It started on Twitter. It always does, now – while council chambers and courtrooms across the land see fewer reporters every year, ever more mainstream media journalists are being put on the ‘Twitter beat’.
Fresh from writing up the pigeon/butterfly meme (‘is this a news?’) the mass media discovered a new trend, uniting tweets with … meats? Yes, it’s gammon-gate, the non-scandal that our friends in the commentariat have declared ‘a key insight into the psychology of the Labour leader’s outriders’ and a sad demonstration that ‘kindness is not part of the socialist vocabulary’.
As previously with ‘slug’ and ‘centrist dad’, a daft Twitter gag is glazed and overcooked into a condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn and his movement. It’s held up as another childish slur that shows how the Corbynistas, with their dangerous radical ideas about making people pay tax and not being racist, are the true source of intolerance in society, because intolerance is not about systemic oppression but ‘being rude’.
This pattern recurs often enough that it is possible to track the spread of a meme from tweet to broadsheet, as it is processed from its raw material as a joke into its finished product as another attack on Jezza and friends – as dull as it is warped in its encapsulation of the tweeter’s original intent.
The first stage, the original tweet, can happen at any time. The next non-scandal may already be sitting in a timeline near you. Then, in stage two, the wider left-Twitter subculture finds it vaguely amusing, and repeats it a few times. At this point a right winger notices the phrase, and states that they find it insulting, and that it is (in some strained way) discriminatory. Now you’ve got a ‘row’ on your hands, and every media outlet can publish an ‘explainer’ piece (like the dozen versions of ‘why is Twitter arguing about gammon?’). Sky News holds one of its debates where everyone is on a screen, LBC does a phone-in about the ‘latest Corbynista insult’. So much for the tolerant left.
In this case, as the Independent revealed, the insult was in fact originated not by a Corbyn fanatic but by a children’s book author called Ben Davis, a Remainer who aimed to mock ‘angry men from Question Time who were racked off with Corbyn’s reluctance to start a nuclear apocalypse’.
During the 2017 general election when a succession of Question Time interlocutors decided to press Corbyn again and again on whether he would press the nuclear button, taking the patriotic and frankly only responsible option of literally ending the world, because it’s just common sense. The calls for global annihilation by this ‘original nine’ gammon parade were only ended when a woman in the audience countered: ‘I don’t understand why everyone in this room is obsessed with murdering millions of people.’
This origin story, though, was as lost on the media as the relationship between ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ and chants about football players. Much of the commentary focused on the class status of gammon as a food for eating, apparently missing the point that no one was accusing the ‘gammons’ of eating gammon, but merely of resembling it – red-faced and spittle-flecked from huffing and screaming at the idea of a future Prime Minister less than thrilled at the prospect of nuclear apocalypse.
Still, the press got a few more articles out of the fact that Charles Dickens called someone a gammon once, and you can order gammon in the parliamentary canteen. We may yet still get a second helping in the Sunday press.
What, if anything, have we learned from this pointless episode? The journey from meme to media is ever quicker, as desperate ‘churnalism’ recycles social media chuckles for clicks – or, all the worse, indulges in serious analysis of shitposts. As Ben Davis says, ‘My drunk tweeting had become “discourse”.’ It may seem absurd that a series of injokes on Left Twitter has been reheated into a national talking point – but if we care about the power of proper journalism, we need to take it very seriously.
This media tendency to manufacture non-scandal after non-scandal means we need to ask a vital question:What could the media be doing, if it wasn’t spending its days wrangling with these non-issues? Moreover, what are they not covering in order to spend time covering this? There’s a bleak economic point buried in here: the funding models of many news outlets encourages click-chasing scandal-baiting content, whilst they gut the money going to actual on-the-ground investigative reporting.
But there’s also something more worrying going on. The BBC and the mainstream media have repeatedly demonstrated their collective inability to hold the government to account. Not on the human cost of its austerity measures, or its foreign policy. Not on anything in its disastrous policy programme. Not on the myriad actual scandals which have shown the government’s contempt for democratic processes – from misuse of election campaign funds to declaring Parliamentary votes non-binding. Meanwhile, any triviality associated with the left is of the utmost national urgency – threatening to undermine the very fabric of our society.
Instead, consensus coalesces around the apparent political urgency of politeness – from people who have spent the previous few years decrying ‘generation snowflake’ for its over-sensitivity to slurs. The hypocrisy is galling, of course – but more than that, it speaks to warped media tendency to desperately talk about anything other than the actual news.