Margaret Thatcher’s death: a week in British headlines

At the newspaper where I work, Margaret Thatcher’s death has been nervously anticipated for some time as an event that would definitely mean a tough day and a high-profile edition. When she went into hospital just before Christmas, we were all making provisional transport arrangements for December 25. But of course Fleet Street has been preparing over the years, as you could see from some of the bylines in Tuesday’s papers – the Guardian actually led with a piece by a dead man. The Evening Standard front page, April 8 2013

When the news finally came on Monday, April 8, it came in the middle of the newsroom’s day – with enough time to put an edition together, but not late enough that there would be anyone left in Britain who hadn’t heard the news by Tuesday morning. So it was left to the London Evening Standard to announce the news on Monday. They went for THATCHER DIES, avoiding both confusion and comment.

But this isn’t just any death: this is Margaret Thatcher’s death. So while you might have expected others to echo the Standard’s approach on Tuesday – the most neutral and respectful thing a paper can do in this situation is usually to print a simple picture of the person, with their name and dates – only The Daily Telegraph actually took this route.

Daily Telegraph Thatcher death front page

Weird picture, isn’t it. Kind of like a jewellery photoshoot for a catalogue. But I digress. Inside, the Tory broadsheet gave a little of the limelight to the current leader with the headline IRON LADY PROVED THAT BRITAIN WAS GREAT, SAYS CAMERON. The Times used the name/dates format on a wraparound, but the actual front page read THE FIRST LADY.

The Guardian would not have been expected to run a black border, but having dug up its late columnist Hugo Young to write an obituary of her, used what was even in context a rather jolting quote from it on the front page: SHE BECAME HARDER THAN HARD.

The Independent, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail used identical syntax, if rather different sentiments:


Those who took sides in the splash continued to do so on their inside pages, the Mirror using the incredulous A FUNERAL LIKE DIANA? REALLY? and the Mail criticising such sentiments almost before they had had time to form: NOW GIVE HER A STATE FUNERAL; PYGMIES WHO BROUGHT HER DOWN; VILE SCREECH OF HATRED.

The Sun headline Margaret Thatcher death

The headline that really jumped out from the newsstand, though, was that The Sun, which reverted to type with MAGGIE DEAD IN BED AT RITZ. Given Rupert Murdoch’s association with the Thatcher Government, sensationalism seemed an odd approach. And if you bought it hoping for the gory details of how Lady Thatcher had passed, what she had been reading, who had found her etc, you would have been disappointed by the rather cerebral coverage focusing on the special relationship with America, her status as the first female Prime Minister and so on – sample headline, ECONOMIC REVOLUTION DRAGGED UK OUT OF DARK AGES.

On Wednesday the newsdesks seemed to be floundering. The Guardian, Daily Mirror and The Times focused on the funeral arrangements, the latter leading with ROYAL RESPECT AS QUEEN LEADS THATCHER MOURNERS and the Mirror going for THE £10M GOODBYE. The Mail continued its vendetta against those who might be celebrating the sad event with THE FLAMES OF HATRED. The Daily Telegraph had sent someone to Lady Thatcher’s former constituency for the day, finding NO GUSHING HYSTERIA, JUST QUIET, DIGNIFIED RESPECT. The Sun had done an opinion poll, announcing that MAGGIE WINS AGAIN! And the Express had given up altogether, leading with a GEL TO WIPE OUT ARTHRITIC PAIN. (See my previous post about the Express’s formula, which alters for no woman; by Friday they had even found a SINGLE INJECTION TO CURE BACK PAIN.)

Daily Mirror front page Thatcher deathThursday‘s focus was on the recall of Parliament, with the Mirror echoing a famous Thatcher line to highlight the absence of many Labour MPs (see right). On p2 of The Independent, the session was summed up thus: THEY CAME, THEY GUSHED, THEY LEFT NO CLICHÉ UNTURNED. But the gushing wasn’t enough for Paul Dacre, whose Daily Mail was still obsessed by Thatcher’s enemies, today the TEACHERS OF HATRED who were organising “Maggie death parties”.

