Capital territory

12 Nov

In the world of globalised anglophone news, stories intended for one market can be hard enough to parse in other markets as it is. When a quirk of the style guide get in the way, it can make things even more difficult:

The headline, written by Guardian Australia for Australians but, as usual, globally available on the website, creates a familiarly steep learning curve for those unfamiliar with politics in Canberra. Ken Wyatt is the minister for Indigenous affairs and the IPA (Institute for Public Affairs) is a conservative thinktank; that much quickly becomes clear. But what are overseas readers to make of the phrase “… engaging in bigotry in voice to parliament video”?

As the always-alert Memphis bureau, which spotted this story, writes

I found  the whole “voice to parliament” phrase very hard to understand at first – especially as it’s not clear that it’s a compound noun referring  to some sort of proposed consultative body. Initial caps on the words or hyphens or quotes or something would have made it clearer that “parliament” and “voice” go together to describe one thing. And I wouldn’t have been wondering what bigotry-in-voice is (talking in a demeaning way?), or which parliament video they were doing this to. But it’s not just the headline, the whole article reads oddly until you work out that the ‘voice to parliament’ is a (semi-)defined thing.

“Voice to Parliament” is indeed a thing: it is a proposal for greater Indigenous influence in Australian affairs and comes from the “Statement of the Heart”, the communique from the landmark Uluru Meeting in 2017 in which 250 Indigenous leaders met representatives of federal government to discuss constitutional reform. The statement proposed change based on three key concepts: Voice, Truth, and Makarrata (meaning “treaty” or “coming together”). The Voice to Parliament is an as-yet-unformed representative body based on the first of these that will communicate on behalf of the first nations to the government.

And it would be much clearer in the context of a sentence if the phrase were rendered in initial caps. Unfortunately, however, the Guardian is determinedly lowercase in these matters. As its style guide says:

Times have changed since the days of medieval manuscripts with elaborate hand-illuminated capital letters, or Victorian documents in which not just proper names, but virtually all nouns, were given initial caps (a Tradition valiantly maintained to this day by Estate Agents).

A look through newspaper archives would show greater use of capitals the further back you went. The tendency towards lowercase, which in part reflects a less formal, less deferential society, has been accelerated by the explosion of the internet: some web companies, and many email users, have dispensed with capitals altogether.

Our style reflects these developments. We aim for coherence and consistency, but not at the expense of clarity. As with any aspect of style, it is impossible to be wholly consistent – there are almost always exceptions, so if you are unsure check for an individual entry in this guide.

You feel that this is a case where consistency could have been sacrificed for clarity. Or at least, that’s how it seems from here in the opposite hemisphere. But perhaps the phrase is much better recognised in its own country, and easily spotted in the middle of a headline? In the world of globalised anglophone news, unintentionally baffling two-thirds of your audience is just something you have to live with. This is a piece written in Australia for Australians: it’s what sounds right to them that matters.

Reports without borders

29 Oct

One hesitates to think of the Daily Mail being subject to even less regulatory scrutiny than it currently is, but you can understand why the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) has come to the following conclusion:

IPSO’s jurisdiction regarding material published by a global digital publisher is limited to content covering events in the UK, save where the content can be viewed in the UK and:

1. The content covers events outside the UK and:

a. Principally concerns a UK national or resident who is directly and personally affected by the alleged breach of the Code; or

b. In respect of the accuracy of the content, where the coverage concerns UK nationals, residents or institutions.


2. The content is based on material published in a UK print edition of a title within the global digital publisher’s group.

This might read like something of a let-off for the British media organisations that Ipso regulates. The Guardian’s former investigations editor David Leigh – now on the board of Ipso’s regulatory rival, Impress – certainly appears unimpressed by it, tweeting a link to the news with the observation: “IPSO gives Mail Online exemption from ethics regulation”. And certainly it marks the end of Ipso’s previous approach, which was to award itself discretion to investigate stories by the foreign operations of UK papers when it chose to. But will this new proposal simply function as an exemption? I think there’s more to it than that.

All this has arisen in the wake of a row between the Mail and Ipso about an article published in 2015 making claims about a “bromance” between the head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, and the actor Tom Cruise. Miscavige complained about the article to Ipso in the UK on the grounds of accuracy and won. But the Mail declined to accept Ipso’s jurisdiction in the matter because, it said, the piece was almost exclusively about American people, events and locations; it had been commissioned and written in its US office; and it complied with American law. Apparently seeing some justification in the Mail’s position, Ipso launched a review into the extent of its remit with regard to international news, and published the proposed form of words quoted above in 2017; they were finally approved by its membership last month.

