Amid a furor, The Sun offered £250 to save the donkey chosen for that year’s festival. Not to be outdone, the Star then offered the farmer more money and took the animal away, declaring that it would send Blackie to a donkey sanctuary in Devon. When the Star won the race, it celebrated with the headline “GOTCHA!”—a reference to The Sun’s notorious Falklands War splash celebrating the sinking of the Argentinian ship the Belgrano, in which hundreds of men were killed.
“There was more money, more commitment, more editorial space given to that one fucking story than there was about Ethiopia,” said the late Star reporter Don Mackay—who later joined the Mirror and was my first night editor. (The Ethiopian famine was a defining humanitarian issue of the 1980s.)
Years later, in 2010, The Sun sent a reporter to Russia to save another donkey—this time after several papers reported that a Russian company had sent the animal parasailing as a marketing stunt. After sending its Russia correspondent to buy the donkey, the paper reported: “The Sun has now taken Anapka away from her Russian owner and we promise our readers that she will NEVER be forced to parasail again.” It added that the donkey was now being fed “apples, cucumbers and sweetcorn.”
It was this year, 2010, when the then-editor of the Mirror, Richard Wallace, brought back the Mirror chicken and sent it into the tabloid hall of fame.
Read: What British tabloid editors think about their laughable headlines
It had originally started in 1997—the year of Tony Blair’s landslide-winning election. A reporter named David Pilditch, who is now at the Daily Express, was the first to don the famous yellow-and-red suit, getting into a fight with a Conservative staffer named Alex Aiken, who is now one of the most important civil servants in Whitehall. Wallace brought the chicken back in 2010 when Cameron refused to take any questions from Mirror reporters because the paper was so hostile.
During the 2010 campaign, I ran around London and Oxford in the suit, but never got close to Cameron (which I remain grateful for to this day). One reporter managed to get so close to Cameron that the Conservative leader, seemingly rattled, took off the chicken’s mask. Cameron’s director of communications at the time—the former Sun editor Andy Coulson, who would later go to prison for phone hacking—called Wallace and asked him to call off the stunt.
Since then, the chicken has been wheeled out whenever the Mirror claims that the Tories are hiding from scrutiny, such as when Theresa May refused to take part in TV debates during the 2017 election. (The Mirror is fiercely anti-Tory; The Sun (usually) fiercely anti-Labour—though it backed Blair.)
My personal greatest hit was running after the Conservative veteran Kenneth Clarke over Lambeth Bridge, where he was having lunch with another (unamused) reporter. That day, I was with one of the Mirror’s star reporters, Ryan Parry, another former trainee, who had won acclaim for landing a job in Buckingham Palace in another Mirror stunt to expose the lax security around the queen.