I am painfully conscious that my writing is at the sillier end of journalism. There are, as I write, intrepid foreign reporters embedded with militias in Syria. I, meanwhile, have written approximately fourteen thousand articles about either the tube map or an annoying Tory MEP. It’s not really the same, is it?
So it’s nice on those rare occasions when I feel I have made some impact on the world, by crow-barring some phrase or another into the political lexicon. I repeated the incantation “build more bloody houses” so many times that eventually someone made a t-shirt. I originated the Tinkerbell theory of politics on these very pages, and even though technically Helen was the one who came up with the name, she also once got a massive laugh on the News Quiz with a joke I’d written. I’m not bitter about it you understand, but I’m counting Tinkerbell as mine, so there.
But those were nothing compared to this.
When you hear the words “disgraced former”, what do you imagine comes next?
Google’s autocomplete function has an answer:
Over on Apple, Siri Knowledge goes even further:
I take it all back, AI is AMAZING pic.twitter.com/eycVcLrqzR
— Dr Charlotte Lydia Riley (@lottelydia) March 6, 2019
Yep. The algorithms have spoken: the natural completion of the phrase “disgraced former” is “defence secretary Liam Fox.” This has persisted even though he’s now two and a half years into not being the former anything, but is instead the still vexingly current international trade secretary, in which post, incidentally, he recently managed to blow £100,000 on a podcast in which The Apprentice’s Nick Hewer very slowly explains to businesses that, if they find more customers, they might make more money. (Total downloads: 8,398. For context, that is: not very many.)
Anyway. The phrase under discussion has its origins in this article which I wrote in 2016; but while I’d love to take all the credit here (honestly, I’m trying), much of it must lay instead with all the many, many people who have repeated it on the internet, over and over again, replying to tweets about Fox with “don’t you mean the disgraced former defence secretary-” until the algorithms came to believe those four words were a single phrase.
But even that isn’t the entire story: there’s someone else who must share the credit on this one.
Thanks, Liam. Thanks for fucking up so badly that the Cabinet secretary described you as a security risk in an official report, yet never apologising for or even really acknowledging your error before sliming your way back into a non-job in the Cabinet. Thanks for everything. Couldn’t have done it without you, mate.
Hat tip to Charlotte Riley for pointing this out to me. And no need to bother buying the t-shirt, by the way, I don’t get any of the takings from it anyway.