Hed: (n) Newsroom jargon for headlines
Headlines are tricky. They have to grab flighty readers’ attention, tell a story, and hopefully even squeeze in a witticism. The smallest choices affect readers’ first impressions and, sometimes, their only take on the story. Once a week, we analyze the different ways news outlets present the same story.
When British prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 on March 29, thereby kicking off the formal process of Brexit negotiations, international conflict seemed likely. That the locus of such conflict might be Gibraltar, a British overseas territory on Spain’s south coast with a population of 30,000, however, appeared far less likely. And yet here we are less than a week later tasked with parsing headlines about political and naval standoffs between Britain and Spain over 6.8 square kilometres of land. Life comes at you fast.
To backtrack slightly, this latest furore began when former Conservative party leader Michael Howard went on TV and said that May would be prepared to defend Gibraltar in the same way Margaret Thatcher had defended the Falkland Islands. It remains unclear to what extent Howard was in a position to speak for May, but the threat of naval war had been made. The status of Gibraltar was always going to come up in Brexit negotiations—96 per cent of its residents voted “remain” in the referendum—but Howard’s pronouncement changed the early tenor of discussions. “The Spanish government is a little surprised by the tone of comments coming out of Britain, a country known for its composure,” Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis quipped on Monday. On Tuesday, the British Navy ordered a Spanish patrol ship out of what it considers to be Gibraltar’s territorial waters. Clearly this Brexit thing is going swimmingly.
Lovers of irony will also note that Gibraltar’s southern extremity is known as Europa Point. Awkward.
This episode makes for an excellent case study in the use of headlines because Brexit is arguably an example of headlines morphing into foreign policies. Nowhere is that more apparent than The Sun, which followed up its projection of triumphalist messages on the cliffs of Dover with an even more profane provocation. It is, one must confess, a catchy headline. It may lack the verve of the seminal “Headless Body in Topless Bar” but it still sticks in the memory all the while stoking international tensions. The follow-up web headline explaining what Gibraltar is serves as a nice counterpoint to “Up Yours Senors.” Insofar as the top British Google hit in the hours after the Brexit referendum was “what does it mean to leave the EU?”, it only makes sense that basic questions continue to be asked when it’s already getting to be too late.
The Guardian’s headline is purely factual, but even it can’t escape the underlying absurdity of the situation. This sequence of words would have been unimaginable just years ago, but here we are. One does not know whether to laugh or cry. The Independent solves that problem by quoting an expert who calls the whole thing hilarious in its headline. If nothing else comes out of this whole morass, at least their talking head is amused.