Who is this speaking?

7 Jan

This must be a big story, because the Telegraph has forgotten the claim quotes on the splash again:

And this isn’t the first time it’s happened. That was in 2015, when readers suddenly found themselves being addressed with unfamiliar directness on the day of the general election:

In both cases, a startling imperative headline sits above a straight, completely unexceptionable news story. And although the big type appears to come straight from the pulpit, what follows below makes clear that these are – of course! – just third-party opinions: the words of a “former immigration chief” in the first case and a now-former prime minister in the second. The attribution has unaccountably gone missing from the headline, but it’s right there in the standfirst.

It’s just that, in a respectable publication, one might reasonably hope to find attribution in the headline as well. Perhaps you might not want to waste a line on “…PM urges” or “says expert”, but you could always, for instance, put the entire headline in quotes?

Some newspapers don’t like to have quotation marks in headlines. But the Telegraph isn’t notably one of them, and there are some in the story right next to the migration splash. Did the quote marks get left off by mistake? But this has happened twice now, and both times on supposedly nation-in-crisis subjects that resonate strongly with Telegraph readers.

Nor is this explicitly a front-page editorial; it’s more transgressive than that. When you see “The Sun says…” or “Opinion …” as a strap on page 1, you’re forewarned as to the tone of the headline that follows. Without it, you’re not. Reading a splash, you’re expecting facts and fair dealing, and an opinion headline above a news story catches you off guard. As a rhetorical technique, it has the peculiar effect of breaking the journalistic fourth wall: as though the Telegraph were saying “we normally play the game of attribution and balance, but you know how the world works and so do we, and this is serious.”

It only happens for a moment: then the mask of impartiality is replaced in the standfirst. But the shock of having glimpsed the real face of the newspaper, or seen the limits of journalists’ patience with the niceties of their trade, lingers. This is particularly so in the case of the general election: on the same day as that front page appeared, the newspaper emailed every one of its subscribers openly urging them to vote Conservative.

It’s not that the Telegraph has contrived to put a pundit they agree with on the front page: many papers do that. It’s that they appear to have allowed him to write the headline as well. And yes, not everybody likes claim quotes: but strange things start happening when they disappear.

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Chistmas cheer

23 Dec

The official card from everyone’s favourite liberal-left news source, circa 1980. Don’t worry, someone noticed: it never went out. (And even if it had, the night shift would have fixed it for second edition).

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Prescribed listening

11 Dec

I’ve always basically agreed with this position, but I’ve never heard it expressed so starkly as the BBC does here:

Years ago, the inaugural post on this blog was about precisely this problem: should you follow common prescriptivist norms when editing, for a quiet life and to save your writers from the peevers? Or should you assist in the debunking of language myths by allowing new or common usages into print?

I thought the decision was an uncomfortable one then and still do. But there’s no agonising about it here. Although there’s a certain amount of rhetorical loading – by “good English”, the writer means “formal English”, and “bad” means “informal” – this doesn’t seem to be an argument based on conservatism. Rather, it’s the raw pragmatism that’s so arresting. The argument is simple: “Some listeners are pedants. Some are not. Only pedants complain. So write for the pedants.” It even uses the word “appease”.

And if that were not clear enough on its own, the entry in the accompanying style guide for “enormity” removes all doubt:

It should be said that this is from a guide to writing radio news that dates back to 2002. It’s still on the BBC website, but it’s not clear that it’s still the current advice. The BBC Academy, where many resources for the corporation’s journalists are now held, appears to have no equivalent passage on tone, and the latest style guide, although still prohibiting “enormity” meaning “size”, contains no observations about pedantry.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if the BBC’s underlying approach to language was still just as cautious. For an organisation that gets trapped in the middle of every political and cultural row in Britain, it probably doesn’t take long to decide that there’s no point getting shouted at over “decimate” as well.

Zeroes and ones, part 4

27 Nov

Q: Looking at the selected paragraphs below, and before doing any Googling, is there anything wrong with this article that can be determined simply from the evidence in front of you? Answers below

A: Not a particularly difficult one by the standards of what HeadsUp calls “implied mathematics“. If Hella Pick is 90 next spring, she’s 89 now. That means she was born in 1929. If she was born in 1929, she can’t have been 37 in 1980: she would have been in her 50s. So either her age or the date of Tito’s death is wrong. A quick bit of Googling would then tell you Tito indeed died in May 1980; so Ms Pick’s age at the time can be quietly removed from the copy. “… then 51 and working for the Guardian” somehow sounds much less glamorous.

