You ‘can’t say that’

2 May

Years ago – and this is pre-YouTube, so I’ve been searching in vain for clips – there used to be a segment of a British satirical news quiz that revolved entirely around putting claim quotes in headlines.

I have a distinct memory of Dara O Briain being in charge, so perhaps it was a round on Mock The Week. Anyway, what would happen is that utterly scandalous, defamatory headlines about eminent people would flash up onto the screen, and the contestants would have to insert claim quotes around the most damaging parts to avoid their imaginary newspaper being sued for libel. The more of the headline you could let stand outside the quotes, the more points you got: those who played it safe and put the entire thing in quotation marks were greeted with jeers and cries of “Cowards!” from the chair.

The fact that this idea could ever form part of a national light entertainment programme says a lot about how well understood claim quotes are in the British public imagination. But it also reveals something slightly more worrying: a perception that claim quotes are not just a way to signal a newspaper’s distance from allegations, but a magic device that can be deployed to bamboozle lawyers, avoid editorial responsibility, or quarantine any phrase you’re not quite sure of.

Which is perhaps why we sometimes end up with headlines like this:

The saga of the young people who paid thousands to attend a de luxe event in the Bahamas only to find themselves trapped in ramshackle tents and fed packed lunches has been all the rage on social media, so it’s not surprising the Telegraph has been looking into it. This is their headline, containing not one but two quoted elements, on their main news story last week.

The second quoted element, “mugged, stranded and hungry”, is a classic claim quote – which is to say, not an actual quote, but an allegation in reported speech placed within quotation marks to signal its contested nature. This is the headline convention that British TV audiences are familiar with: the shorthand that stands in for a full attribution, such as “claim customers” or “say unhappy youngsters”, that will be made clear in the text. As you read the story, you do indeed find third parties complaining of all three of those things, although the case for hunger is perhaps more understood than explicit.

The first quoted element, however, is a different matter. You can look up and down the story, and not see a single reference to either the Hunger Games or Rich Kids of Instagram. And to be clear, I don’t just mean that nobody says it verbatim: I mean that nobody says it at all – not in the embedded tweets, not in the quotes, not in the reporter’s own words. What appears to have happened is that the back bench has perceived the resemblance between the news and two evergreen memes – one relating to teenage excess, the other to teenage suffering – and boiled the story down to one pithy phrase in the headline. But if so, why is it in quotes?

You can certainly quibble with this characterisation. Yes, the victims are (probably) rich kids who (probably) use Instagram, but Rich Kids of Instagram (#RKOI), as originally conceived, is something more specific: an ostentatious photography series published by heirs of wealthy families showing themselves driving Ferraris, flying on Learjets or emptying bottles of Krug over their waterproof Rolexes. Many of the Instagram influencers who were reportedly paid to publicise this festival are a different breed: semi-celebrities or actual celebrities with large personal followings rather than unknown trust-fund babies.

Similarly, you may not feel that an amusing photo of a cheese sandwich justifies a comparison with the Hunger Games novels, in which teenagers are forced to fight to the death for food in a post-apocalyptic tournament. It’s a judgment call: you might decide that the popularity and social implications of the story justify a little hyperbole.

But the point is: quote marks aren’t going to help. This isn’t a claim, or even a report of a claim: it’s a commentary. Newspapers are fully at liberty to editorialise in headlines, of course, but they have to do it in their own voice. If you feel the characterisation is witty and apposite, take the quote marks off. If you feel you’re pushing it by making the comparison, don’t make it. This is your idea, your analysis; you’re not entitled to pass it off as somebody else’s.

As this blog has had occasion to say before, claim quotes do not exist for headline writers to signal doubts about their own work, or avoid the consequences of their own words. Claim quotes are for claims: claims made by other people. They’re a peculiarly British convention that other anglophone journalists don’t immediately understand: that’s not entirely surprising, since we don’t always get them right ourselves.

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One Response to “You ‘can’t say that’”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Shock treatment | Ten minutes past deadline - July 25, 2017

    […] used where they shouldn’t be – around claims that only the reporter has made, or around naked editorialising in the display type – that it’s quite a shock to see a headline not have them when it needs them. This Guardian […]

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