A celebration of the age-old tactic beloved by journalists of creating a sensational story out of nothing, this book is a collection of articles that caught the world's attention just from the headline alone
Honoring the journalistic skill of basing an entire article on a fantastically far-fetched question-based headline, John Rentoul brings together for the first time the winning entries from his blog, Questions To Which The Answer is "No!". With an introductory essay on the art of headline writing, articles are grouped thematically in subjects from sports to politics, current affairs, and history. Readers will find dozens of attention-getting articles, including journalistic gems such as: "Was JFK killed because of his interest in aliens?," "Can your dreams predict the future?," and "Has Marilyn Monroe been reincarnated as a shop assistant called Chris?" This book will leave you not knowing whether to laugh or cry at the state of journalism today.
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Questions To Which the Answer is "No!"
By John Rentoul
Elliott and Thompson LimitedCopyright © 2012 John Rentoul
All rights reserved.
Daily Mail, 6 February 2009. The story quoted Edna Andrews, the family's housekeeper, who said that Bishop Williamson's mother thought that his father, a hosiery buyer, had been denied promotion at Marks & Spencer because he was not Jewish. Which is why you should never read on after a headline like that: you know that the story can only be a disappointment.
Sun, 20 February 2009. The Sun reported a mysterious pattern of criss-cross lines (below) apparently shown by Google Earth on the North Atlantic ocean bed. The BBC reported a statement from Google the next day: 'What users are seeing is an artefact of the data collection process. Bathymetric (or sea floor terrain) data is often collected from boats using sonar to take measurements of the sea floor. The lines reflect the path of the boat as it gathers the data.'
Daily Mail, 28 February 2009. The online version was more heavy-handed, although this meant that it contained more explanatory material, for those of us not so familiar with the private lives of popular entertainers: 'Is Madonna still in love with Sean Penn, the man who beat her up with a baseball bat?'
The Wardman Wire blog, 4 March 2009. Twitter was quite new then.
Fraser Nelson, Coffee House blog, 26 March 2009. Several Questions to Which the Answer is No have an 'end is nigh' theme; this one referred merely to bad things happening to the economy after a Bank of England auction of Government debt failed to sell completely. Nelson thought this might mean that the Government would be unable to raise money to finance its vast deficit. Actually, it was a glitch caused by uncertainty over the pricing of gilts, as a result of the new policy of Quantitative Easing, a fancy way of saying 'printing money'.
Janet Daley, Telegraph blog, 1 April 2009. An offensive and unnecessary question, I thought; the refuge of the over-expressive commentator. It was offensive and unnecessary when Matthew Parris asked it of Tony Blair, in The Times, on 29 March 2003: 'Are we witnessing the madness of Tony Blair?' Parris meant, 'I really, really, really do not agree with the war in Iraq.' I suppose Janet Daley's question, at the time of Brown's G20 meeting to 'rescue the world', meant, 'I am a Conservative.'
Mail on Sunday, 12 April 2009. Reported in the Mail on Sunday on this occasion, but repeated in all newspapers from time to time, in all good bookshops and on The History Channel. The 'after all' was a particularly deft touch, suggesting that the Mail on Sunday [understood that any sensible person knew that the shroud was a fake, but that some new evidence had come to light that unexpectedly suggested that the fruitcakes had been right 'all along'.
Fox News, 16 April 2009. As Barack Obama began to put his healthcare plans through Congress, his opponents held up the British National Health Service as a nightmare vision of America's future. Sarah Palin said that decisions about entitlement to treatment were made in the UK by 'death panels', and Fox News interviewed Jerry Bowyer from the National Review, who explained why the NHS is easily infiltrated by terrorists. Because it is a bureaucracy, apparently.
Daniel Finkelstein at the Times blog, Comment Central, 20 April 2009. For this one I broke my own rule, that the author of the question had to imply that the answer was Yes for it to qualify for inclusion in the series, on the grounds that Finkelstein was asking the question on behalf of the owner of the X-ray, who had put it on eBay claiming it was of Hitler's skull.
Independent, 20 May 2009. After Michael Martin, the Speaker of the House of Commons, announced his resignation, my own newspaper responded with its own brand of hyperbole, as if it were the Prague Spring and the lifting of the Labour jackboot all in one. I thought it was quite a bright day for Parliament, as it was likely to acquire a better chairperson. As for a 'new dawn', (a) we weren't exactly living in the feudal age before and (b) you must be joking.
Richard Shulman, examiner.com, 26 May 2009. This was from Richard Shulman, an 'examiner' for examiner.com, 'a dynamic entertainment, news and lifestyle network'. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, had apparently acted on Blair's suggestion that he should hand over to the Palestinian Authority the sales tax that the Israeli government collected on its behalf. Still, it was better than the more usual question, the other way round.
James Delingpole, Telegraph blog, 5 June 2009. Again, he was not asking the question himself, as he is sceptical about human-made climate change, but on behalf of Russia Today, the English-language channel, which suggested that 'severe weather conditions' had caused the crash, off the Brazilian coast, four days earlier.
