish prime minister was like manna from heaven for the Twittersphere. Any bacon sarnies or cured ham on the menu? I suppose a pig's head's out of the question then? Not to mention lots of photo retweets of Ed Miliband and that bacon sandwich with suggestions that David Cameron's electoral exploitation of Ed's embarrassment is now being repaid in spades.
Even some usually anti-Daily Mail Twitterati posters were defending the newspaper and lambasting the mainstream broadcasters for 'censoring' the pig claims. Intriguingly, there was a deafening silence from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – himself the target for the Daily Mail's line in tough treatment. Maybe he felt a soupcon of sympathy for Cameron in the blaze of 'historical' tabloid focus, or maybe it was an example of the 'new politics' Corbyn espouses?
Either way, it left most political sketch writers ruing the fact that the Liberal Democrats conference (eclipsed by the Cameron/Ashcroft book fallout) meant there is no PMQs this week and with it the lost opportunity for hammy questions from the floor.
No such restraint, predictably and irresistibly, came from the tabloids who all focused their later edition front pages on Lord Ashcroft's assertion that during his 'membership' of Oxford's flamboyant Flam Club and Bullingdon Club, Cameron allegedly took part in a bizarre initiation ceremony that involved 'putting a private part of his anatomy' into the severed head of a dead pig. The Sun (arguably not Cameron's biggest fan, despite its overall support for the Tory party) went to the trouble of illustrating its online report with a huge picture of the prime minister cuddling up to a piglet.
The broadsheets, for their part, also ignored or downplayed the pig allegation and instead concentrated on other aspects of Lord Ashcroft's book (co-written with former Sunday Times political journo Isabel Oakeshott). The Times concentrated on the allegation Cameron 'smoked marijuana and was a member of a decadent dining club at Oxford University'. The Daily Telegraph focused on the potentially politically more damaging claim that Cameron was aware of Ashcroft's non-dom tax status in 2009 and thus misled the electorate by saying he didn't become aware of it until after the 2010 general election.
Back in the wild west of cyberspace, there were even calls for the prime minister to be prosecuted for historical 'bestiality'. Sorry, folks, but Britain's bestiality laws don't extend to oral sex with the head of an already dead pig – even if the claims are true.
So what is Number 10 saying about Ashcoft's pig story? Is it a bestial porkie pie trotted out by an embittered billionaire? Or an unsavoury episode from an old flirtation with a decadent crowd of Oxford Tory toffs? Team Cameron weren't saying either way, merely spinning out the message that the prime minister 'wouldn't dignify' the stories with any direct answer.
Downing Street briefers were keen to cite the Mail's splash headline, 'Revenge', as a device to try and discredit Ashdown. But the paper's front page blurb for its ongoing serialisation, 'Drugs, debauchery and the book that lays Dave bare' was undeniably triggering a certain degree of panic along the corridors of Number 10.
To that extent, at least, Lord Ashcroft could lay claim to a 'crackling' tale of sweet revenge... and no doubt Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre and his circulation department were presumably celebrating with something stronger than a pulled pork sandwich.
Even if the BBC, ITN and Sky were fighting shy of mentioning the (alleged) twist in this tale of revenge that has everyone else talking.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and former editor of the Sunday Mirror, deputy editor of the Daily Mirror