Having held its punning breath for a couple of days, the Sun could stand it no longer on Friday, cracking out a double whammy with a story about Jim Davidson being unwelcome at the funeral, NICKED NICK NICK NIXED, and a suggestion that David Cameron was not Lady Thatcher’s favourite of her successors, PANNED CAM NOT HER MAN. The Times, Express and Guardian focused on the guest list and military pomp of the funeral, but the Mail and Telegraph had found a story that was music to their ears: that Ding Dong the Witch is Dead had been pushed into the Top 10 by Thatcher’s enemies, and that the BBC planned to play it as it in its chart shows. BBC WITCH SONG INSULT TO MAGGIE, declared the Mail. BBC CHIEF REFUSES TO BAN THATCHER DEATH SONG, said the Telegraph, perhaps scenting a sacking.

Telegraph Thatcher headline April 13The weekend brought various pullouts, starting with a 68-page tribute supplement included in Saturday’s the Daily Telegraph (whose splash quoted a hymn chosen for the funeral, I VOW TO THEE MY COUNTRY, while a picture was courtesy of a paparazzo who had evidently doorstepped Lady Thatcher’s grieving offspring – nice). The Times puffed its Magazine coverage with  THE IRON LADY IN PICTURES.

Meanwhile, The Guardian announced rather neatly that DING DONG, THE… BBC TO CUT THATCHER PROTEST SONG SHORT. But the Mail still wasn’t happy: ‘WITCH’ SONG IS DISTASTEFUL BUT WE WILL PLAY IT, SAY BBC CHIEFS. The Mirror, too, was still simmering away, with its Sunday edition announcing a REVOLT OVER ‘THATCHER FUNERAL TAX’.

Whether or not she divided Britain, Lady Thatcher has certainly split British newspapers this week. Without wishing him any ill health, I’m looking forward to seeing what they make of the death of our other great recent Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

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How to write a Daily Express front page headline

This week I saw a Daily Express headline that was so formulaic, I thought at first that it was a joke. Here it is: EU WANTS MIGRANTS TO TAKE OUR JOBS.

Had Richard Desmond had fired the last of his sub-editors and subcontracted the writing of headlines to the Daily Mail headline generator, Daily Mail-o-matic? This clever device produces, using the same basic grammatical structure, headlines guaranteed to play on the fears and pet hates of DM readers. HAVE GYPSIES MADE BRITAIN’S SWANS OBESE? and IS BRUSSELS GIVING THE QUEEN CANCER? both reflect fairly typical concerns.

In fact, the Express has a slightly different formula. In the health news stories that take up its front page approximately every third day, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and arthritis appear just as commonly as cancer, perhaps reflecting an older readership. There is often a little hope in these stories, so that “good news” can balance out the bad news every so often. The weather is a big deal at the moment, again because it is a worry and expense for elderly people, while royals and missing children both go down well. And if you need a bad guy, there are always foreigners. These are either THE EU, a named individual such as (currently) Abu Qatada, and of course the classic MIGRANTS. Take a look at this week’s front page headlines:


Now let’s look at what they were saying in the corresponding week last year:


Anyone noticed that cancer hasn’t been cured yet? Perhaps it thinks its readers are forgetful, but the Express seems to operate with a slightly lower standard of proof than most other newspapers, so that rather than using the DM’s classic question formulation to cover its back (Oliver Kamm is a particularly eloquent collector of this style of headline, Great Rhetorical Questions to Which the Answer is No), it is able simply to assert that things are happening. Such as the European Union mysteriously deciding to put British citizens out of work in order to give their roles to other people.

And if you’re not afraid of being caught out printing something that later turns out to be completely false, you can really have a great ride when the big stories come along. The Express is able to involve Diana, Princess of Wales in stories on wafer-thin pretexts, for example. And then of course there was Madeleine McCann, the missing child who made the splash at the Express more often than anywhere else, as one of its reporters told the Leveson Inquiry last year. “The editor of the time decided it was the only story he was interested in and put it on the front page regardless of how strong the story was,” said reporter Nick Fagge, who is no longer at the paper.

Express Newspapers, of course, paid £550,000 in damages to the McCann family for libellous stories that had appeared in the Express and Star titles. What would it have to pay if “migrants” brought a legal action? Well, the headline they could get out of that story would probably be worth it to them.

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The truth about THE TRUTH

After 23 years, this week the official papers relating to the Hillsborough disaster are being released. Sales of The Sun are still said to be affected by that newspaper’s coverage of the tragedy, which included a headline that its own reporter on the story, Harry Arnold, has now denounced: THE TRUTH.

