A confession: Like Boris Johnson’s director of communications, Lee Cain, I, too, once dressed up in a giant, fluffy chicken costume to chase Conservative politicians around London.
It wasn’t, I hasten to add, a private peccadillo—something I did in my own time, for my own kicks. No, like Cain, who was unmasked today as a former “Mirror chicken,” I was a junior reporter at the Daily Mirror when the 2010 general election came around. Prime Minister Gordon Brown had run out of road and a young pup named David Cameron was bidding to overturn 13 years of Labour Party rule.
I was a Mirror trainee trying to break in to the paper’s political-reporting team before the end of my three-year apprenticeship. My reward: donning a strange rubber chicken mask, sweaty plastic gloves, and an all-in-one feathered suit. I went punting in Oxford; tried to hire a top hat and tails to dress like a member of the Bullingdon Club, the infamous aristocratic drinking society; and attempted to catch Cameron and George Osborne, his chancellor, going into the Royal Albert Hall—all dressed as a chicken. It was weird and strangely fun, though I must confess to the occasional thought about the wisdom of my life choices.
I could have no real complaints. I knew what I was getting myself into when I joined. The chicken is just one part of a proud (if eccentric) tradition in British tabloid journalism: of stunts and jokes, mascots, and animal rescues. Many senior reporters cut their teeth inside a silly suit.
My managing editor at the Mirror, Aiden McGurran, had joined the paper as “Lenny Lottery”—poached from the rival red top (so called because the name of the tabloid is emblazoned against a red background) The Sun in 1997. McGurran, who went on to become a Labour councillor, had even legally changed his name to “Mr. Lottery” in 1994 and was something of an icon. At the time, more than 20 million people were tuning in to watch the National Lottery draw on a Saturday night. Such was the importance of McGurran’s transfer to the Mirror, it ended up in the High Court when The Sun took the Mirror to court for his outfit, and he was ordered to hand back his lucky trademark suit to his former employer, which had replaced him with its new National Lottery mascot, Sir Lenny Lottery.
This is the world of the British red tops: The Sun, the Mirror, and the Daily Star. It is a world almost completely alien to the United States, save, perhaps, New York City, with its rivalry between the Daily News and the Post. In their heyday, each of the British red tops was read by millions, bringing their proprietors and editors real political power and celebrity (and, of course, profits). (The numbers now are way down, the Mirror and Star in the hundreds of thousands, and The Sun hurtling toward the 1 million mark.) They reported the news, but also made you laugh. They didn’t take themselves too seriously. It was all a game.
This gets at the core difference between the British and American media: Britain’s newspapers—partisan, irreverent, aggressive—are closer to American TV, while British TV is closer to American newspapers. American journalism is widely seen in the United Kingdom as highbrow, but boring and verging on earnest.
As the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole has noted of the English, the greatest sin of all—true in journalism as in life—is earnestness. In a recent study of Boris Johnson, O’Toole wrote how the anthropologist Kate Fox, in her book Watching the English, suggested that “a crucial rule of the national discourse is what she called The Importance of Not Being Earnest.” She wrote: “At the most basic level, an underlying rule in all English conversation is the proscription of ‘earnestness.’” Join in with the banter; go along with the joke—whatever you do, don’t take yourself too seriously.
This is the culture that gives us the Mirror chicken. It is the culture that saw two tabloids—The Sun and the Star—enter into a donkey war to save an apparently abused Spanish donkey named Blackie in 1987. The Star claimed that in a festival in the Spanish village of Villanueva de la Vera, the fattest local would ride a donkey until it collapsed from exhaustion (an allegation denied by the Spanish ambassador).
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.
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.
After tracking down Clarke to a riverside café, I asked if I could pose for a photo sitting on his lap. “No, you bloody can’t,” he replied. Unlike Osborne and Cameron, Clarke appeared completely unbothered by the giant chicken in his vicinity. By not caring, he disarmed the chicken. In that moment, I realized that the stupidity of the chicken had some purpose—it had a weird ability to occasionally show politicians and their hangers-on for what they are: confident or scared, angry or aggressive. There is method in not being too earnest.