Vague headlines give no spoilers

The fiction: Red Road, released 2006. Director: Andrea Arnold. Props master: Douglas Ferguson.

The newspapers: Daily Record, Evening Times

Although it involves staring endlessly at screens (and doubtless ruining your eyesight in the process), there’s a sort of voyeuristic allure to the job of monitoring CCTV footage. You get to spy on everyday comings and goings for a legitimate reason… or maybe it’s just me who sees the appeal. Anyway, it doesn’t seem like an especially happy life for Jackie, the central character of Andrea Arnold’s debut film Red Road. But at least she keeps up with the news on a daily basis, thanks to the signs outside every newsagent.

At the start of the film we see various scenes of Glaswegian life as glimpsed through Jackie’s screen. There are some figures who seem to be regulars in her life, in much the same way a commuter recognises the same faces day in, day out. One of Jackie’s favourites, it seems, is a man and his elderly dog.

red-road

They’re standing outside a pretty standard Glasgow newsagent’s, which is displaying two newspaper bills to tempt people into buying the papers. The one we can actually read all of here is for the Daily Record (and, as the logo in the bottom-left of the bill indicates, its sister paper the Sunday Mail).

Newspaper bills are one of my favourite parts of the British press, and tend these days to be reserved for local newspapers. The Daily Record covers all of Scotland, although the official statisticians of British newspapers consider it a “regional newspaper” because they count Scotland as a region rather than a nation, where the national newspapers are counted.

A rather boring editorial team will just use the bills, which are put on signs emblazoned with their logo outside shops selling the paper, to promote their front page story. This can pay off if your front page story is an exciting murder, but falls rather flat if it’s been a slow news day and all you can muster is a slump in property prices. So some papers take the opposite approach and use the bills to amplify smaller stories that have a certain quirky appeal — at least when phrased in a certain way.

The undoubted masters of this, as far as I am concerned, are the team at The Argus in Brighton. Their legendary bills, coupled with a fine eye for a fun story, have even been turned into an art exhibition. I have done a lot of work as a copy editor on the Brighton Argus myself, so I may be slightly biased, but here is a selection to back up my enthusiasm:

So the Daily Record’s “DUMBARTON MAN IN BLACK PUDDING SCARE” may not be the biggest story of the day in the whole of Scotland, but its wacky semi-serious angle has some pedigree for this sort of promotional appeal to the potential audience. I’d certainly buy the Daily Record on the strength of it because, come on, who doesn’t want to know what sort of black pudding scare this poor man suffered?

(I have scoured the internet for an answer, dear reader, but the best I found was a 2012 article with the intro: “A 47-YEAR-OLD man appeared in court yesterday accused of causing fear and alarm with a black pudding.” My apologies.)

But while we can admire the Record’s playful black pudding headline, it simply cannot hold to a candle to the paper’s best ever headline. It is a legendary piece of humour, sensation and hard news. Bathe in its glory:

daily-record-terrorist.jpg
This is almost everything I love about journalism and Scotland. Perfect.

Anyway, slightly later in the film, Jackie spots a face via the cameras that looks familiar to her. The mystery of exactly who he is and how Jackie knows him is pretty central to the film. (Yes, that means spoilers are ahead.)

At one point, she pulls out a folder of newspaper clippings relating to this mysterious man.

red-road-1

This is the front of the Evening Times — which means, for the first time on this blog, I am covering a newspaper that I have done (a very small) amount of work on as a copy editor. And let me tell you right now: I would never have put that headline on the front page.

Because as much as the movie doesn’t want to give things away, that is literally the point of headlines. “BLACKIE HILL MAN GETS 10 YEARS” leads on the length of the jail sentence he has received, rather than also incorporating the crime he has committed. The ideal headline would cover the crime and the time, but that would be at odds with the film.

Red Road builds up this mystery, forcing the viewer to ponder exactly what Tony Curran did (reduced her to tears when he played Vincent Van Gogh in Doctor Who? She wouldn’t be alone…). Eventually we find out he killed Jackie’s child and husband by driving while high on crack. “DRUG-DRIVE KILLER” would take up as much room as “BLACKIE HILL MAN” on the top line of the Evening Times’ front page, and would be substantially better. Not only is it more informative, it’s massively more interesting for everyone who does not live in Blackie Hill.

As it stands, it’s like the Evening Times was pioneering clickbait in print, asking readers: “here’s the sentence, but what’s the crime?”

It is very much in the nature of a newspaper to resist that impulse. That is not to say they cannot tease, question or bend the truth in their headlines. All of these things are at least defensible — up to a point, anyway — and make up part of a newspaper’s charm. But on a very serious story where two people are dead and another man is going to spend a significant portion of his life behind bars, this is not the time to do so. It is very much the time to lay the facts quickly on the table, hoping that readers will be tempted to part with their money to learn more.

If you saw a headline that puzzled you, you might glance at the copy beneath it, decide the paper is wasting your time, and move on. But if they can succinctly summarise a story in a way that attracts your interest, you might certainly reach into your pocket and pull out enough change to buy it and find out more. Clickbait, of course, just requires mere interest to earn its value, so online news has very little incentive (beyond tradition and a sense of public duty) to bother giving readers all the facts.

This is not to say one is better than the other, merely that they serve different purposes. And in Red Road, a well-crafted newspaper headline would ruin a central part of the film. Because they, too, serve different purposes entirely. Newspaper articles are always referred to as “stories”, but they are markedly different from most narratives because they offer up the most interesting general take first, before diving into specificity and then tapering out with the least interesting stuff. But Red Road remains riveting throughout, even if it does a require a slur on the standards of a Glaswegian tabloid.

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