Arnold told a BBC documentary, screened on Sunday night, that it was his Editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, who chose this for the splash. The reporter says that he protested on his way out of the newsroom that the headline wasn’t right for allegations he made that he now says came from a news agency and will always be difficult to verify.  “When I saw the headline THE TRUTH I was aghast, because that wasn’t what I’d written,” he told the BBC. “I’d merely written it, I hoped and I still believe, in a balanced, fair way. So I said to Kelvin MacKenzie, ‘You can’t say that’.”

The Editor – who has played along with the caricature of himself as a shameless tabloid hack – apparently replied: “Don’t worry. I’m going to make it clear that this is what some people are saying.”

Liverpool fans who saw the edition the next day certainly didn’t see it that way – straplines accusing them of stealing from victims and “urinating on brave cops” in fact seemed to upset them even more. But it’s hard to imagine the furniture that MacKenzie or his back bench could have crafted that would have rolled things back from THE TRUTH.

daily mail stephen lawrence headline murderersIt’s so nearly a great headline. It looks like what I call a Ronseal: it does what it says on the tin. Headlines like this are useful in a serious paper, or on a tragic story where spin or wordplay wouldn’t be appropriate. On another story – on a “true” story – it could have been remembered as powerful, summing up a mood or a moment. Raw and powerful, it reminds me of a 1997 Daily Mail splash. Above individual pictures of the five men who everybody believed – but no court had been able to prove – had killed Steven Lawrence, the Mail wrote one word: MURDERERS*.

But what separates Paul Dacre’s headline from Kelvin MacKenzie’s is, of course, the truth. The Sun’s splash didn’t do what it said on the tin. They had called it too early, using the headline for the story they wanted, rather than the story they had**. This is always tempting, but take it too far and you will annoy the readers. Take it far enough, and you will alienate them for ever.

*That was the big word. The standfirst underneath, and this actually gives me goosebumps, read: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us

**In fact, while searching for pictures of the Sun splash, I came across another headline that – incredibly – echoes it. The Express did a front page in 2007 that read DIANA: THE TRUTH. The straplines said that the Princess of Wales was pregnant when she died, that Dodi Fayed had bought an engagement ring for her, and that the driver of her car was not drunk. Verifying it, I find that the Express also has stories about “Diana’s psychic” and samples from the princess’s inquest being switched. We can’t know, of course, the truth about this case. But bearing in mind the heritage of that headline, and that this is The Express, I doubt it. And if I am wrong, let them sue me.

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Q. What’s green and knows how to spell?

A. Natalie Bennett, the new leader of the Green Party and a former Times sub-editor. I was pleased to write an article about this illustrious group for today’s paper, though when I thought about it the average rate of vast success after leaving the back bench may not be as high as the story indicates.

I thought the headline on it was OK (I left it to the subs), but I had to explain it to someone – it’s about how subs usually WRITE the headlines but sometimes we MAKE the headlines, a line I’d sort of put in the top of my piece. To be fair to them it was very late in the day (just because I’m a sub doesn’t mean I won’t push my deadline as a writer, especially when it’s a tight one which this was).

Here is a picture of it, you can read the story here if you have a Times subscription. Anyway the interest it generated has encouraged me to keep this blog up.

Subs article – the times

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If Jimmy Carr wrote headlines

Jimmy Carr in Saturday ReviewThe Times’s Saturday Review had a neat coverline on its Jimmy Carr interview at the weekend: His Dark Material.

This kind of cultural cross-reference headline, which we’ll call The Postmodern, can be overused – former music journalists in particular tend rather lazily to want to use song titles all the time. But in this instance it really works, conveying the most interesting thing about Carr: his presence right on the line between funny and offensive.

It seemed to me that in summing up his at-times controversial work using the name of a series of children’s books, the editor who wrote the coverline used a similar approach to that of the comedian.

This I would characterise as a cleverly packaged juxtaposition of things that don’t belong together. Take this joke about rape: “I prefer to call it a snuggle struggle.” Though I share a lot of his interviewer Janice Turner’s views about women, I cannot help but smile at the silliness of “snuggle”, the horror behind “struggle”, the brilliance added by the rhyme. It’s the best headline you’d never write.

Same goes for “Nine out of ten people enjoy gang rape” – the bland survey/advert format makes the nasty subject matter unexpectedly funny.

I once attended an event in which Carr ran through some of his jokes with a live audience – literally reading them off a clipboard – in order to see which worked and which elicited groans or a stunned silence. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the Madeleine McCann line he tested, but it was immediately clear that it didn’t work – that it got more of an “ooooh” than a laugh. And I think the reason was that it didn’t fit that criterion. It poked fun at a horrible tragedy but without the levity of comic lateral thinking that “at least we’ll have a great team at the Paralympics” adds to the British troops losing limbs in Iraq.

