The Bad Attitude Era: Why the UK political media is like professional wrestling

... just don't imagine John Rentoul in spandex.

There are too many people in the UK media or teaching about the media who… don’t understand the UK political media. It’s best understood through the prism of professional wrestling.

In professional wrestling, there are heels (villains) and faces (heroes); sometimes the bad guys suddenly go good (a face turn) or the good guys go bad (a heel turn). 

So, for example, when the Daily Mail suddenly criticises the government, that is, for left-wing observers, the equivalent of a face turn.

Take it on face value and you could easily say, “Wow! Even the Mail is attacking the government,” but that’s weak analysis. 

Whatever happens The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday are fundamentally loyal to the Conservative Party, landlords and the interests of the bosses, most specifically the interests of its owner Viscount Rothermere, just like all the wrestlers in the WWE are, in the end, working for the company’s owners, the McMahon family. 


When The Daily Mail appears to be attacking a Conservative government, it’s part of the storyline, and the underlying plan and goal remains the same. The Mail only throws blows at a Conservative Party advisor or politician when it decides that another Conservative Party figure is more useful to its interests.  

Another key factor in the UK press = professional wrestling analogy is that like wrestlers, columnists can easily switch between franchise.

Look at how many columnists have moved from The Daily Mail to The Guardian and vice versa. When they do, they use the same rhetorical moves, just in a different order and designed to have a different effect. 

In wrestling, there’s a concept called ‘kayfabe’ -- it’s the agreed fiction that what happens in the ring and around the ring is ‘real’ and treated as real in public by wrestlers and other talent, despite everyone knowing that the matches and dialogue are scripted. 

The UK political media operates a form of kayfabe. People who ‘play out’ fights with one another on broadcast often get on famously in green rooms. Lines are taken to push on various storylines, the positions they hold for their respective employers. 

And, like professional wrestling, the UK political media only works because wrestlers agree to a shared grammar and vocabulary of moves.

Wrestlers — and columnists/reporters — usually don’t get hurt themselves because they are calling the changes for each other and aware of what moves are coming next. UK political journalism operates with a set of agreed moves — assumptions and articles of faith — that everyone within the system knows and understands. 

In May 1996, WWE witnessed an infamous break in kayfabe. It’s known as ‘The Curtain Call’.  The Kliq, a backroom group of friends and allies, broke character during a live event to reveal their connection and love for each other despite existing feuds under kayfabe. 

The Curtain Call was the point at which the WWE was forced to become more open about the scripted elements of its product, shifting more thoroughly to branding that referred to its shows as “sports entertainment”.

There will be no Curtain Call in the UK media -- the system is too committed to pretending that everyone passionately believes what they say and that journalists only say what they mean rather than what their proprietor wants to hear.