In which we need to talk about piggate

All this week the Daily Mail has been publishing extracts from Lord Ashcroft’s unauthorised biography  of David Cameron, which has included some potentially relatively serious political stuff about Cameron’s knowledge of Ashcroft’s non-dom status and relations with military leaders for example. However, none of that sent twitter into a apoplexies. The bit that sent twitter over the edge was PigGate. Now if you’ve got this far in life without hearing about the pig, then I very strongly suggest that you look away now. It’s one of those things that, once heard, can not be unheard and, believe me, you’re happier in ignorance.

 

 

Seriously, you read on at your own risk.

 

 

 

Still here? Are you sure?

 

 

 

Right then. Well it was your choice. PigGate, for those who don’t already know, relates to the accusation that, while at university, David Cameron took part in a initiation ritual for some form of posh boy club that involved putting his – oh god, I’m not sure I can even type this – his… erm… gentleman sausage, shall we say, in the mouth of a dead pig. Now let’s be clear this is an entirely unsubstantiated claim from someone who has a major grudge against Cameron. Let’s proceed on the assumption that it’s not true (for reasons of both lack of evidence and really not wanting to get sued.) So, if it’s not true, does it matter?

Well, yes. Unfortunately for Cameron the reaction to the allegation does matter, and, from my very unscientific reading of the twitters, that reaction seems to break down into three basic types:

Type 1 – It’s an uncorroborated rumour. People shouldn’t take it seriously;

Type 2 – Well it was probably just youthful japes and high jinx. Didn’t we all do stupid things at university?

Type 3 – Any one of a range of jokes about ham face and apple sauce.

Type 3 is inevitable. I mean, it’s a rumour that the Prime Minister did adult-fun stuff with a dead pig – it would almost be rude not to make up and share as many off-colour jokes as you can think of. Type 1 is very sensible, and Type 2 is something of a worry, but what none of these reactions do is rely on the notion that the idea of the PM engaging in the sort of ritual suggested is simply implausible and unthinkable of such a fine and upstanding chap. And that, I suspect, is at the heart of Cameron’s public image problem.

Let’s be realistic – Cameron doesn’t have a BIG public image problem. He’s won one and a half general elections, and has already said that he doesn’t plan to lead the Tories into another. All he needs to do is maintain sufficient popularity to be able to choose his time of departure rather than be pushed. But Cameron’s personal public image is all tied up in the idea that he’s a new Conservative. He’s the Conservative who can be trusted with the NHS, because he knows first hand what it’s like to be the parent of a severely disabled child. He’s the Conservative who cares about ‘hard-working people’. He’s spent a lot of time trying not to be seen as an old Etonian rich boy, even thought that is absolutely what he is. And the lack of disbelief around the PigGate story suggests that he hasn’t quite pulled off that particular smoke and mirror trick.

And that is, potentially, damaging in a way that it probably wouldn’t be to a politician like Boris Johnson. Boris has never tried to downplay his fundamental hooray Henry-ness, so stories of him Bullingdon-clubbing it up fit with and reinforce a public image with which he’s comfortable. Cameron runs the risk of looking like a man who’s not really at ease in his own skin. And that’s never been a problem in the past because he’s been in competition with opposition leaders who made personal discomfort into a national spectator sport. Gordon Brown trying to do a relaxed smile or Ed Miliband shouting ‘Hell, yeah’ were moments of inept image management that turned the six o’clock news into something to be cringe-watched from behind a cushion. All Cameron has ever had to do before was look more at ease than that. But, during the Labour leadership election Jeremy Corbyn certainly looked entirely comfortable with who he is – whether the Labour party publicity machine allows him to retain that or media trains him into oblivion is yet to be seen, but looking inauthentic is, potentially, Cameron’s Achilles’ heel, and it’s not one he’s been punished for so far.

In which there are still three whole months until the general election

I generally consider myself to be a person who is quite interested in politics. I can usually generate a blog post about an issue of the day if pressured to do so. I have opinions on all sorts of things: page 3 – no; fox hunting – definitely not; same sex marriage – sure, if you want to. But I’m finding that three whole months away from the General Election I already have election fatigue.

I’m feeling, already, as though the bulk of the political news that I read or hear is washing over me like white noise, and, I think, the reason for that is simple – the news, as it is reported, is nebulous. There are precious few actual facts in there to get hold of. Take this story from the BBC as an example. The headline, technically speaking, offers factual information – David Cameron has been challenged about his claim that a new Tory government wouldn’t cut per pupil education funding, but the fact is simply that some people have said some things, and some other people have said other things.

The story itself jumps between announcements about per pupil education funding and announcements about numbers of schools becoming academies – yes those are both to do with education policy, but they are quite distinct issues.  That’s not my problem though. My problem is that essentially the entire article is made of up X said, ‘…’ but Y said, ‘…’.

