The headline from GB News couldn’t be clearer. “JK Rowling’s name REMOVED from Harry Potter novels over ‘transphobic’ views”. It’s a bold claim that did its job: the reaction to a tweet promoting the article was foaming outrage – the usual, tedious back-and-forth in this familiar battle in the culture wars with added indignation.
To be clear, JK Rowling’s publishers are not removing her name from the Harry Potter book series. The world’s best-selling living author is still a brand with value to booksellers. In fact the only person officially removing JK Rowling’s name from JK Rowling’s books is JK Rowling, who publishers her popular “Strike” crime novels under a pseudonym.
Here’s what’s actually happening. A young Canadian artist and Potter fan beautifully rebinds old Rowling books with newly designed boards and title pages that don’t feature the author’s name, and sells them in small numbers for a fairly decent amount, donating part of that fee to charity. The artist, who is trans, says they are uncomfortable with Rowling’s much-publicised comments on trans rights and gender, so created unofficial editions as a beautifully bound way for fellow fans to enjoy the books without the author’s name. This niche project was documented last year on TikTok and gained some attention.
Mail Online published a click-friendly story on January 11, with a title that at least emphasised the books’ unofficial, handmade nature. The next day GB News waded in, removing all the nuance from the headline. By the afternoon it was trending on Twitter with comments soaked in the usual bile – cancel culture, erasure, “woke” and not a small amount of transphobia. Mission accomplished.
Leaving Rowling’s views aside, this is bad journalism. There would be ways to discuss this story – it’s a great jumping-off point to explore why some queer people feel uncomfortable reading Rowling’s work, or the separation of art from artists, the way we fold fandom into our identities and the cultural impact of the Potter books themselves. The rage-bait published by Mail Online, GB News and more, including Yahoo News, Fox News, Liverpool Echo and Insider (which at least explored the legal angle), does not do this. That’s not why it exists. Instead it’s there to incite clicks and hate-shares. Headlines like these take advantage of a niche story and hitch it to one of the most toxic, vicious and volatile subjects to be found in online discourse. In this case, they also expose a young person from a marginalised community to a group already primed to hate them, and don’t even bother to explore the topic in any kind of meaningful way while doing so.
Social teams and editors know this. Meaningful conversation isn’t the point. Instead, the aim is outrage that races to the extremes of a debate without the nuance and compassion those issues deserve. Each outraged tweet or comment adds to the value for the publisher. Each one stokes the fire. Each makes the conversation even more volatile and even more toxic, and for the real people at the heart of the debates (and I’m not talking about the author here), even more damaging. The more outraged the reaction, the more reason to publish more. It’s a self-replicating, self-powered hate-machine working, ultimately, in the service of empty clicks.