Gay soldiers, a rabbi and Mr X

In newspapers, a ‘shock’ is not always what it is cracked up to be

By David Aaronovitch, May 28, 2009

There is a secret life of headlines. Most of the specific complaints that are ever made to me about what I write have something to do with what I didn’t write: the headline. A large amount of what people imagine they read in my columns exists in the headlines, and not in my copy. And so it is with news stories, too.

Of course, the headline above this column, which I haven’t read and can hardly imagine, will be impeccable. But elsewhere?

OK, so, two weeks ago the JC ran a story by Marcus Dysch (dysch is, of course, Yiddish, for a good looker) headed: Shock at gay film shown to teenagers. You can immediately spot the problem. What on earth is the shock at a gay film being shown to teenagers (unless it is a gay porn film, but then it would certainly say “porn” in the headline)? It would surely be more of a shock if a gay film wasn’t shown to teenagers.

But “shock” is one of those words that has the quality of expressing a big, clear thing in very few letters, like “chaos” or “rage”. Or “storm”. By and large, complex or subtle emotions and arguments require a greater number of letters, and letters take space and space is something headline writers don’t have. As opposed to column writers who, you may be thinking by now, have too much of it.

The Daily Mail used to have a fall-back system whereby, if nothing was going on, they would discover a new liberalism, and then get a Conservative back-bencher to criticise it. This criticism would then be the justification for a headline beginning “Storm Over… ” And then the subject. Eventually, this phenomenon became known as “a storm-over”.

One of my favourite newspaper games is to seek the “storm” in the story. What does it actually amount to? Who, in the case of the gay film, was shocked? A moment of Dan Brown type recapitulation here, in which, instead of the history of the Illuminati or the creation of the God Particle, I remind you of the gay film tale. So… Bunch of teenagers about to go to Israel attend a sleepover organised by Liberal Jewish Youth. They’re shown films for pre-orientation, whatever that is. One is the Israeli equivalent of Brokeback Mountain, featuring gay romance in the IDF. Film has 15 certificate; kids are 15. Liberal Jews, Israel, teenagers, film about gays. Not a big surprise.

Except to Mr X from “south west London”, whose daughter it was — according to him — who had been shocked by the “totally inappropriate” film.

Mr X wanted to be anonymous — he said to protect his progeny, but I suspect it is because his family doesn’t know he lives out, and imagine that he has a house in Radlett.

Or maybe he wanted to be protected from the charge of looking a bit silly. This is what he went on to say: “We’re not homophobic at all. It’s Liberal Judaism, so we expect them to have liberal values, but this was the first meeting and it appears they are already trying to peddle those values to our children. On the parents’ evening, we were told they’d be discussing vegetarianism.”

Try working out the associations in that. You can only show gay films on a second meeting? Or, “first they came for the carnivores, but I didn’t speak out, and then they came for the (non-homophobic) heterosexuals”? “Peddling”?

My bewilderment was nearly completed by Mr X’s revelation that, two years before, his niece (hold on, isn’t he now traceable? His cover blown?) had been to the same event and seen the same film. So how come his daughter was so shocked? Don’t the cousins speak? More to the point, is the niece now a tofu-eating, gay, male, Israeli soldier?

I said nearly completed. The Rabbi responsible (Rabbi Rich) was then quoted as saying, “Young people need to see films that challenge them. Perhaps the parents concerned come from a different generation.” I should jolly well hope so, Rabbi! Now that would be a shock.

Last updated: 11:10am, May 28 2009