For the last few years, this blog has taken an interest in the rapid expansion of British media groups – notably the Guardian, Mail and BBC – into other English-speaking countries and the emergence of a nascent Anglosphere news agenda in which stories from the UK, north America and Australasia become mixed together and served to all three markets. This expansion has by and large outstripped the ability of the courts or press regulators to keep up: they remain constrained by national boundaries while news organisations are going global. (The Snowden revelations about the British secret service, for example, were published in the US, where the UK’s Official Secrets Act could not prevent them emerging.)

Ipso’s self-imposed rule change might be seen as simply an acknowledgment of this humbling reality, and an immediate victory for the Mail. But it also contains within it the seeds of a strategy that, in the long term, could revive regulators’ potency.

Ipso can only regulate those organisations that agree to be bound by its rules, of course. But as a general principle, this new approach – in effect, basing regulatory jurisdiction on the nationality of the subject of a story, rather than the nationality of the organisation writing it – is a strong one. If similar rules were to apply to every news outlet in every country (admittedly a big if), they could greatly clarify the confusion over global regulatory coverage.

Take the example of Rebel Wilson, the Australian comedy actor – a transnational figure who lives and works in Hollywood and is known across the Anglosphere. In 2017 she sued an Australian magazine in Australia for defamation and won a landmark A$4.5m (later reduced on appeal), a victory that was news in every English-speaking jurisdiction. Under the new rules, an article about the case by the Mail’s bureau in Sydney would be covered by the Australian Press Council on the grounds that Wilson was an Australian with a suit in the Australian courts. Even if the Mail’s US office were to write and publish some follow-up coverage with a Hollywood angle, the content would still of course be visible in Australia and be about an Australian citizen, so the APC would remain the active regulator. But, for the same reason, Miscavige would be unable to approach a sympathetic Ipso in the UK, and be forced to test his case against the First Amendment in his native US.

By the application of a universal, easy-to-understand rule – articles visible in a country about a citizen of that country will be adjudicated by the regulator of that country, regardless of the nationality of the newspaper in question – regulators would have a mechanism to attach media groups much more firmly to a particular regime, including more restrictive regimes like the British one. Publishing stories for UK consumption about nefarious British institutions via an American affiliate would become more perilous for UK media groups, although they would get better protection in certain cases from “complaints tourism”.

There would be some anomalies: who would have jurisdiction, for example, if Guardian US published a contentious story visible in Britain about a US-UK dual citizen committing misdeeds in New York? And we are probably a long way from national media watchdogs agreeing a reciprocal set of jurisdictional rules with each other. But this proposal is more than just a feeble “exemption” for misbehaving journalists; rather, for the regulators, it’s the first glimpse of a strategy that might get them back into a globalised game.

Vague impression

1 Oct

I’m four years late to this, it’s none of my business and I couldn’t possibly prove it, but I bet this originally said “vagueries”. Or at least, I bet that either:

(i) the writer wanted to say “vagueries”, was unsure how to spell it, assumed the word he wanted was “vagaries” and spelt it thus; or

(ii) the writer spelt it “vagueries” and an editor assumed he meant “vagaries” and changed it.

“Vagaries”, of course, can be easily looked up. “Vagueries” – well, the establishment dictionaries are silent, and only Wiktionary and its like are prepared to essay a definition: “a vagueness, a thing which is vague, an example of vagueness”, per

“Vague” and “vagary” are closely related – the authorities suggest that both probably derive from the Latin verb vagus, “to wander”. But in their journey through middle French and into English they have come to acquire two distinct meanings: “imprecise” and “aberrant”. And, given that Stereogum’s critic is objecting to Coldplay’s    “vague platitudes about walking through fires or turning your magic on”, it is clearly the former that he means.

You might think the “correct” English word in this instance would be “vaguenesses”, but the authorities seem reluctant to countenance that either, at least in the plural. And in any event “vague”, a word that arrived from French, instinctively sounds as though it ought to become a noun in a more French way, by analogy with the same process that has given English “drolleries” and “fripperies”.

