British hed said dead

25 Nov

Something big’s happened. As David Marsh, the production editor of the Guardian, announces, there’s been a change.

To quote a new entry in the Guardian style guide:

In the case of proper nouns, we now follow the spelling used in the relevant local variety of English (normally British, American or Australian). Examples: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Defense, Labor Day, One World Trade Center, Australian Labor party.

Why the change? Well, the old argument that “the Guardian is a British newspaper so we use British spellings” has served us well but no longer holds; we remain a British newspaper but one with many more readers outside the UK, especially in the United States …

A related change:

Where spelt in English, in whatever country, government departments now take an initial capital, as is already the case in the UK.

In other words, the US department of defence has – literally overnight – become the Department of Defense … This change has been driven by the growing realisation that it can appear insulting or demeaning to Guardian readers outside the UK to see their government bodies rendered in lowercase when we do not do the same for British ones.

You can see why it’s happened. But you can also see the potential ramifications of the decision, spreading out into other parts of the style guide. Because proper nouns aren’t a problem – or, rather, they are, but they are just the low-hanging fruit: the easiest decision to make among many more difficult ones if you’re trying to write a stylebook for a multinational media group.

How much further, if at all, can you go? For example, take non-proper nouns. In a story about the US Department of Labor and the Teamsters, how would you spell “organised labo(u)r” – with a ‘U”, as the British spelling, or without, to match the style for the department?

And the issues go beyond individual words. American, British and Australian English all have their own idioms, coloured by aspects of national life, which will overlap in a poly-national newspaper’s output. Do you try to regularise that? Which synonym will writers be permitted to use: “break a duck” or “get off the schneid”? Or both? Or – worst of all – neither?

American English has a huge influence over global English. Might this decision signal the start of a retreat for British spelling, terminology, tone? Some people think so: some people even think that the UK headline might be on the way out. Paul Bradshaw at OnlineJournalism looks at this announcement, looks at Huffington Post UK’s American-style furniture, and concludes: “We can no longer assume British journalists will be writing for British publications in a British style”.

Regularising the language that a news organisation uses sounds controversial but simple – a matter, basically, of decisiveness, of breaking eggs to make an omelette. But it isn’t simple: it’s almost impossible, because you can’t regularise a vocabulary without regularising the viewpoint that goes with it. The way to achieve that would be to populate all your overseas bureaus with staff from your native country: to export the British sensibility into a new milieu so that it can report back, using familiar spellings and similes, to the audience at home.

But that’s not what the globally ambitious UK news organisations – the Guardian, the Mail, the BBC – are trying to do. Their mission is much bigger: not just to report America to the British, but to report America to Americans too (and Britain to America, as well as – still – Britain to the British). So the New York bureau staff accreting round Guardian US’s British core are largely American. The same is happening in Sydney and Melbourne, where a parallel effort – British management, local staff – is taking place to report Australia to itself and the rest of the English-speaking world. The content being generated is not just letter-from-Los-Angeles dispatches for the foreign pages; it’s local stories for a local audience too.

So, if the Guardian’s Australian cartoonist chooses to commemorate Gough Whitlam on the occasion of his death, the sketches are not workshopped around three bureaus to check for name recognition. The cartoon is launched straight up onto the site from Sydney – side by side with the British cartoonists on Comment is Free – in the confidence that an audience interested enough to click on it will either know what it’s about or be interested enough to find out. When the Daily Mail puts Imogen Anthony straight onto its UK homepage with the briefest of descriptions (“23-year-old Australian model”), they are confident that the story (“sexiest dress I’ve ever worn!”) will make up for the other questions rising in British readers’ minds (“who?”).

And it follows that if the content is local, the language must be too. Rationalising the spelling and capitalisation of all proper nouns is almost as far as the style guide can go: any attempt to favour one dialect over another is just going to alienate the new home audiences that the overseas bureaus are trying to engage. The only thing to do is to let every bureau speak in its own voice and the trust that readers will adjust. If they can switch between the news agendas of three different territories – and, apparently, we already think they can – they can adapt to the unfamiliar expressions that go with them.

And that’s why the British headline isn’t dead. Perhaps it will now have to share space at home with transatlantic and antipodean ones, but the opposite is also true. For every British headline that disappears from a UK homepage, there will be another that appears on a screen in Detroit or Brisbane, encouraging a curious reader to go a little further, click on the link, find out why people are angry about a mysterious “Cobra briefing”, “D-Notice”, “ten-minute-rule bill”. The terms may be unfamiliar, but the issues might not be. And if it’s in the news, it’s probably important.

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5 Responses to “British hed said dead”

  1. Archie Wah Wah November 25, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

    I’ve noticed this trend in Americanisation, not just in style, but in content also. I repeatedly read headlines such as ‘police shoots teenager dead’ in a British paper only to discover, without any previous reference, that it is a US story. Are we (Britain) truly the 51st state now? I really hope not.

    • edlatham November 25, 2014 at 5:34 pm #

      Yes, it really is happening a lot. I don’t think it’s all one-way traffic though – i think all English-language markets will be reading each other’ stories, so the US will get more British stories even as we get more American ones.

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