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 goodby Charlotte Lydia Riley / November 19, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…