If it were the case that the writer wrote “vagueries” and the editor changed it, that would be a shame. Rock critics are traditionally granted a lot of licence in terms of tone, register, syntax, hyperbole, and even decorum, in their reviews, as part of the wide range of voices contained every day in a newspaper. A quick bit of neologising is hardly out of the way in the music pages.

If, however, the writer put “vagaries”, then we face a very advanced editing conundrum indeed: whether an editor should replace a word that is in the dictionary but doesn’t make sense with one that isn’t, but does. That’s quite a big call, but I think the answer is clear. “Vagaries” is just wrong. Make it “generalities” or “platitudes” again if you’re worried about over-reaching your authority, but I think it’s clear from the sound of the word what the writer was trying to do. It might be wise to consult first, but I’d be lobbying to go for it.


(And with that, Ten Minutes Past Deadline is off, kicking through the leaves, for its traditional autumn break. See you at the end of the month, the collapse of the west permitting.)

She covers the waterfront

17 Sep

We appear to have another case of that strange phenomenon, Ambitious Tabloid Verbing. Last time, we had “to marvel” meaning “to look marvellous” (“Elizabeth Olsen marvels in button-down maxi red dress at Comic-Con”). Now we have “to cover” meaning – apparently – “to be on the cover” (that is, of a magazine).

It’s in the Mail, of course:

This is not one of those “implied object” verbs that the Mail also loves (“Gwyneth stuns in taffeta dress” meaning “Gwyneth stuns onlookers in taffeta dress”). Nor is it an example of what are called unaccusative verbs – for example, “shimmer” – which lack an object of any kind and describe an involuntary state of the subject. (Indeed, “cover” in this new usage gives the impression of being transitive.)

In a sense, as described by Ben Zimmer in the New York Times, this is a denominal verb – that is, a noun turned into a verb. Just as, in sport, to win a medal has become “to medal” and to get on the podium has become “to podium”, here “to be on the cover” has become “to cover”. That perhaps makes it less ambitious than “marvel”, which was a verb created out of an adjective: many denominal verbs, although formally frowned upon, are easily understood.

But here “cover”, like “marvel”, does lead you astray. In both cases, a more natural sentence expressing the same thought might contain a stative verb, or verb of being: “She looks marvellous”; “she is on the cover”.  But these stative verbs have been replaced with dynamic verbs, or verbs of doing, which have the effect of spuriously increasing the sense of the subject’s agency, and send you hunting through the sentence in search of an object (or, to use a more grammatically precise term, a “patient” – that is, the thing on which the agent acts). In last time’s example, you were led to think that Olsen was “marvelling … at Comic-Con” – in other words, that the convention was the object of the intransitive verb “to marvel (at)”. In these new examples, “covers” in every case creates a slightly baffling direct object out of the magazine in question (“Zendaya covers the new issue”) in a way that makes you think the models might in some way be acting as reporters.

To be fair to the Mail, it hasn’t invented this usage. It has appeared before, largely in the fashion press, and the briefest Google search uncovers examples going back several years.

But my copy of Collins indicates that “cover”, as a verb, already has 23 meanings. I rather hope this doesn’t become the 24th. Unlike many of my fellow prescriptivist enforcers, I don’t necessarily believe that verbing weirds language. But constructions as ambitious as this certainly do.

The front page that never died

3 Sep

What can you tell from these front pages, just by looking? They’re very design-conscious, with that vertical masthead; socially left-leaning, judging from the columnists in the skybox; highbrow, judging by the news stories, in a broadsheet-turned-tabloid way. Oh, and none of them are real.

In March 2016, the Independent’s owners gave up producing a print newspaper altogether and went online-only. But ever since, they have produced a facsimile front page, entirely for distribution online, in the style of their last ever edition. Look closer and you notice that there is no issue number or price in the masthead. In real life, the bylines, captions and body text would be disproportionately big, like a large-print book; but that improves their legibility on screen, which is the only place they will be ever be read.

Whether Independent Print Ltd (still so named) wants to produce something that sums up the day better than any online news format yet can, or whether it just doesn’t want to give up its chance to set the agenda on What The Papers Say, it remains as wedded to its old-media traditions as it can still afford to be. It may have had to give up printing a newspaper, but it hasn’t given up having a front page.