To be fair, there’s a handy video clip from the Prime Minister’s speech at the top of the article so you can see for yourself a little bit of what he actually announced. That’s good, but watching the clip just makes the article itself look worse. For example, take this paragraph: ‘Mr Cameron, speaking at Kingsmead school in north London, said that every secondary school in this “requires improvement” category would be expected to become an academy.’ Well maybe he did say that at another point in the speech, but in the clip attached to the article he talks about schools that can’t ‘demonstrate the capacity to improve themselves’ – that might not be the same as ‘every school’ at all, or it might just be waffle to obscure the ‘every school’ element. There’s no way of knowing from this article.

This isn’t BBC bashing. I just happen to have picked a BBC article. I could have gone for pretty much any newspaper, tv station or website, because what we have here is a very normal example of current journalism. It’s journalism without the skills, or time, or inclination, or incentive, or possibly backbone, to do very much actual journalistic work. It’s a process that goes something like this:

1) A politician makes a speech. A journalist picks out a few choice quotes, or possibly just accepts the few choice quotes picked out by the party in the accompanying press release.

2) The journalist knows that’s not enough. Their story needs balance, so they add a few quotes from opposition politicians disputing the thing the first politician said.

3) If they’re feeling really dedicated they probably have some notion that they should be looking into the politicians’ claims, so they add another quote from a relevant trade union or academic or random passer by who’s prepared to reckon something.

4) They publish their story.

There’s nothing actually wrong about it, but the process of filtering all those quotes through a professional news reporting organisation hasn’t added anything. There’s nothing that goes above or beyond what the people giving the quotes wanted to say. None of those claims or quotes get checked or probed, because the story is simply the reporting what each of the people quoted said, and it’s definitely true that they said it, so that’s all fine. The problem is that nobody reading these articles actually knows anymore about what is true than before they started reading. If anything, they know less because of all the additional white noise they’re now carrying around in their heads.

Of course we need reporting on what politicians say they’re going to do, and what rival politicians see as the problems with those plans, but the reality is that not everything that is reckoned, even when it’s reckoned by a front bench politician, has equal value. Lots of things fall into the grey area of opinion or projection, but lots of other things don’t. Some things are simply true or not, and without a mainstream media prepared to call anything at all as ‘true’ or ‘false’ it’s left to each of us to filter out the white noise. The danger with that is that the vastness of the range of information and opinion that washes over us leaves us overwhelmed and in a position where, when faced with a ballot paper, it’s very easy to wrinkle our brows and just give up on the whole idea of being able to make any sort of informed choice at all.

So maybe that’s a thing I could do to try to break through my election apathy – my own little mini fact checks right here in Alison Blogville. It’s an idea, anyway.

In which I wish everything wasn’t so bloomin’ earnest

Movie award season is upon us, which means that cinemas are currently full of a steady stream of Oscar-bait movies, usually identifiable by the high likelihood of a stupidly long running time and an actor working some serious prosthetics. If you venture to your local multiplex at the moment you’ll be treated to trailers for Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum looking earnest on a wrestling mat, Miles Teller looking earnest with a drum kit, and Bradley Cooper looking earnest and bearded with a big gun.

Let’s be clear what I mean by ‘earnest.’ I don’t just mean ‘serious.’ Sometimes it’s good to be serious. If you’re organising the WHO response to Ebola, a bit of head-down focus on the job in hand would definitely be the right approach. Funerals, job interviews, big work presentations, court hearings – there’s a whole big range of situations for which, if you’re trying to pass yourself off as a functioning grown-up, you probably want to use your serious face.

But being overly earnest is a step beyond that. Now we’re talking about taking yourself, and everything around you far too seriously. We’re talking about wanting to be seen to be serious. We’re talking about the state of mind that leads us to look for reasons to take offence. Taking the little things too seriously leads us to a situation where a bit of playground bitchiness about a kid not turning up to a party becomes headline news to be pored over and debated. Allowing our earnestness to lead us into this sort of breakdown in our understanding of what matters and what doesn’t is bad in two ways.

Firstly, it sucks the fun out of life. Keeping a constant watch on twitter in case some person you’ve never met might say something you don’t agree with, or find offensive, is not a joyful way to spend your time. More widely, the feeling that seriousness is always better, takes the joy out of our cultural lives. On Saturday I saw the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods. I love Into The Woods. I own the DVD of the Broadway production with Bernadette Peters as the witch and it is a thing of wonder. It’s also really really funny. The film is amusing, in places, but not in anywhere near the number of places that the show is; somehow in the transition to the big scene its lost its sense of the ridiculous, and given that it’s a story about a baker who has to feed hair, a cloak, and a shoe to a cow, then sense of ridiculous about it is kind of important.

Secondly, and more importantly, if every minor irritation and offence matters, then nothing matters. The more column inches are expounded on unimportant stuff like how the film version of Into The Woods takes itself a little bit too seriously, the more distracted we are from things that do matter. Comments thread on articles about nothing, and Twitter wars over little more are joyful only for politicians and vested interests who would rather we were all looking the other way. So here let me sum up today’s lesson – take offence sparingly, don’t take yourself too seriously, and understand that serious isn’t always better then silly.