Dafydd Prys on the power at the top of an article

First impressions really do matter. There have been studies across all sorts of scientific disciplines that confirm that first impressions last an awful lot longer that anyone would care to accept. And that's why headlines are an exact science, because they will inform the reader of an article as they are reading it, colouring ambiguous phrases held within. In many ways a headline can be seen to act as a buoy for the contents of an article, framing it and keeping the central idea aloft, just like that poor woman in the opener of Jaws. The constituents of Ceredigion certainly know this now, and they share this experience with many voters across the land because, going into an election period, headlines develop a new importance. Try asking Neil Kinnock about this without him blubbing. Headlines hold the key to presenting rough and bold ideas swiftly.

Celebrities Eating Small Mammals

Think of some headlines now (I’ve got some firm favourites over the years, mostly from disreputable redtops that probably shouldn’t be replicated here, so a link for you) and I'll bet you’ll have some classics:

  • ‘Why Were There Only Twenty Lifeboats for 2,207 People on Board the Ill-Fated Titanic?’
  • ‘The Most Dangerous Woman in Britain’ (a recent entry)
  • ‘GOTCHA’
  • ‘War on America’
  • ‘Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic are Atrocious’
  • ‘If Kinnock Wins Today Will the Last Person to Leave Britain Please Turn Out the Light’ and countless more.

What do all the above headlines have in common? They inform the article that they’re presenting rather than telling the reader what the piece is about (well, apart from the Super Caley one, that’s just there for its utter genius).

The Sun’s Kinnock headline is an absolute belter when it comes to aggressively pursuing an agenda. It leaves the reader in no doubt as to the position of the paper (even though it presents a logic break: if everyone leaves then who voted for him?). The headline’s power is so lasting that it has been deconstructed a thousand and one times by eager undergrads. There’s something remarkably honest about it; it’s a personal note to Neil Kinnock rather than the Labour Party and while a person might baulk at the veracity of the attack there’s no question whatsoever as to the stance of the paper, which takes me back to Ceredigion, and a recent headline landscaped a little differently by the Cambrian News.

Headlines, headlines everywhere

Depending on which version of the paper you might have read (the Cambrian News had different editions according to the area) the headline goes: ‘Incomers are “Nazis”, says would-be MP’, ‘Candidate Compares Incomers to Nazis’, ‘Plaid Election Hopeful Defends “Nazi” Slur’. An MP candidate has obviously gone and called someone a Nazi ­­­˗ that’s the only conclusion here. I better read on. The article then goes on to explain that in 2001 Mike Parker, MP candidate for Plaid Cymru in Ceredigion, wrote an article that was not very flattering to English migrants. In fact the Cambrian News report, that in 2001, Mike Parker wrote about English migrants, specifically that they were ‘gun-toting Final Solution crackpots’. Rough stuff! Except for the fact that he didn’t really, I’ve read Mike Parker’s article, and I know that this sentence is held in a much wider context. (The actual sentence reads: ‘To some extent, rural Wales has become the British equivalent of the American mountains inhabited by a sprinkling of paranoid conspiracy theorists, gun-toting Final Solution crackpots and anti-government obsessives.’) Only selective context is provided by the Cambrian News, such as clarifying what ‘Final Solution’ alludes to, which is an editorial tool to enable the use of the word ‘Nazi’ in the headline. This makes it clear the article was written to support its headline, retrograde journalism!

Attacking the BNP

The fact that Mike Parker’s article was an attack piece against BNP members moving to rural Wales, a deeply troubling phenomenon known as ‘white flight’, was not reported. And it might come as a bit of a surprise that the word ‘Nazi’ is not written in the article, even though in the headline it is held in quotation marks. So who are they quoting? Well it looks like they are quoting themselves. In order for him to ‘defend’ himself, the Cambrian News approached him with this story for a response, forcing him to defend a Nazi ‘slur’. It’s a fairly trusted mechanic to introduce a loaded word into a headline in order to tie its use to a name: x responds to ‘insert bad word here’ slur.

The Wide View

But when you step back and take a look at the wider context of this issue then its calculation becomes clear. I would suggest one of the main reasons Mike Parker was chosen out of all the hopefuls to stand for Plaid in Ceredigion was due to his broad appeal, being an Englishman who has moved into mid Wales. The Cambrian News’s headline makes it seem as if Mike Parker has labelled English migrants to rural Wales as Nazis (presumably himself as well), attempting to neutralise whatever traction Plaid might gain from the positivity of Mike’s multi-cultural appeal and reducing Plaid Cymru back down to its anti-English bogeyman typecast. A remarkable achievement considering Mike Parker is from Kidderminster. This considered, the headline becomes that little bit more targeted, and its intentions dragged into the light.

Speaking to canvassers of Mike Parker’s on Saturday morning I asked them what sort of reaction Mike was getting regarding the issue. One told me that a person responded with ‘I wouldn’t vote for you if my life depended on it, you support the Nazis’ while another person was deeply upset, in tears at what she perceived as a racially motivated ‘attack on her family’. Some called Mike a racist. And there you have it, a calculated headline in action, and all from a Planet article actually attacking racism.

I'm going to think about my own headlines very carefully from now on.

At the time of writing (11.04.15) the online version of the Cambrian News article has been taken down from the website. But we've checked recently (01.08.15) and found a different page - link! Oops no, that's down as well now.