Ephraim Hardcastle, Daily Mail, 11 June 2009. A persistent question, first asked by Ephraim Hardcastle, the fictional Daily Mail diarist. Peter Mandelson was, and still is, a life peer, an appointment which, as he said, 'is for life'. Although there is no bar to a peer becoming Prime Minister, there has not been one since Lord Salisbury in 1902. The Bill that included a provision to allow life peers to renounce their peerage fell in the pre-election rush in November 2009.
Daily Express, 24 June 2009. An awkward one this, because one of my early Questions to Which the Answer is No was 'Is the [Express a newspaper?' I had formulated an arbitrary rule that its headlines did not count. But what are rules for, if not for changing?
Ynetnews, 14 July 2009. 'A Hamas police spokesman in the Gaza Strip, Islam Shahwan, claimed Monday that Israeli intelligence operatives are attempting to "destroy" the young generation by distributing such materials in the coastal enclave.
'A number of suspects have been arrested. The affair was exposed when a Palestinian filed a complaint that his daughter chewed the aforementioned gum and experienced the dubious side effects. "The Israelis seek to destroy the Palestinians' social infrastructure with these products and to hurt the young generation by distributing drugs and sex stimulants," said Shahwan.'
You could make it up. But you would be condemned as an Islamophobic smart alec.
Neil Durham, editor of Healthcare Republic, 18 August 2009. As I said, Twitter was still quite new.
Daily Telegraph, 26 August 2009. A picture of something that actually looked like a giant squid had been spotted by a security guard as he browsed the digital planet. A similar question had been asked by the Telegraph six months earlier, on 19 February, about the picture below: 'Has the Loch Ness Monster emigrated to Borneo?'
Gene, Harry's Place blog, 30 August 2009. Gene at Harry's Place was having a go at Victoria Brittain, a journalist for the [Guardian, who was a member of the council of Respect, George Galloway's party, which is not so much anti-war as pro-war on the other side.
Mail on Sunday, 6 September 2009. This was asked by Lauren Booth, Cherie Blair's half-sister, writing in the Mail on Sunday. Something to do with the Princess of Wales's campaign against land mines.
Jonn Elledge, Liberal Conspiracy blog, 9 September 2009. As with so many of these questions, the words of Kenneth Clarke come to mind. He was intercepted by a camera crew at the 1999 Conservative Party Conference, who put Margaret Thatcher's words to him, that 'in my lifetime all our problems have come from mainland Europe'. Clarke looked disbelieving, repeated' All our problems?', and said: 'Well, it's a theory, isn't it?'
Daily Mail, 11 September 2009. Another gem of the genre, given away by the supplementary question, which was also one in my series: 'And are the US and Britain covering it up to continue war on terror?' Well, it was a theory, wasn't it?
Daily Mail, 21 September 2009. Hats off for the opening paragraph, which quoted the BBC's Watchdog programme as saying that this man is 'a menace', before continuing to describe how one of the newspaper's 'most cynical' reporters met this 'controversial healer' and 'her scepticism began to waver.' An example of the have-cake-and-eat-it Mail at its best. Rebecca Hardy scoffs at 'the most controversial healer in Britain', Adrian Pengelly, but then wonders if there might be something in anti-science superstition after all.
Christopher Booker, The Real Global Warming Disaster, 17 October 2009. A Question to Which the Answer is No asked, at book length, by Christopher Booker in The Real Global Warming Disaster (Continuum), with this question as its subtitle. I do like the quotation marks around 'climate change', just in case anyone suspected that Booker thought there was something in it.
Peter Oborne, Daily Mail, 31 October 2009. Peter Oborne wrote that there were many times when Blair had to choose between 'doing his best for Britain', or 'creating a good impression with potential future employers in the European Union'. Only one thing wrong with this otherwise persuasive thesis. On the most famous occasion when Blair faced this choice, over Iraq, he chose to go against the policy favoured by the leaders of most of the large EU countries.
Ed West, Telegraph blog, 10 November 2009. This was a question that West asked in response to a sensible comment by Tim Montgomerie at Conservative Home. Montgomerie wrote:
The 'EUSSR' thing is just one of the wholly inappropriate comparisons that often come up in debates. Other classics are Bush equals Hitler, Israel equals Nazi Germany and Britain-under-Brown equals Zimbabwe-under-Mugabe. Every comparison devalues debate and, more importantly, cheapens the suffering of the people who did live under the USSR, Nazi Germany and Robert Mugabe.
Tim Montgomerie: living proof that there are intelligent Conservatives on the internet.
Adam Boulton, Sky News blog, 19 November 2009. Adam Boulton asked this question on the morning of the European Council's meeting to appoint Herman van Rompuy, former Prime Minister of Belgium, as its first President. Blair had been the bookmakers' favourite until two weeks earlier.