Fit to print

20 Aug

If I was surprised to see the New York Times’s notorious splash about Trump and the El Paso shootings two weeks ago, it was as nothing to my surprise when I learned that Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, sometimes doesn’t read the front page of his own newspaper (or at least has “gotten casual” about when he does so). He would have been as startled as anyone, then, when he saw the first-edition headline TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM above a story about a presidential speech, just a day after Trump had explicitly linked the issue of gun control to immigration reform in the wake of a racist mass shooting targeting Mexicans.

A tweet by the polling analyst Nate Silver drew the front page to Twitter’s attention, and a furore erupted. Baquet subsequently told the Columbia Journalism Review that, had he seen it, he would have “recognised this was a bad headline even before we got killed on social media”, and he ordered the second edition to be amended. (He honourably deflected blame away from his staff, saying “we tied the poor print hub’s arm behind its back because [the headline count] was too small”. Nonetheless, the new headline, ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS, although far from giving a complete picture, communicated much more scepticism across the same measure.)

But this is not a post about the attitude of the New York Times organisation to its print publication, or about the credulous tone of that original headline. What was also interesting about the whole uproar was that, in the era of online news, so many people seemed to feel that a print front page still mattered.

That story about Trump’s speech began its life, as so many newspaper stories now do, on the internet. According to the Wayback Machine, it first went live, with the apparently unproblematic headline TRUMP CONDEMNS WHITE SUPREMACY BUT DOESN’T PROPOSE GUN LAWS, the previous day, hours before the front page was prepared. The average number of unique visitors to the New York Times website is about 90 million a month, or 3 million per day; the daily print circulation is about 490,000. In other words, these days, the internet version of a story will vastly outstrip the newspaper one in terms of audience size. Newspapers are now also painfully late to the party, repeating much of what has been circulating online and on rolling news the previous day. In the modern news industry, the internet rules for immediacy, reach and relevance.

Why is it, then, that a print front page – surfacing belatedly in the evening and not on sale until the next day – still makes people so angry? (And it did make them angry: the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described it as the kind of “cowardice” that aided “white supremacy”; the Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke described it as “unbelievable”; and his rival Cory Booker told the paper that “lives depended” on it doing better.)  Of course the headline was wrong – or not so much wrong as disturbingly ingenuous, in an angry and polarised moment. But would a poorly phrased Facebook post or tweet promoting the web story, which might easily reach 490,000 people, have provoked so much outrage?

The reason, I think, is because print front pages still do something that no other forms of news distribution can do: they definitively encapsulate the news that took place on a given day. News site homepages don’t work in days – they are in a state of minute-by-minute flux as news breaks, features go live and editors change their minds about priorities. TV bulletins don’t either: there is one every few hours, each sometimes very different from the other as the news cycle changes throughout the day.

We have previously discussed how print front pages offer the opportunity for the kind of rhetorical flourish that web headlines, constrained by the need to optimise for search, do not. But print has this other role to play as well: to act, in the old-fashioned term, as “the paper of record”. There is no single definitive version of the New York Times’s web homepage for August 5, 2019: but there is a definitive Page 1. And that is what will be referred to by historians and appear in future illustrated news features – not because print is best, but because it is the only format, still, that parcels up news by the day rather than the hour. That’s why it still matters, and why politicians, readers and the Times’s own journalists still fight so hard to put the record straight.

Out and out

6 Aug

Oops, there’s a repeated word. This is why proofreading is so important, even close to deadline. Something always slips through.

Oh, wait, hang on: there’s a link.

Oh, wait, hang on: it’s a thing.

And it appears that “going out out” is only the mid-price option in a range of three:

To clarify: going out, tout court, is the simple dinner with mates: “think shiny fabric, a feather trim or, to really nod to the late 90s moment, a sequin cami and pair of wedge sandals”. Going out out “involves some preparation, an acceptance that best laid plans may go awry and a look that is both committed to the party without being too sensible” (in other words “go for something long and shimmery à la Bottega Veneta and whack a long-sleeved T-shirt underneath if you’re planning to go three parties deep”.) Going out out out – the big one is “a night out that may well turn into a lost weekend”, for which you will need “sequins, but with a polo neck underneath, sparkles, but on a low heel, hemlines below the knee and, the stealth secret weapon, sleeves”. (Not to mention, as the article wisely reminds us, a coat.)

It’s going to stay in, but I’m hyphenating it. It just looks like a mistake otherwise.

And to think I almost deleted it. I really am starting to get too old for this.