Tom Walker aka Jonathan Pie on viral politics and the election

REGARDLESS of your political persuasion, it's likely that videos of a disgruntled news reporter going rogue have appeared on your news feed.
Tom Walker is better known as Jonathan Pie. Picture: contributedTom Walker is better known as Jonathan Pie. Picture: contributed
Tom Walker is better known as Jonathan Pie. Picture: contributed

That reporter’s name is Jonathan Pie, a fictional character who satisfyingly lambasts both sides of the political spectrum, the media and his right-wing producer, Tim.

The character has been widely praised by critics and even lauded as “the UK’s sharpest political satirist since John Oliver”.

Who is Jonathan Pie?

Picture: ContributedPicture: Contributed
Picture: Contributed
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Walker says that his relationship with the character is “exactly that, he’s just a character. Our politics are aligned, certainly. I agree with most of what he has to say, I don’t agree with the terms in which he puts it.”

Unlike Pie, however, Walker is humble in the assertion of his views.

“It’s bizarre for me. A lot people think of my work as activism – it’s not.

“It’s satire, holding up a mirror. It’s political commentary but with a comedic edge. It has its role to play and if it attracts people or can explain things in comedic or ironic terms, stimulates debate and diversity of opinion and hopefully makes you laugh – [these are things] I’m always trying to do.

Picture: ContributedPicture: Contributed
Picture: Contributed

“Sometimes it’s as basic as throwing a swear word in but hopefully there’s a wit to it as well.”

Social media politics

Social media has been crucial to Pie’s success, but Walker still has reservations about its use by politicians.

“I don’t know if [social media] does much. Most people are only going to follow the Conservatives if they vote Conservative. Social media is not going to change very many people’s minds, it’s just going to shore up your support already.”

Westminster is often criticised as being archaic, and many politicians’ attempts to engage voters via social media range from the forgettable to the bizarre. Walker suggests that a lack of social media attention usually scores as a positive for politicians.

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“Sometimes a politician is going to say something that goes viral. The problem is, normally when it goes completely viral it is Dianne Abbot fucking up an interview. It’s rarely the positives that go viral – it’s when someone fucks up.

“That’s something that, as the Labour party, you can’t control.”

Contrary to what you might expect, Walker believes that politicians should limit their digital output.

“It’s gone beyond the pale. Obama used social media really heavily in his favour but I think that was when social media was in its infancy.

“The fact that Donald Trump is tweeting every two minutes – I hope it makes people wake up and go ‘actually it’s a bit vulgar, politicians using social media – just come out and do a speech’.

“I’m in two minds as to whether [social media] does much at all really.”

Breaking the echo chamber

The Pie character has managed to break through the constrictions of Facebook’s algorithms. His frank dissection of Trump’s election victory, which “was seen world-wide and changed a few people’s minds”, is one such example.

Walker “hope[s] that he encourages people to” break out of their echo chambers.”

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“I have fans who will send me a message and say ‘I’m never listening to you again because I disagree with that one point’ and you go, ‘well, you’re part of the problem.’

“It’s certainly a problem on the left. They’re obsessed with diversity, as long as it’s not diversity of opinion. [Pie] encourages debate and he’s a lot more level-headed than when he started. He’s much more open to listening to other people’s ideas and reading newspapers that you wouldn’t normally read.

“As the character’s developed, I’ve had to do that.”

Reinventing ‘fake news’

Walker explains that, while his satirical character may be reinventing the term ‘fake news’, he’s not alone.

“[Fake news] is an odd one, because the terminology ‘fake news’ was actually invented by the left to talk about ultra-right wing websites who wear their agenda on their sleeve.

“Donald Trump has hijacked that to mean something else: any news that isn’t positive about him is fake. It’s not fake.”

For Walker, the phenomenon has deeper roots.

“Also, this isn’t new, especially [with regard to] newspapers. They editorialise. That’s when it moves into ‘is this fake or just editorialising?’

“Those lines are blurred sometimes but I don’t see it as a new phenomenon.”

On the election

True to his character, Walker reveals: “I’m going to be voting Labour – I’ve not always voted Labour.”

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And he suggests that simplified political slogans can be slippery.

“Even if Theresa May returns with a stronger majority, which I think she’s likely to do, she’s been weakened by this. She doesn’t look as strong and stable as she did at the start.

“What she’s hopefully managed to do is create a strong and stable opposition – if Labour only lose a few more seats… and are a little more steady on their feet under Corbyn.

“Then suddenly you’ve got a strong-ish left-wing opposition, and whether that’s your politics or not, it’s a win for democracy because that’s the way our parliamentary system works.

“If [May] were to return with a majority of 200, that’s great if you’re a Conservative but the cogs of democracy slow down, because you’re almost living in a one-party state.”

The end of New Labour

“I think this has done Corbyn a lot of good and I hope it will shut up a lot of the New Labour Blairites who think that there isn’t a taste for a socialist agenda in this country,” Walker continues.

“The minute Labour managed to get the narrative away from Brexit and start talking about social care and now security, they seem to be on the front foot. As soon as Brexit is mentioned, May wins that argument in the electorate’s eyes.

Walker has an explanation for the slow-burning popularity of Labour.

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“There’s been a shift to the left. Since the point that Blair walked into No. 10 we have not had a left-wing party in this country. Therefore, there’s a whole group of 30-year-olds who have never known what a left-wing party looks like and by virtue of that, the word ‘socialism’ seems a bit scary.

“Whereas you actually look at Labour’s manifesto and you go ‘here is a socialist manifesto – read that’. And most people who can be arsed to read it will go ‘oh, that’s really good, innit. You mean, social equality and let’s at least try to get rid of homelessness – that sounds fucking great’.

“I hope that [the election result] strengthens that left-wing strain within the Labour Party that felt like a rogue thing, which had taken over the party. I hope [the left] takes back the party because with a right-wing Tory government with an increased majority, I want someone saying something different.”

• This article originally appeared on the i online