Cowley’s Syndrome

One of my lifetime ambitions is to have a law named after me, like Godwin’s Law, or Parkinson’s Law.

An attempt during the 2010 election to establish Cowley’s Law of Election Campaigning (that there is an inverse relationship between the importance of any election campaign technique and the amount of media coverage devoted to it) never really took off, although I’m happy to argue that its validity was borne out by much of the election coverage.

But recently Matthew Parris of the Times kindly allocated me a Syndrome, which is a sort of Poor Man’s Law, and so frankly that’ll have to do.  Parris’s article – sadly, behind the Times firewall (but helpfully copied here) – was triggered by a tweet of mine, in which I asked whether there was a phrase for shock and disgust triggered by confirmation of a long-held belief.

I first wondered about this during the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, when there was such horror about what MPs had been getting up to.  What confused me wasn’t that people thought what some MPs had been doing was wrong, but why they were seemed so shocked by it.  It was hardly as if they had previously thought MPs were wonderful people who could do no wrong.  The public have long had a view of most MPs as dirty rotten scoundrels, yet when they then discovered that some of them were indeed behaving as dirty rotten scoundrels, they seemed to be outraged.

Phone hacking generates the same confusion.  Again, it’s not that I don’t understand why people think it’s wrong.  But the public have long had a very low opinion of tabloid journalists – indeed, tabloid journalists used to be one of the few professions that came below MPs in league tables of honesty.  Surely everyone knew some tabloid hacks did terrible things; yet having discovered they did, everyone’s outraged.

One possibility is that the things that have been revealed are much worse than that which people expected.  In some cases this might be true (especially the revelations about Milly Dowler) but in general this would be a pretty damning indictment of the British imagination. Can it really have been a shock to discover that tabloid journalists broke the law in pursuit of a story?

Discussing expenses, my colleague Justin Fisher, of Brunel University told me that the correct comparison is with infidelity.  You may believe your partner is cheating on you – indeed, you may have really strong suspicions – but it would still be a shock to discover proof of them in flagrante delicto.

Philip Cowley

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