Earlier this month, the Sun published a picture of Diane Abbott swigging from a can of M&S mojito on a London Overground train, after the photo had been circulated on social media.
The tabloid newspaper was frothing at the mouth over the fact that what Abbott had done was illegal, and they dragged in a retired police officer to say the Labour MP should "face action" – apparently oblivious to the fact that she was breaking a law many Londoners who want to have a drink without entering their overdraft have also broken. While the right-wing press and their corner of the internet had a field day laying into her, nearly everyone else saw it as the most relatable thing a UK politician had done in ages.
Amid sympathy for Abbott – the most abused female MP during the last election – some wondered: who would bother to photograph a politician doing something so trivial? Doesn’t grassing someone up to a tabloid for a minor misdemeanour make you the real villain?
VICE tracked down the person who took the picture. "Jack" – not his real name – is a Londoner in his twenties. I spoke to him to find out how he got the picture, how it found its way onto the internet and if he has any regrets.
VICE: Hi Jack, tell me what happened when Diane Abbott got on your train.
Jack: I was just heading from Stratford to Islington, and I think she must have got on at Hackney Wick. I took a double take as she sat down opposite me, realising it was her, but nobody else clocked her. She was just sitting there, playing on her phone like everyone else was.
I first sent a pic just of her – like you would if you spotted any well-known person in public – to a group chat of friends who I used to work with in politics. I then updated them that she was eating an M&S sausage roll, which I guess she must have bought at the same time as the now infamous can of mojito.
That's what we're all here for – what happened with the tinny?
Obviously I'd already taken a pic of her, but when she cracked open the tinny I thought it was just excellent and had to take another. Personally, I think she's a great politician and person, and everyone in the group chat thought it was funny and just enjoyed it for what it was, really. In the pic she's just like someone on the way to a pal's house in the evening, having a drink en route.
What happened next? How did it end up in the papers?
I actually saw all the press attention once I'd landed in New York after not having any internet on the plane for eight hours. The weirdest thing was I saw Diane's apology tweet first and thought it was odd because the photo was a week old by this point – I had forgotten about it. Then friends started sending me all the memes and reactions, and then it was all over Twitter. I asked the two groups I'd sent it to whether anyone had sent it to the papers but everyone said it wasn't them.
Who was it then?
People did say they had forwarded it on to their mates and group chats they were in, and then obviously people in those chats will have forwarded it on and it just extrapolates from there. Some of my friends work in media and politics, so it probably just went round those circles until eventually it reached someone who's going to publish it.
How do you feel about it now after it's all blown up? Obviously loads of people really enjoyed it, but it also made people kick off, mostly in the corners of the internet you would expect it to.
I honestly think whoever gave it to the papers is pathetic. It’s just a photo of a person doing something everyone has done. I actually feel pretty awful about the situation, as she gets such vitriolic racist and sexist abuse all the time and I’ve now contributed to it, and for that I’m quite ashamed.
Do you regret taking the photo then? Or do you think that despite the abuse any rational person will see the picture for what it is, showing politicians as normal people for once.
I think it distracts from the serious political stuff going on at the minute, and also pushes this horrendous entrenched position agenda. Me and my friends kind of agree that it's not going to make anybody vote or support her that didn't before, and it's not going to put off the people who like her. In my opinion it's such a non-story.
But a lot of people have supported her, saying they've never related to a politician more. For instance, 10,000 people clicked attending to a Facebook event to "sip a cheeky mojito on the Overground".
I actually saw the event, as people I had sent the photo to were clicking attending, so I think it’s funny and hopefully is done in good spirits. But I worry that if the only reason a politician is relatable is for a can of mojito rather than, for example, the work they do or the values they stand for then politics is going to become more celebritised. Diane Abbott was the first black female MP and she went to Cambridge, she has stood for the people of Hackney for years – she is a good and worthwhile politician, and I’ve distracted from that.
What do you think would have been the worst thing she could have been caught drinking, and what would have been the best?
I think if it had been a can of anything that comes from a crate or a four-pack it would have been worse. But I personally think this is definitely the best thing she could have been caught drinking.
If you could say one thing to Diane Abbott what would it be?
I’m sorry you can’t have a moment of privacy, and I’m sorry you have had to experience this situation over what I thought was a 30-second joke situation.