One of the first things I learned on starting working for a Member of Parliament was how to get a press release published in its entirety. The key was always the headline: that’s what grabbed the copy-short local journalist on a slow news week. The best ones always had “anger” or “fury” in them. If you could get your MP to “demand” something as well, so much the better.
“MP angry over potholes: demands council acts now.”
“Heads must roll, demands furious MP.”
It doesn’t actually matter much what the main article was on. It was the headline that grabbed and, from the perspective of the politician at least, what created the impression in the voters’ minds: dynamic. Standing up for the little guy. Working hard for you.
I remember distinctly a journalist from a national newspaper calling me up, having spoken to the then Boss, and requesting, “A short briefing, two quotes, and a suitably outraged local farmer.” Of course, we had no say over the headline in these scenarios, but we always tried to crowbar a bit of “shame”, “fury”, “anger” or “outrage” into the quote part by way of a gentle suggestion to whoever had that job.
After all, who actually reads the stuff under the headline anyway?
Not Daily Mail readers, that’s for sure: “Prime Minister mauls best-selling author Hilary Mantel over ‘plastic princess made for breeding’ jibe", a classic of its genre, and one my 22 year old self would thoroughly approved of had I written something similar for my then employer. Actually, even now I’m slightly jealous. I never got “mauled” into a headline.
That the Mantel piece was a detailed look at how our expectations shape the women in the Royal family and how this damages them as people and demeans us in the process was not commented upon. Instead, the paper that specialises in thigh-rubbing pictures of “all grown up” underage girls, and flyaway boobs during “wardrobe malfunctions” got its outraged head on about a selection of comments taken out of context with respect to the Duchess of Cambridge.
Incidentally, one of Mantel’s points was that Royal women had been reduced by public perception and, latterly, the media to little more than bodies on which to hang pretty frocks, and out of which to shoot out an heir and spare. A good part of the Daily Mail piece was about the Duchess’ “baby bump” and “stylish wrap-around dress she was wearing”. Go figure, as our American cousins say.
And then, inevitably, the Prime Minister gets asked what he reckons.
I actually feel a bit sorry for Cameron over this. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he realised there was probably a little more to this story than a well-renowned author suddenly issuing a press realise titled, “Kate Middleton: worra loser LOL amirite?” So he had a choice: he could either play safe and join in the Mantel-bashing or he could have indicated that he hadn’t read the article so couldn’t really comment on the contents.
Except he didn’t really have a choice, did he?
“PM joins in Kate slur!” “Fury as Cameron refuses to defend pregnant princess!”
It was never going to happen.
I’ve written this stuff, we all buy it, and the politicians respond in a way that’s not going to earn them a total kicking from those of us who write it and buy it, and we then scream at them for jumping on bandwagons.
It’s this – the toxic co-dependency of the media, politicians, and the public – with none of us taking responsibility for our own behaviour, that I like to call the Triumvirate of Evil, and its result is a perpetual generation of synthetic outrage that feeds itself with moral superiority, banality, and hypocrisy.
The free market theory of politics and the press is that we, the public, get absolutely what we deserve from them, just as they do from us.