Pet project

13 Nov

Of all the Daily Star’s front pages I’ve seen, the one that startles me the most is not KILLER SPIDER MADE MY LEG EXPLODE, or TESTICLE EATING KILLER FISH ON WAY TO UK, but this:

Even for a newspaper that reports ghost stories as news stories and routinely leads on reality TV (sometimes both at the same time), it’s remarkable. The facts: a hamster in Wales has escaped inside a woman’s car and is eating the upholstery. Why is that the splash? Obviously not because of the importance of the news, but because of the opportunity it presents for the headline. What the page is meant to echo, of course, is this:

Tabloid front pages claim a special niche in the public memory: people remember GOTCHA, HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR, and SWEDES 2, TURNIPS 1 even if they don’t recall all the details of the stories.* Redtop back benches are well aware of the place they hold in the common imagination, and will often run variations on their most celebrated jokes in follow-up stories.**

But those stories are nearly always big stories (by tabloid measures), and the running gags are always their own. Here, the Star is emulating not itself, but the Sun: it is running a story with no front-page value simply so that it can echo a 30-year-old headline published in its closest rival. This would be weak splash even if they were repeating their own joke; it’s quite disconcerting that they’re repeating someone else’s. It seems almost deferential. And if you were a millennial tabloid reader who’d never heard of Freddie Starr, what on earth would you make of it?

* Indeed, this is what happened here: the car’s owner, Amanda Johnson, recalled the Sun’s famous story and retrospectively named the car Freddie because it was being eaten by a hamster.

** For example, after England’s dismal 2-1 loss to the Swedes turned the press against the national team’s manager, Graham Taylor, his departure the following year was heralded with the headline THAT’S YER ALLOTMENT.

Hands across the water

30 Oct

No matter how far a British warship sails, she’s always under the watchful eye of the Daily Mail. More so than ever these days, now that the Mail has fully functioning newsrooms on three continents, all operating  entirely transparently to its global readership. Well, almost.

Observe as 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth sets off for the US on Saturday, a £3bn aircraft carrier on her maiden voyage, picking up two “US F-35B” fighters on the way. Weeks later, she “sails into the blue skies of New York City Friday” (the skies?): safely arrived, but now a “70,000 ton” ship costing “$4bn”, “multimillion-dollar” fighters embarked and accompanied by a quote from the “UK defence secretary”.

As we have discussed before, it’s not the big things that confound the emerging anglophone news agenda: everyone’s interested in Trump, Instagram models, celebrity affairs and viral video, no matter where they originate in the world. It’s the small things, the detail points that betray who you really think you’re writing for: the weights and measures, the indications (or not) of nationality, the brief explanations of localisms considered necessary or unnecessary. It may be a British-built ship flying American-made fighters, but all the available dialects for this story are local: there is no global English for the global newsrooms to speak.

Do readers notice? They don’t seem to complain. Well, not often.

And it’s just as well: it would be very hard to eliminate parochialisms at the micro level like this. Thank goodness that football pitches in Britain and America are both approximately the same size:

Time-travelling bongs

16 Oct

Ah, the perils of writing ahead:

Picture 188

It’s 18.38 on Thursday 4 October, and PA has just published a short news story about Big Ben. Silenced since the start of the year, the great bell is to be test-sounded by a jury-rigged hammer system, set up so that it may later ring out for Remembrance Day and the new year.

When will this happen? “On Thursday”. What time? “Between 8 and 10pm”. Anything else? Yes, there’s a quote from an MP, “who was in parliament to hear the rare chimes”.

What, at 18.38? What did they do, reverberate back though time?

For some time, when specifying the time element for web news, it has become customary not to say “today”, “yesterday”, “tomorrow” or “last night”, but instead to simply state the day of the week on which an event took place. So an online news story, accessible around the world as it is, will simply say “Thursday” even when it means “today”.*

However, when writing for print, it frequently happens that significant events are due to occur between the copy deadline the previous evening and the appearance of the newspaper the following day. In such cases, what one is supposed to do is write in a cascade of conditionals and future perfects: “It is expected that the vote will have taken place by the early hours of this morning, by which point some senators are likely to have been detained in the capitol for more than 24 hours.” However, it has sometimes been the case that – how to put this? – certain events get anticipated, and written about as though they have already happened, hours ahead of schedule.

At its least harmful, this practice comes in the form of the spurious “last night”; “The Conservative party was in turmoil last night” leading a story filed at five to five in the afternoon. But this example is worse: here, an event that is likely but not certain is written about as though it had definitively occurred some hours before, a throwback to the worst practices of print – made even more conspicuous by the jarring change of tense from the start of the story, which is written, web-style, in anticipation of the moment.

This is the kind of thing sub-editors can head off firmly when they see it; but in this case the whole thing went up live on the Daily Mail’s apparently unedited wire feed, where it can’t have inspired much confidence in journalism among those who read it closely.

 

*This is still slightly confusing for middle-aged journalists: when this same PA copy came through to be used as a brief for print, members of Tribune staff stared at it blankly for almost a minute before realising it would need to be rewritten in the past tense for Friday’s paper