Archive | April, 2019


30 Apr

Did you see that? It was really POIGNANT! A quiet moment of NUANCE! It’s not all SHOUTING!

As a broadsheet sub-editor, I sometimes yearn to capitalise a word, tabloid style (ideally in red letters, underlined, and set slightly at an angle to the rest of the headline). It’s the most compact way, for example, of indicating an admission has been made after previous denials during a scandal (Disgraced cabinet minister DID make 3am phone call). But in the sober world of the quality press, we can’t: we have to tail off at the end and mumble something like “despite previous claims to contrary”.

If I had capitalisation privileges, though, I’d be more sparing with them than they seem to be at the Express:









This is quite a lot of shouting, about almost everything: so much so that it interrupts the rhythm of the sentences and starts producing unexpected effects. It’s hard, for example, to read “we HAD one already” in anything other than a New York accent, and ‘NO’ SIX TIMES had Knock Three Times (On the Ceiling if You Want Me) stuck in my head for hours.

By contrast, the Daily Mail can demonstrate a fine ear for when to add emphasis, and an awareness of stressed and unstressed syllables that might satisfy even Giles Coren.

Even at the Mail, though, standards are slipping. In the headline below, although  “LET” is the word that’s most newsworthy, it’s not where the emphasis falls in the phrase. For musicality, it should really be “… let rivals Aston Villa SCORE”.

And that capitalised “NOT” in the second part of the hed is neither stressed nor necessary. I’d have gone for no emphasis, a dash after “injured” and changed “but” to “and”.

However, as I say, working in what Kelvin Mackenzie calls the “unpopular press”, I never get the chance to make these decisions. The only time anything like this has ever arisen at the Tribune was when our former news editor, who is mixed-race, wrote a piece in the week Obama was first elected with the headline “Now I can be proud of what I really am: black AND white”.

After a discussion, we went with italics rather than capitals. It felt more broadsheet.


A talent to amaze

16 Apr

Goodness, can this be right? Is the most famous friendship in British showbusiness under so much pressure that fans have been reduced to tears – and all because of one presenter’s jibe about the other presenter’s wife?

No, of course not. Nothing of the sort. And yet every word of that headline is true.

For those concerned, And and Dec are not at each other’s throats over something Ant said about Dec’s wife. As soon as you  read past the headline, you find out what really happened. But of course by then, fearing the worst, you’ve already clicked on the link.

What actually happened was that, as part of hosting Britain’s Got Talent, Ant and Dec went on stage with an illusionist who played on the fact of their close friendship by blindfolding them and making it appear that each could feel when the other was being touched on the arm. They then both drew something with their eyes closed that turned out to be identical. This was the “test” of how close they were, and the thing that apparently moved viewers to tears. Prior to that – and unrelated to the “tests” – Ant had observed to Dec how amusing it would be if the illusionist, whose face was completely covered, turned out to be someone they knew, like Dec’s wife.*

Why, in a story full of celebrity moments and eyecatching variety acts – including my favourite, the tambourinist who hits himself in the face with his tambourine – did that brief aside make it all the way into the headline? Perhaps we can make a guess.

The misapprehension can’t survive through the lengthy standfirst, of course, so the confusion evaporates almost as soon as a reader has clicked through to the article. But we have talked before about how misleading headlines can be, even accidentally, when divorced – as they often are on homepages – from any accompanying furniture. If the ambiguity is not entirely an accident … well, then the sky’s the limit.

And you can see how easily such confusion can be created. After years of reading real news, the brain assumes the most important facts of the story are in the headline, that those facts are related to each other, and that, in the language of headlinese, prepositions imply causation. All you need to do is subvert any one of those conventions – and this headline, by accident or design, breaks all three – and you’ve created fake news. You don’t have to make anything up. You just have to leave things out.


* You might think that struggles to qualify as a “jibe”. And you might also think the viewers were reduced to tears by Ant and Dec jointly. You might not think it was entirely down to Ant (whose troubled personal life has made him, of the two, far more the subject of newsroom interest in the past two years).

Nice and accurate

2 Apr

“Completely bizarre Daily Mail article,” writes Neil Gaiman on Twitter, “possibly written by something not human, like an elk.”* And you can see what he means, although a competent elk would probably have made a better job of the first par/second par transition than this:

The article is, indeed, so odd that some people on Gaiman’s timeline wondered if it was written by a something like a bot (there’s only a ‘Daily Mail Reporter’ byline). “Also joining the 48-year-old was co-stars Michael Sheen and David Tennant.” (“Was”?) “Aisha fit right in with the Austin scene in a Rock & Roll T-shirt, blazer, jeans and dancer-like shoes.” (“Dancer-like”?) “The writer opted for a casual look in a black T-shirt and jeans, but attempted to dress up his ensemble with a blazer and dress shoes.” (“Attempted to”? Ouch.)

Then there’s the fact that the article describes the event as a premiere, when it was nothing of the kind: just a panel discussion. Then there’s the fact that it says the book was “co-written by Neil and the late Sir Terry in 1990” (Sir Terry who?) to “poke fun of” the Bible. Then there’s what Gaiman says is his favourite sentence in the piece: “Good Omens is based on a fictional book of the same name.” (Except that the article gives the title as “Good Omens: the Nice and Accurate”, which is longer than the title of the TV series and shorter than the full title of the book, “Good Omens: the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch”).

And yet, when you look at the numerous photographs that accompany the article – in the best Mail tradition, eight of them in an article that barely musters 275 words – you do sense the presence of human intervention. Understandably in the circumstances, somebody has cut and pasted sentences wholesale from the text into the captions and prefaced them with the kind of slightly desperate, added-value kickers (“Plot thickens”, “Men of the hour”) familiar to any sub-editor who has ever had to pull together a picture story based on no information.

At least, I assume no bot yet devised is capable of noticing the non-rhyming alliteration of “Dapper Draper”, knowing where the boundary is between “casual” and “smart”, or creating that air of teeth-gritted conscientiousness as yet another photo of the same two people gets inserted into the end of the piece, requiring yet another caption. But who knows? If the alarming AI text generator GPT2 can imitate a columnist, it can presumably learn to think like a sub-editor. (Although if it has, why didn’t it call them the “O-men of the hour”? I mean, come on!)

*As noticed and passed on by Ten Minutes Past Deadline’s ever-alert Memphis office