The BBC News website streams headlines in a banner across the top of the page. Writing those summaries must need snap judgement and a cute editorial sense. So, although it’s a constant source of innocent amusement, perhaps one should feel sorry for that poor soul.
Like this afternoon:
An MP calls for crackdown on the number of seagulls in urban areas
Now, Malcolm was warned about the dangers implicit in a stale metaphor back in Mr O’Gorman’s English classes at the High School. Here is a fair example. How does one “crackdown” on a seagull? Usually the “cack-down” or “crap-down”, by seagull or pigeon, is done the other way round.
First, let’s be clear. It’s not a government responsibility. It is a matter for the local authority.
When we reach the full story, that is exactly what we find:
An MP is calling for action to control the number of seagulls in urban areas saying they pose a “serious problem” for residents, tourists and businesses.
Don Foster, Lib Dem MP for Bath, will use an adjournment debate in Parliament to call on ministers to take the threat of growing gull numbers seriously.
He said they were anti-social, noisy and in some cases, aggressive.
The Department for the Environment said councils had powers to deal with gulls and urged people not to feed them.
Now consider the further context. Don Foster is not in the running to be the daftest MP, nor even the battiest LibDem (in Malcolm’s book, that’s a two-horse race between Featherstone and Öpik, with Baker capable of coming up on the rails). He is, however, the MP for Bath.
The local authority there is Bath and North East Somerset (hence the usual local chat about the BANES of our lives). Until recently, when the Tories edged them out, the biggest faction on the Council was … the LibDems. So, presumably the birds flew in only when the Tories became cocks of the dung-hill in 2007.
That doesn’t answer the obvious question:
Why isn’t Foster using the strong LibDem presence (26 Councillors) to make the point in the Council Chamber?
Now to Malcolm’s other, more personal, grief
It’s that “crackdown” cliché.
It’s a clone of those tabloid headline words: “slam” (which may have gained its commonest currency from John Irving’s The World of Garp) and “blast” (a respectable provenance here, all the way back to Michael Drayton in the early Seventeenth Century). These two seem to have acquired loaded weighting in partisan reporting of political debate. Similarly. “crackdown” is a favoured term for those adherents of Laura Norder, such as shelter behind the Daily Mail.
Whence came this excrescence? It is, perhaps inevitably, an import from the United States; but it has subtly changed meaning in the transAtlantic crossing. It first showed up in the Washington Post in 1935, mentioning:
A threat of a ‘crack-down’ by the middle class group against those who put forward the legislation for abolishing public utility holding companies.
That suggests something like a “back-lash”, which, curiously and refreshingly, is a metaphor from mechanical engineering: and there was Malcolm expecting something on the lines of the Rhodesian Ian Smith‘s “I think the black man should get a fair crack of the whip”.
Notice, too, the WaPo‘s embarrassed inverted commas around the term. So, similarly, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, in their attempt at a social history of the inter-War years, The Long Week-End [1940, and, amazingly, still in print], describe the repressive use of DORA to maintain social control after 1918:
The police had ‘cracked down hard’ on the London night-clubs.