Betteridge’s Law and Methods of Barbarism

Apparently there’s a very stupid person who loiters around in the various Facebook Boer War echo chambers, and rather pathetically seeks to dismiss all my writing and research by pretending that I am ‘a journalist’. Needless to say, I am not, but I am nevertheless aware of an adage in that profession called ‘Betteridge’s Law’ which states:

‘Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no’.

Though this has been considered a truism in journalism for many years, the ‘law’ was first associated with Betteridge after he wrote this in an article, back in 2009:

This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.[i]

A few years earlier, long-serving journalist and political editor, Andrew Marr, had made a similar point:

If the headline asks a question, try answering ‘no’. Is This the True Face of Britain’s Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have We Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn’t have put the question mark in.) Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or over-sold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means ‘don’t bother reading this bit’.[ii]

Others have taken a similar line, stating that phrasing headlines as questions is a shameless marketing gimmick employed by low-brow newspapers when they do not ‘have the facts required to buttress the nut graph’.[iii] The veteran journalist, Roger Simon, characterised the practice as justifying ‘virtually anything, no matter how unlikely’[iv], and gave hypothetical examples such as ‘Hillary to Replace Biden on Ticket?’ and Romney ‘to Endorse Gay Marriage Between Corporations?’ to demonstrate the sheer absurdity of the practice.

And the ‘law’ about the lurid and disingenuous use of question marks is not just confined to trashy  tabloid journalism. In the – one would imagine, rather esoteric – field of particle physics[v], there is a very similar law called ‘Hinchliffe’s rule’. Named in honour of physicist Ian Hinchcliffe, the rule states that:

‘if a research paper’s title is in the form of a yes–no question, the answer to that question will be “no”’.[vi]

Now, you are probably thinking, ‘well, this is all very interesting, but what on earth has any of this gutter-press sensationalism and barefaced attention-seeking duplicity got to do with the Boer War?’


[i] Betteridge, Ian (23 February 2009). TechCrunch: Irresponsible journalism,

[ii] Marr, Andrew, My Trade: a short history of British journalism, p.253

[iii] Murtha, Jack (September–October 2015). ‘Can You Really Tell an Entire Story in a Headline?’, Columbia Journalism Review

[iv] Simon, Roger (8 May 2012), ‘Empty seats haunt Obama’, Politico

[v] And if that especially deluded gentleman on Facebook wants to accuse me of being a particle physicist too, I can assure him that this is also not the case

[vi] Shieber, Stuart M. (May–June 2015), ‘Is This Article Consistent with Hinchliffe’s Rule?’


  • meurig Posted June 21, 2024 9:52 am

    Very good punch line.

    • Bulldog Posted June 22, 2024 5:29 am

      Glad you enjoyed it.

      One should, of course, not judge a book by its cover, though this one hardly suggests it will be a balanced, objective and academic account of events.

      It would be rather like someone claiming to write a history of RAF Bomber Command… and using a blood red cover, with a photo of a dead German baby and flattened houses… and a similarly weaselly title like: “War Criminals?”

  • Mike Oettle Posted June 22, 2024 9:29 pm

    Since Burridge Spies was once a lecturer of mine, I believe he found himself in a position where he felt he had to answer accusations that the British had used “methods of barbarism”, and that a negative answer was the logical conclusion.

    • Bulldog Posted June 23, 2024 4:19 am

      I agree that, when one actually reads the book, there is very little – if any – to support the shrill claims of ‘Methods of Barbarism’ being used… which is why I feel the title / cover are so unnecessarily sensationalist… I understand that a publisher has to drive sales, but this approach appeals to the lowest common denominator – not objective, balanced people.

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