Obviously that Paralympics gag created headlines with which Carr would probably rather not have been associated. But His Dark Material sums up why there’s probably going to be more where they came from.

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The sport subs’ Super Thursday

Chelsea’s victory over Barcelona last night sent the nation’s sport desks into overdrive, spawning headlines such as BLUES CLEAN UP THE MESSI (Express), HOT DROG IS THE MUSTARD (Express), BARC ARE WORSE THAN DROG BITE (Mirror), SALUTES BLUE, SIR (Sun), SLICK AS A DROG (Sun) and DI MATTEO HAILS OLD GUARD AFTER HISTORIC CHELSEA WIN (oh well, Independent, maybe next time).

But is this really the tabloids’ best game? Drogba-related headlines basically write themselves; most of these have probably been sitting around somebody’s notebook for years, along with WHO LET THE DROG OUT, etc etc.

To see real inspiration at work, let’s leave these overpaid stars behind and take a train of thought up to Howden, home of the Press Association (we believe it says this on the train station, but having never taken an actual train there, can’t be sure).

The Press Association, Howden

Field of dreams

Picture the scene: a group of sports editors are waiting inside their orangey office building for the Chelsea game to start. A story comes in about Cristiano Ronald’s boots being stolen before a game against Bayern Munich. Shocked by the theft, a local radio presenter has sent the player a replacement pair of shoes.

“Dear Cristiano Ronaldo,” says the accompanying note. “Hospitable people live here in Bavaria. We may steal maypoles, but not shoes. We therefore wanted to replace what you lost. Here are a pair of genuine Bavarian brogues for you. With them you won’t be able to score any goals, but you will look really snazzy. Kind regards, Stephan Lehmann and the Bayern 1 team.”

According to our sports desk source: “we kicked around various shoo-ins and footloose ideas”, but finally Kirstie Lovewell hit the back of the net with RADIO PRESENTER PROVIDES SOLE-LACE TO BOOTLESS RONALDO.

Online subs around the country picked up the Bavarian brogue and ran with it, adding WE WUZ ROBBED! (Mirror Football) and REAL MADRID FORWARD CRISTIANO RONALDO SENT “REALLY SNAZZY” SHOES STOLEN BEFORE BAYERN DEFEAT (bit wordy but good use of “snazzy”, But Super Caley prefers Kirstie’s double-pun for its rarity.

Every Drog headline has its day, but how often do you get to give sole-lace?

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Women hate Samantha Brick because she was beautifully subbed

DM's Samantha Brick pieceMost people’s reaction to Samantha Brick’s Daily Mail article about the perils of being an attractive woman was: “But she’s not even that beautiful”! For those in the trade, it was: “Clever sub-editor.” Or possibly: “Evil sub-editor.”

You can write a piece about how the DM hates women, and of course Hadley Freeman of The Guardian already has (find it here if you want to read the words “The Daily Mail hates women” repeated a number of times). But that’s hardly the purpose of this blog. This blog is intended for sub-editors, and fans of good sub-editing. Good subs understand their readers, and so any good sub knows that headlines such as this do not appear because that newspaper or its editorial team hate women. They appear because its readers do; specifically, readers of its Femail section. Women hate women. So this is really a very good headline.

Was it fair? Do they know their own strength? Does the sub in question have a pang of regret at the troll lynching Ms Brick has received since the piece went online, or have they been cackling away at their own genius since Tuesday? Let’s call her “she”, in fact, because I feel relatively sure it’s a woman. Only a woman truly understands how much women hate women. She may feel either way; on the few occasions I have tried out something like this on a page, I have usually toned it down on second thoughts. But the DM doesn’t pull its punches – so that while The Guardian may accuse it of wife-beating, it has had fantastic global publicity.

For my part, I heard about it from a friend at The National in Dubai, with whom I’m staying this week. The Middle Eastern angle on it is interesting because the reason Ms Brick’s (or her sub’s) tone offends people is that it is not modest. There does seem from this remove to be something rather odd about a culture that urges a woman constantly to look beautiful, groom herself carefully, emulate this or that celebrity, and then condemns her for acknowledging that people find her attractive. It’s counterintuitive. But kudos to the sub for understanding it.

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