Tag Archives: Daily Mail

ї before е

1 Mar

It began on a faintly sceptical note – “what is the BBC up to now?” – but the Daily Mail’s change of heart, and change of house style from Kiev to Kyiv, happened quickly.

Last Wednesday, this article appeared on its website: for the Mail, a rare discussion of the implications of language that came close to publicly acknowledging the existence of the Daily Mail style guide (and how one would love to get a sight of that). And although the headline and first paragraph are redolent of the usual suspicion of the national broadcaster,

the rest of the article is actually an informative and lucid discussion of the question:

“Ukraine’s capital is known as Київ in Ukrainian and Киев in Russian. Both terms do not have a direct translation into the Roman alphabet, with Kiev, Kyiv, Kyyiv or Kiyev all being possibilities. 

But the spelling ‘Kiev’ is intrinsically linked with the old USSR due to its widespread use by the British and Americans while the city was under Soviet rule. 

This continued after independence in 1991, until ‘Kyiv’ was legally approved by the Ukrainian government …

Young Ukrainians see ‘Kiev’ as a relic of the Soviet past, and this view is now shared by the government, which launched a ‘KyivNotKiev’ campaign in 2018. 

At this stage, the Mail is still keeping its journalistic distance – the last line of the article is a brisk “MailOnline has contacted the BBC for comment”, interrogating the corporation on the reader’s behalf. But by Friday morning, the following note had appeared in the print edition:

and by Friday lunchtime, the website was leaping on board a social media bandwagon to get others to follow suit:

A style guide change within two days of first raising a style issue in public, and an explicitly advertised one at that: that’s unusual behaviour for the Mail.

Of course, commentators were not slow to point out that acknowledging preferred terms in this way might set an awkward precedent for Britain’s leading scourge of wokeness. As Neil Fisher of the Times acutely put it: “I love the distinction here between ‘virtue signalling’ and ‘a symbolic show of support’.”

But there seems no disagreement in the Mail, or among its critics, or in linguistic circles, about another aspect of the decision, which is the necessity and desirability of prescriptivism in these instances. Although linguists frequently condemn the imposition of editors’ arbitrary (sometimes very arbitrary) rules on published writing, few ever object when an oppressed group pleads for a deliberate change in language to be enforced. On Google Ngrams, which offers results for English up to 2019, the use of Kiev (blue line) always comfortably outstrips Kyiv (red line), which barely figures on the graph until the 1990s – one guesses as a result of independence – and then kicks up sharply from the early 2000s onwards, at around the time of the Orange Revolution in 2004. Kiev is, strictly speaking, the popular choice over time. But in circumstances like these, no one contends that corpus results should decide an argument on usage. Other considerations prevail.

These debates are not always easy ones: names and spellings matter to oppressors as well as the oppressed, as dictators’ renamings of cities and countries (and, in the case of President Nyazov of Turkmenistan, even days of the week) remind us. The Guardian thought hard before replacing “Burma” with “Myanmar” in copy, weighing the balance between an old name redolent of empire and a new one chosen by a brutal junta.

But the point is: these choices matter. They matter not just to editors in the newsroom, but to the people we are reporting on. Using a name, or shunning it, is, in the words of David Marsh, the Guardian’s former style guide editor, “a way of indicating, or at least of hinting at, approval or disapproval” – a way of signalling your support, and your values. Popularity and precedent, the principles on which descriptivism runs, are not equal to these circumstances. This is the other, not always acknowledged, side of prescriptivism – progressive, rather than regressive, and alive to the resonances embedded in a word, or even a spelling, that a purely descriptivist approach cannot hear.

Bars to understanding

9 Nov

What’s going on with this graph in the Mail?

It says “Tory poll lead falls after standards row”, but it seems to show the Tories pulling well ahead of their hated rivals, the Tories, while Labour loses ground inexorably to the Labour party of last week.

Squinting at the small print, we discover that the lighter coloured bars represent the current polling, and the darker bars the previous week’s results. However, the later figures have been placed to the left of the earlier ones, not the right, in reverse chronological order – a methodology applied equally to all parties, but one which, visually, gives the opposite impression to what’s intended. It looks like a picture of continued blue success and red failure.

