During the UK general election, and afterwards, I thought I was reading an unusual number of comment articles telling David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown that they “must” do something. Once I’d spotted it, I couldn’t stop noticing that all of us are constantly being told what we must learn, deliver or promise. Governments were most often the recipients of this nagging, as were religions, and for less specific nags, “we” are constantly being told by columnists what we must do. And I haven’t even got to the things we must not do yet.
I checked to see if there was an increase in newspaper-based nagging. In British newspapers between 1990 and 1998, the frequency of headlines telling us we “must” do something declined gradually:
Then it started a long, steep climb. Now nags are twice as frequent as they were in 1998:
We must find out why. Someone must take the blame for this. Something must be done. Not that it will be: newspapers run many more opinion pieces than they did in 1998. They use them to attract commenters, which creates advertising revenue. Telling a person or group what to do is a quick way to start an argument and, in this context, all arguments are good.
Alternatively, as we become less patient and increasingly self-obsessed, we can just forget the column underneath the headline (most of us do that already) and personalise the experience. You could sign up to a genuine Daily Me, written by robot columnists, which is just a series of nagging headlines inspired by the newspaper we really care about: our Facebook wall posts.
MEDICS: FRIENDS OF PHILLIPS “MUST TAKE IBUPROFEN” IN BID TO ASSUAGE HANGOVERS
TALK NORMAL MUST BE UPDATED OR FACE OBLIVION
WIFE’S SECRET CHOCOLATE MUST NOT BE CONSUMED WHILE SHE IS AT WORK, SAY RELATIONSHIP EXPERTS
That’s much more useful than telling me that I must not let slip the opportunity to provide a legacy from the 2012 Olympics. I live next door to the stadium, but I’m pretty sure it’s not me they should be nagging.
Meanwhile columnists are free to tell all sorts of groups what they must do in the certain knowledge that their instructions will be ignored. They are lucky that no one has decided yet that bossy opinion columnists must be paid by results, because they might as well write an article telling ice cream it must not melt.