Boulton was not alone. Benedict Brogan wrote on his Telegraph blog that morning: 'Why Tony Blair should not be written off quite yet.' Mike Smithson asked at the Political Betting website: 'Is Blair back in the frame again for the EU job?' And James Forsyth on Coffee House wrote: 'Why my money is on Balkenende.'
Daily Mail, 21 November 2009. Well? Have you?
Peter McKay, Daily Mail, 30 November 2009. Early version of another frequent flier in this series. Far easier to ask the question, so that Daily Mail readers who hate Blair could fantasise about it, than to look at the law, which would be rather dull and from which any reasonable person would quickly conclude that there is no prospect of Blair, or any other politician or official, facing any kind of trial over Iraq. No matter how often I tried to explain this, and in how many different ways, the question kept recurring, with subtle differences of wording.
Nile Gardiner, Daily Mail, 9 December 2009. The President had given a speech about Afghanistan in which he did not mention the UK.
Sebastian Shakespeare, London Evening Standard, 15 December 2009. An unusual achievement in asking, about the invasion of Iraq, two Questions to Which the Answer is No in a single headline.
Iain Martin, on his blog, 7 January 2010. I said at the time that I feared that this was a Question to Which the Answer is No, and so it proved. When Alistair Darling published his memoir of his time as Gordon Brown's Chancellor, Back from the Brink (Atlantic Books), in 2011, he wrote: 'I met him later that afternoon, shortly after 4 o'clock ... He was in a dark mood, unsurprisingly, but there was no way that he was going. He was convinced that he had to stay on and see it through. We had a long talk about the need for him to engage with his colleagues ... By the time I left the room, I was satisfied that we had a mutual understanding of what we needed to do together.' A pity.
Mail on Sunday leading article, 24 January 2010. A rather special one, this, and possibly the first Question to Which the Answer is No in my collection that was not a headline. Such a pile-up of a sentence, with at least three subtextual slurs on David Miliband, that somebody must have been very proud of it.
Ed Yong, Not Exactly Rocket Science blog, 2 February 2010. Ed Yong reported the findings of a Birmingham University study, which found, surprise, surprise, that 'reactors' move more quickly than 'initiators', but that this is not enough to make up for the 200 milliseconds it takes to start reacting in the first place.
Daily Mail, 6 February 2010. This cover line on the Saturday Weekend section carried a rehash of an old story about Oscar, a cat in a nursing home in America that can tell when residents are about to die.
Daily Mail, 6 February 2010. A classic conspiracy theory, which would depend on executives in pharmaceutical companies taking a substantial risk of going to jail.
A mystery billboard, somewhere in America, 10 February 2010. Spotted thirteen months after George W. Bush left the White House.
London Evening Standard, 25 February 2010. Nor a plague of boils, darkness over the land, rain of frogs or any of the other evils predicted by a Conservative pre-election campaign against the 'Hung Parliament Party'.
Socialist Workers Party poster, 4 March 2010. This was the title of a meeting organised by the SWP on 4 March 2010, although how many of its target audience will know anything about the student unrest of 32 years earlier is debatable.
John Rentoul, Independent blog, 11 March 2010. Another historic first, this was a question in the series that I asked myself, on the Independent blog, about a YouGov opinion poll putting the Conservatives on 37 per cent and Labour on 34 per cent.
The result of the election two months later was a Conservative lead of seven points, with 37 per cent to Labour's 30 per cent, thus proving the wisdom of Tom Freeman's all-purpose news report, which I reproduce with his permission:
A newly released statistic shows that the thing it measures has sharply and unexpectedly changed. The move takes the number index past the psychologically important level at which over-excitable fools gibber a bit.
The sheer oddness of the number, which has been met with gaping and shrieks aplenty, almost certainly means that it means very little. The index usually only changes gradually, and this latest statistic represents the biggest ever change since records began not all that long ago. The nearest comparison was the sudden shift a couple of years back, after which nothing much happened except that it later turned out to have been wrong.
Today's statistic is the first provisional estimate for the number covering a period of time that did actually pass some while ago without anyone noticing anything unusual. It is still liable to be revised a few times as new data comes in, then encased in concrete and dumped in the sea, before being revised again in a very quiet voice in the dead of night.
A spokesman from the Institute For Stuff (IFS) said: 'You got me out of bed for this?'
Paul Richards, Progress magazine, 12 March 2010. This one was cheating, because Paul Richards, who asked it in an article in Progress magazine, did not imply that the answer was yes. He was actually making a point about the misuse of historical conjecture, comparing Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP, who suggested that the Levellers were early Tories, to the spiritualist interviewed by the Sun in 1992, who was asked how Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, Karl Marx and Chairman Mao would have voted (Churchill was for John Major; the rest for Neil Kinnock, naturally).
Psychological Science, 16 March 2010. The study discussed in this article suggested that doing something virtuous in one part of your life gives you the licence to behave badly in other parts.
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