Similarly, what does this graph, from March, suggest to you is happening?

The correct answer is that the Tories have moved out to 45% of the vote and Labour has fallen back to 32%. But is that what you initially “see”? The Tories look to be declining and Labour surging. Isn’t it more usual to place the later figures on the right, as the eye tracks naturally from left to right across the page? And don’t the wide gaps between the different parties encourage you to compare their performance against themselves, rather than the opposition? Also, the brighter blue seems to count as a “dark” colour, but the brighter red a “light” one: going just by what’s most eyecatching, don’t you end up comparing 39% with 35% in the first graph and 45% with 36% in the second, neither of which represents the correct gap?

This isn’t some effort to obfuscate unfavourable findings, or try some Lib Dem-style sharp practice with the visuals: the Mail has been angered by the Owen Paterson/sleaze debacle, and first graph appears under this uncompromising headline:

It just seems that they always do them this way. But in the absence of any visible x-axis, readers are naturally going to read it from left to right, because that’s how nearly all x-axes run in every other graph. Why flip it for this?

The fine art of resurfacing

14 May

So what are the ethics here, exactly? We know that “resurfaced” news is not actually new at all, but old stories that have returned to prominence for some reason. Sometimes, as in the recent surge of interest in a rebarbative John Wayne interview from the 1970s, it happens because of a generational rediscovery of old events or old-fashioned views: while that interview wasn’t technically news, it appears to have been a revelation to many people under the age of 40. Also, quotes from it were put up on social media and went viral before it was picked up again by the mainstream media: news editors in those circumstances might argue that there was evident new interest in a story they didn’t realise had been forgotten.

But whether you think instructing a reporter to write up an old magazine article is a waste of time or not, it’s clear that here the act of “resurfacing” was done by a third party: all the the media itself did was respond to a piece of widely shared journalistic archaeology carried out by a member of the public. What if the situation were different? What if an article were to mysteriously resurface even in the absence of any obvious social media or news interest?

A story about Holly Willoughby’s lively early career on children’s TV is mother lode for the Mail: alcohol, risqué incidents, an opportunity to dig out racy pictures of one of the paper’s and its readers’ favourite celebrities. (As Decca Aitkenhead wrote in the Sunday Times last month: “To describe the Daily Mail as being obsessed with Willoughby would be an understatement – and also slightly unfair, for, in truth, almost everyone is.”)

But as you read the piece, which was published on 1 May, things start to get a bit strange. It is described as being drawn from an interview with the Mail on Sunday’s Live magazine, which leads you to think that the article is a midweek trailer for next Sunday’s paper – “read more revelations at the weekend!”. It’s only when you look into it a bit further that you discover, with a sense of disorientation similar to watching one of JB Priestley’s time plays for the first time, that the Mail on Sunday closed down Live magazine in 2013.

There is no hint of this anywhere in the article: no sense that this is all already on the record, that at least six years must have have passed, that none of it is news. The whole article is bathed in an eerie, and deceptive, timelessness. Willoughby’s current age, 38, is given at the top of the article, giving the vague but distinct impression that she has been speaking to the newspaper recently.  It takes the Express, stumbling along in its rival’s wake, to point out (briefly) that this interview has actually been “resurfaced”.

No renewed third party interest in the interview is cited, or evident, in the piece. No one appears to have tweeted “have you seen this old interview with Holly Willoughby?” No explanation is offered for the renewed salience of what was revealed a significant period of time ago. The Mail, it would appear, has simply rediscovered a copy of one of its defunct Sunday supplements, seen what was inside, and placed it at the top of its Sidebar of Shame for several hours – where, one suspects, it got plenty of traffic once again. Some stories are too good to check; it seems also that some stories are too good to run only once.

But what are the ethics here? Don’t you have to wait to be prompted before re-running something from your own archive? And when you do, don’t you have to explain why you’re doing it? Can you resurface your own articles just because you like them? Is this even allowed?