It was good to see this item of British journalists’ slang turn up recently. When the Bishop of London executed a volte face by suspending legal action against the protesters camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral, a couple of the more upmarket British newspapers referred to his decision as a reverse ferret.
Journalists, more even than the populace at large, are sceptical of public figures who have the strength of character to decide they were wrong about something. Politicians run scared of changing policy and so being thought to be indecisive. Margaret Thatcher, at her party conference in Brighton in 1980, gave her view of such changes of direction, “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: you turn if you want to — the lady’s not for turning”, a witty bit of scriptwriting that, lacking a sense of humour (and possibly knowledge of the play by Christopher Fry), she had to be convinced was worth including. Tony Blair famously told his party conference in 2003 that he had “not got a reverse gear” over his decision to invade Iraq. George Osborne, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, says he has no Plan B.
The term was applied, in the first three months of 2011, by the Telegraph to an insurance company’s decision not to proceed with a takeover; by the radio critic of the Independent to his decision not to listen any more to The Archers (the longest-surviving soap in the world) and by the Financial Times to PM David Cameron’s reversal of foreign policy by acting in support of the rebels in Libya.
It is agreed that the term was created by Kelvin MacKenzie, the notorious former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid, The Sun (known to journalists by the rhyming-slang phrase The Currant Bun or The Bun). He’s known for headlines such as “Gotcha!” (jingoistically celebrating the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War), “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster” (later proved untrue), and “If Kinnock Wins Today, Will The Last Person To Leave Britain Please Turn Out The Lights” (on general election day in 1992).
He based the term on the Yorkshire extreme sport of ferret legging. It consists of tying string around the ankles of a contestant’s trousers, popping a couple of ferrets down them and tightening the belt. No underwear is permitted. The little beasts are domesticated versions of the polecat, traditionally used to hunt rabbits by sending them down burrows to flush the animals out (hence to ferret out). They have viciously sharp teeth. The winner is the one who can stand the agony longest; the world record, I am told, is an astonishing five hours and thirty minutes. Kelvin MacKenzie’s view was that his newspaper’s job was to provoke public figures — as he put it, to “stick a ferret down their trousers”. Whenever he felt that public opinion had turned against the policy of The Sun, he would announce a change with the mysterious shout “reverse ferret!”.