Headline battle!

datePosted on 17:25, September 28th, 2009 by Lew

LingLingBattleWithin a half-hour, the two leading trumpet-blowers of the blogosphere have favoured us with their interpretations of the latest developments in the Bill English accomodation saga, and their headlines are marvellous. Both are factual; neither contain any misleading or false information, and yet they convey such different things.

First (chronologically), in the red corner: The Standard:

English admits he’s been rorting us

  • “English”, formal, invoking his role and status as a public personage and the head of a noted family (who also benefit from the ‘rort’).
  • “admits”, an implied concession of wrongdoing (even though English’s statement — not linked or substantively quoted in the post– makes quite clear that he’s conceding nothing of the sort).
  • “he” and “us”, an active phrasing emphasising the power dynamic in play, in which “we” are being exploited by “him”.
  • “rorted”, a hugely fashionable term in these parts nowadays (a fact on which someone recently wrote an interesting article; can anyone remember who?). It’s a strong, colourful term redolent of the back-slapping corruptness of entitlement, viewed as harmless and trivial by those privileged few who, by dint of social station, connections or wealth are able to perpetrate it, and as an insufferable reminder of greedy injustice by those not so able. This is the word it all hangs on: it provokes the visceral reaction of disgust, and divides the “him” from the “us”.
  • “[has] been” and the past tense throughout, focusing on what has happened. In some ways represents a softening: he has been, but he isn’t any more. But in the wider context this emphasises the ongoing nature of the campaign against English, an unspoken “see, we were right all along, and we have forced this admission” — again, despite the fact that English claims there’s no such admission. Being backward-looking, it focuses on the matter of principle, not of practice; it doesn’t matter that he paid the proceeds of his rort back, what matters is that he rorted it in the first place.

And in the blue corner, Kiwiblog:

Bill pays back allowance

  • Parsimonious, omitting a part of speech which in this case would bear important information, leaving the question open: “his” allowance? “the” allowance? We don’t know if the author thinks he has a right to it or not. It’s just “allowance”.
  • “Bill”, informal, emphasising his individuality and personal characteristics rather than social roles or position. Familiarity suggests reliability, trustworthiness.
  • “pays back”, active phrasing indicating Bill’s volition — he was not forced into anything, he did it of his own accord. Also echoes the Nats’ favoured cat-call of the past half-decade: “pay it back!”, first directed at Helen Clark, then at Winston Peters, a clear delineation drawn because Bill is paying it back and they didn’t.
  • “allowance”, something one is allowed. As in the other headline, this is the word it all hangs on. Its use implicitly disclaims any wrongdoing; because it’s impossible to ‘rort’ an ‘allowance’ by definition, this begs the question of whether Bill is, in fact, allowed it.
  • “pays” and use of present tense throughout, focusing on the future rather than the past, practicalities rather than principles, actions and consequences rather than character or trustworthiness. No harm, no foul, right?

With headlines like this, why would you even need to read the article — or the actual statement?


8 Responses to “Headline battle!”

  1. Eddie on September 28th, 2009 at 19:05

    Thanks lew, very funny. A good headline should entice, sometimes with humour, sometimes by intriguing, or, as in this case, by framing the argument to come.

    People of course, come to Farrar and our respective sites to see ‘the right’s’ or ‘the left’s’ angle on an issue, especially just after a big story breaks – my title referenced the story in a clear way and gave a taste of the angle, setting it out as different from what Farrar (for example) was certain to run.

  2. MikeG on September 28th, 2009 at 19:15

    Brilliant! Can we have more of these type of post please.

  3. Lew on September 28th, 2009 at 19:18

    Quite right, Eddie, and both headlines are very good indeed for that role. Symbolic political communication is important because if you don’t do it and the other guy does, then all else being equal, he’ll win because he’s put his case and you haven’t. But it need not be at the cost of truth or accuracy.

    More power to both your headline-writing arms.


  4. Neil on September 28th, 2009 at 20:14

    …by framing the argument to come.

    why not try and appeal to a more intelligent audience. recreating the worst noise from kiwiblog comment threads, but by the left, hardly seems worth the effort.

  5. Lew on September 28th, 2009 at 22:35


    Intelligent people read headlines, engage in argument and are swayed by polemic matter too, you know.


  6. JakeQuinn on October 1st, 2009 at 21:27

    Can we be friends?

  7. Lew on October 1st, 2009 at 21:43

    Jake, this isn’t Facebook.


  8. toad on October 2nd, 2009 at 19:00

    This weekend’s g.blog quiz –

    There is only one question:

    Who lives here?

    Greenfly is disqualified from participating, because he may be appointed the final arbiter on the decision.

    The judge’s desision (ie mine) is final, and evidence will need to be provided on the thread to satisfy me of a correct answer.

    So go for it! All replies on g.blog thread above please.

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