The answer was a no-brainer. If a reporter had come to me and said they’d heard from someone there was a photograph in existence of Cameron committing a sexual act with a pig’s head, I would have laughed and told them to get out.
Even if they said they’d been assured, not once, not twice but three times, of the photo’s existence, I would still have said it was not enough. Without the picture, the tale resembled fantasy – and if the photo were ever reproduced, I would still need absolute proof that it was authentic.
Later, though, I admit to having had second thoughts. Not in the context of a reporter coming to me with the allegation but in relation to the behaviour of the Daily Mail in repeating the claim as part of its serialisation of the book Call Me Dave. What if I’d been Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail?
As is standard in such arrangements, both Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott, the co-authors, signed an indemnity against costs and damages in the event of the Daily Mail being sued for libel.
It’s an insurance certificate demanded by lawyers for the newspaper doing the serialisation. They haven’t got the time and resources to check every claim, each detail, in books they serialise.
Sometimes such guarantees are worthless – the person providing it simply could not afford to defend a legal action. But this was different: Ashcroft, Lord Ashcroft, is a billionaire. If Cameron sued, he could easily afford to defend his book. Not that the chances of Cameron suing were high, anyway. The prime minister was unlikely to stoop so low, and draw negative headlines, as to issue a writ over a pig’s head.
Some would maintain that, on grounds of taste alone, the Daily Mail should not have published the allegation. But the claim was made in a long and detailed book co-written by a leading businessman and peer, and the former political editor of The Sunday Times.
The claim about the pig’s head is probably one of the best bits and likely to be among the most memorable. To omit it would have seen the Daily Mail accused of censorship, of ignoring a central passage in order to assist a Conservative prime minister.
If I was the editor of the Daily Mail, faced with the exact same set of circumstances, and in possession of the immunity, would I have published? You bet I would.
Chris Blackhurst is the former multimedia head of business at The Independent and London Evening Standard