Using Barthes’ sensibility to analyze the myths circulated during the recent Labour leader campaign, I think I can safely say that charting the way Jeremy Corbyn was turned into a threat means understanding the work of one particular tool: the headline.
Two days ago, the headline actually burst into the content of the news itself when an editor at the Daily Telegraph, which presents itself as a non-tabloid conservative paper, had to back down over his headline for Corbyn’s appointment of John Mcdonnell to his shadow cabinet: Corbyn has just appointed a nutjob as his shadow chancellor. Today’s foxhunting set don’t go for that chav stuff, which is so much for the maid, so the editor eventualy changed the headline.
In the process, though, he briefly lit up the politics of headlines.
As writers know, and readers, for the most part, don’t, the headline is not composed by the writer of the story or the review or column. Headlines are thus, peculiar things, true relics of, if not the death of the author, at least his or her continued subservience to the institution or patron for whom they write. On the one hand, the headline must tip the reader into the story in some way, while on the other, they must also operate to show how the reader is to read the story. In this second function, headlines are more akin to the answer to riddles, or the punchline to jokes, or the moral of fables, than they are to the entry in a dictionary or encyclopedia. That is, headlines are less indexical, or denotative, than oracular, or connotative.
They also exist systematically, which means that headlines can be treated as a genre, with certain conventions. The Telegraph editor’s mistake was one of misunderstanding the headline convention that is given by the paper.
Tabloids, of course, are famous for exploiting certain conventions of the headline – transmuting the typographical excess of the headline into a more general rhetorical excess. Readers of the NY Post or the Sun know that the game is all in the headline, and that the rest is, for the most part, filler – thus neatly reversing the “normal” relationship between text and title. Non-tabloid papers also transmute the excess of the headline, but in a different way: here, the libidinal possibilities of the headline are sublimated. It is the quintessential bourgeouis act, act least in the classic Weberian sense – like the capital that is accumulated by the bourgeois and spent prudently, the headline’s typographic independence is made subservient, for the most part, to a more nuanced interpretation of the text that follows. One might say that the non-tabloid paper understands itself to have an indexical responsibility. Thus, the print is normally smaller, the use of slang lesser, the spirit of gleefulness, when released, turned into giggliness rather than sadistic display, and so on. Of course, just as the answer to a riddle is different than the answer to a mathematical problem (the riddle both solves a cognitive disjunction and exploit the shock of it, for one thing; for another thing, a riddle limits its systematic effect), so, too, is a headline different from merely a paraphrase. It is in this difference that a certain politics ranges.
One noticed – readers noticed and commented on – the sudden appropriation of tabloid like headlines by the Guardian and the Telegraph as Jeremy Corbyn moved from being a political eccentric to the leader of Britain’s second largest political party. Here, one feels, the headline, in all its implication, started driving the news. Private eye made a funny comparison of what Corbyn said and what he was reported to have said – underlining the systematic bias of the newspapers. The abridgement and distortion of Corbyn’s comments – whether about Hamas and Hezbollah or about Osama bin Laden or about segregating trains at rush hour between men and women – is not something I’m going to go over one more time. Rather, I want to point out that the spirit of the headline, with its capacity to seemingly contain a whole truth while actually operating a fiction-making abridgment, infected, as it were, the reporting itself.
This does not exhaust the meaning of headline politics in this instance, though. For passing beyond the effects of the text, there is also the total effect of the headline in the newspaper context to consider. A headline, after all, announces something new. In the case of Corbyn, much of what was reported wasn’t new at all – he has been a remarkably busy speaker over time. But the effect of the headlines was to make it seem as though new information was being dug up about Corbyn – or, to put this inversely, that Corbyn was hiding his past. This is of course an especially important maneuver in modern image management, so much so that we have a name for it now: gotcha journalism. It is not just that the figure who is “gotten” is exposed, but the exposure implies that the figure has been busy hiding. It makes the newspaper’s research, which is not actually very much work, nowadays, what with Google, seem like an “investigation.”
There is probably much more to say about this rich topic, but now I have to pick my son up from school. So that is it.