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Date: 14/04/18

Reading Beneath The Lines

To put this into context:

Bearing all the above in mind therefore, if you were an Ordinary Consumer, what would your immediate assumption be on reading this headline on the BBC News website early on Friday morning?

Screenshot from BBC News: 'Russian spy poisoning: Nerve agent inspectors back UK'

Most likely, you would assume that the staunchly truthful May, Johnson and all those absolutely principled paper and broadcast hacks had been right all along: that it was The Dark Lord of the Moskva's doing all along, and that this view had now been validated by an august international body of experts.

Except that, if you read the actual story itself (and it's here, at least for the moment), then you see that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had not endorsed the State's frothing about the Nasty Russians and they had no opinion on anything else, but agreed with Porton Down's analysis of the nature of the substance used, which - given that institution's reputation and undoubted expertise in its own right - would hardly be a surprise.

And that was all they wrote. Not that you would have been able to intuit any of this from the above headline.

There will no doubt be those who will jump to the State Broadcaster's defence and claim that they (that is, the Beeb) had to write something for a headline, and Do You Know How Difficult It Is To Come Up With A Short Title?

(Answer: yes, I bloody do. It is one of the bugbears in writing pieces for this site that finding a title is difficult; so difficult, in fact, that some otherwise worthwhile pieces down the years have gone unwritten simply because I can't think of a headline. I have thought of getting the ever-estimable Philip Challinor in to do it, but outsourcing is falling out of fashion nowadays).

Even accepting that as being the case, then why not, "Spy poisoning: Nerve agent inspectors confirm type of poison used"? There's plenty of room for it, despite being a few letters longer than the headline used. But someone, somewhere within BBC News decided to run with the original formulation instead.

Now, my remarks here may airily be dismissed with those stock phrases always deployed to defend the powerful; I am, no doubt, a "conspiracy theorist" or a member of "the tin-foil hat brigade".

Yet it is a fact sufficiently well-attested (to such an extent that it is taught early on in every course on journalism) that Most People Don't Read Beyond The Headline. The redoubtable Stu Campbell has delineated hundreds of examples from Scotland's woeful official media alone which make use of this under-recognised phenomenon (along with the other proven tactic of printing a whole lot of dishonest guff in the first eighty per cent of a piece before putting anything more accurate in the last two paragraphs, by which point - by dint of an extension of the theory - most of those who bothered to go past the headline have stopped reading).

In other words, the headline is used not to inform as such, but to set a scene, to create a mood, to convey a message in a few words. That that scene, that mood, that message may be inaccurate or misleading to the point of outright mendacity is not important if most people don't look beyond it; by that time, the scene, the mood, the message have been determined in the minds of most people reading the headline.

(In this wise, it is the very opposite of that more recent phenomenon, the 'clickbait' headline, which actively slavers for you to read what is beyond it; though that may be used for deceptive purposes too, of course).

In short, an item's title is the front line of the propaganda war, be it in news coverage or in commercial advertising. And the aim in both is to deceive, whether on behalf of a State seeking compliance from its citizen-subjects or a corporation eager to solicit profit.

It is only by becoming aware of such practices that we have a chance of defending ourselves from being misled.