Dear journalists: please stop calling everything a "dead cat"

It's comforting to imagine political blunders are actually acts of strategic cunning. But accusing news stories of being "dead cats" can do more harm than good

November 19, 2019
No cats were harmed in the making of this article (even this one is only sleeping). Photo: Prospect composite
No cats were harmed in the making of this article (even this one is only sleeping). Photo: Prospect composite

James Cleverley not turning up to a Sky interview is a “dead cat.” Jacob Rees Mogg saying that the Grenfell victims should have disobeyed official advice to stay put is a “dead cat.” The Prime Minister writing, but not saying, the word ‘onanism’ is a “dead cat.” Like the Rue St-Severin in 1730s Paris, this election has dead cats everywhere.

The phrase is supposed to denote the moment when political campaign deliberately introduces a dramatic, shocking, or sensational topic, in order to draw discussion away from failures or problems in other areas. It came to Britain through its association with Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist and Conservative campaign manager.

Boris Johnson once explained this strategy by saying that, if you throw a dead cat onto a table mid discussion, people might be alarmed or disgusted, but they will also be able to do little more than shout “jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!” In other words, people’s attention will be diverted from the original discussion. There is little chance of returning to the prior debate: all attention is focused on the cat’s carcass.

Once the dead cat tactic got out of the bag, political commentators started to look for it during campaigns. Of course, it is important to think about how the narrative is being shaped by politicians. It is clearly necessary to examine how political campaigns are being conducted, and how politicians seek to shape news coverage and debate.

The problem is that once the idea of the dead cat had been discovered, suddenly there were deceased felines everywhere. Everything was a dead cat—every policy, every interview, every gaffe. Everything existed only to detract attention from something else.

This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, if everything is a dead cat, nothing is. You cannot run a whole election campaign comprising only morbid moggies. At some point, the idea that issues are only diversions starts to ring hollow—what differentiates the distraction, and the issue our attention is being distracted from?

It is also a problem because, fundamentally, ‘dead cat’ is jargon. It’s an insider’s term, for an insider’s conversation. This is fine if you want to create an in-club and make your readers who are in the know feel special and included. But it is less useful if you’re trying to communicate your political coverage to a wider audience, who might be confused or turned off by the mention of a lifeless tabby.

Arguing that something is not a ‘real’ problem, not a ‘real’ policy, but only intended to distract from the real topic under discussion, is telling your readers that this thing that they care about doesn’t matter. The implication is a patronising one: you might think you understand what is going on, but we clever commentators know better. Silly little people, getting distracted! Paying attention to the politician's outrageous comments, or making a fuss about some misused statistics or dodgy facts, or laughing at an obvious fluffed line, simply plays right into their hands.

After all, the dead cat strategy only works if people let their attention be diverted away from the main topic. The political campaigns manager, in this context, wants you to be outraged by their candidate. Laughing, or mocking, or getting angry is getting distracted. Better to ignore them.

But the problem is: sometimes we need to get angry. Sometimes politicians say awful, callous, heartless, offensive things, and we should be provoked by them. Sighing that, oh, this is just what they want you to do, comes from the privilege of people who know that political campaigns will never really make their lives worse. It treats politics as a game that you can win, and language as something with no consequences.

The idea that there must be a clever plan behind political campaigns also shows our desire to believe that there is someone, somewhere, in control. That is understandable; nobody likes to accept that the world is chaotic. But when journalists dismiss gaffes as dead cats, it speaks to a bigger problem. Journalists, politicians, lobbyists and campaign managers mostly come through a very narrow education system and class background. They would like to believe their peers are clever and capable and in control, because they want to believe that about themselves, too.

Proclaiming things to be only ‘dead cats’ has two functions. It makes commentators feel that they can see behind the trick, and explain how it is really being done—but it also reassures them that there is a trick there in the first place. Rather than a lot of tired, stressed, dozy, venal people making mistakes—or, worse, engaging in cruelty that is as needless and casual as it is heartfelt—there is a puppet master, and this is all part of their plan.

But in truth, politics is messy. Nobody is in control. The world is not governed by clever people doing clever things: it is structures, and systems, and people muddling along within them, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes not. Perhaps we could try to be a little more curious about how things work, and give the dead cat a fitting funeral.