Monthly Archives: February 2017

End of an Eros at the Standard?


WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2017

Yesterday, Press Gazette reported that the Evening Standard is moving to a single print edition each day. As ever, it’s the sub-editors who will be getting it in the neck. Staffers are set to lose half their working hours and half their pay.

As well as being a personal catastrophe for the subs, it feels like the end of an era for evening papers in the capital. Until Alexander Lebedev took over and turned it into a freesheet in 2009, the Standard published no fewer than five editions throughout the day.

Off the top of my head, there was the News Extra in the morning, then the City Prices and the Late Prices Extra. The edition on sale for afternoon commuters was the West End Final, but this wasn’t the final Final; the late-night edition was also branded West End Final, but often had a different splash.

Learning to tell them all apart felt like the day you qualified for your London passport. You’d often see street vendors flogging off their stale copies of the Late Prices Extra side by side with the Final. I’d get a rather pitiful thrill by grabbing a paper from the right pile while tourists were scalped with the old stock.

Statue of Eros

Do I look like I’m Cupid: The Statue of (Ant)Eros
(Pic: Magnus Manske/Wikimedia)

Years earlier, according to this Guardian feature, it had been far easier to distinguish the West End Final. In the late Eighties, this was the only edition to carry the newspaper’s emblem – a stylised version of Piccadilly’s Statue of Eros.

(Yeah, yeah, I’ve not forgotten. As any nit-picking sub will know, Eros isn’t Eros at all. The statue is actually of his duller, worthier brother, Anteros, who represents “reflective and mature love, as opposed to Eros… the frivolous tyrant”. Even that was not enough to assuage all the Victorian objections to a nude figure prancing about with a bow in the middle of a major London thoroughfare, so it was renamed “The Angel of Christian Charity” – to no avail. To all but a few pedants, Eros it remains.)

Anyway, the Evening Standard’s Eros has another secret. He was kidnapped.

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In the summer of 1984, Mirror Group Newspapers hatched plans to launch a London evening paper. The Evening Mirror is obscure even in the roster of great Mirror failures, as it never made it to market. It bears no relation to Robert Maxwell’s later London Daily News, which at least managed five months in production.

What’s known is that the Evening Mirror was to be pitched downmarket of the Standard, aiming for the same readers who had bought the Sun, Star or Daily Mirror in the morning. Peter Thompson, then deputy editor of the Daily Mirror (and a future editor of the Sunday) was put in charge of the project.

A 56-page dummy was produced in secret at a studio in Clerkenwell and printed in the West Country. However, someone leaked a copy to Press Gazette, which ran several excerpts and judged them favourably.

The editor of the Evening Standard saw the Eros graphic in Press Gazette and promptly nicked it. In his 2016 memoir, Cudlipp’s Circus, Thompson writes:

I’d searched around for an iconic figure to symbolise the London spirit and decided on the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus. Lou Kirby, editor of the Standard, liked the stylised version of the winged god so much that he put it on his front page where it had remained to this day.

As soon as Robert Maxwell took control of Mirror Group, the Evening Mirror plans were cancelled. But on the front page of today’s Evening Standard, Eros survives as a greyed-out, ghostly presence – rather like the paper itself – toppling away from the titlepiece.

When the Standard moves to a single edition, perhaps it’s an appropriate time to retire him for good, or at least return him to the Mirror at Canary Wharf. And a change of name might be in order, as it’s no longer an evening paper in any meaningful sense.

The new title could even honour those sub-editors who are having their livelihoods taken away in the name of progress. How about the Sub Standard?

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Phone hacking and the Fifth Beatle


MONDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2017

Last week, George Michael’s family expressed their fury that the 999 call about his death had been leaked to the media. The source of the audio has not been publicly identified, and the latest reports suggest that the Ambulance Service is still investigating the leak.

It brings to mind a similar episode almost 50 years ago. The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, was found dead at his Belgravia home on August 27, 1967. The inquest later ruled that he had taken an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, but conspiracy theories have flourished – driven by the fact that the press seemed to know about the death before the emergency services.

I’ve spent much of the past year immersed in the published memoirs and unpublished archives of Daily Mirror journalists. And surprisingly, it turns out that the mystery was put to bed as long ago as 2002, in the autobiography of former editor Richard Stott. It provides a glimmer of insight into how calls were being intercepted by the press long before voicemail and mobile phones.

Several band biographies have mentioned the Epstein riddle, including Magical Mystery Tours – a 2005 memoir by the Beatles’ childhood friend Tony Bramwell:

The Daily Express had apparently called out of the blue before anyone else knew that he was dead, to say they had heard that Brian Epstein was seriously ill… Nobody ever owned up to tipping them off.

Philip Norman’s acclaimed Beatles biography Shout! – last updated in 2011 – quotes Joanne Newfield, Epstein’s personal assistant:

At three o’clock, the Daily Express rang up and said, ‘We’ve heard that Brian Epstein’s terribly ill. Is there any truth in it?’ Only the four of us knew that had happened and none of us had contacted the press. It was never explained how the story got out to the papers.

Norman added: “No one has ever… explained the curious fact that Brian’s death was known in Fleet Street less than an hour after Joanne Newfield burst into his darkened room.”

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The late Richard Stott enjoyed a long career at Mirror Group, rising to editor of the Daily Mirror and the People. But in August 1967, he was working for the Ferrari News Agency of South East London, feeding stories to the national press and the capital’s two evening papers.

In his own memoir, Dogs and Lampposts, he devoted half a page to Epstein’s death. He wrote: “Was he murdered? How did reporters get to the scene before the ambulance? Somebody else must have known what was going on… Therefore somebody else must have known he was dead.”

He went on:

It is true that somebody did know of his death even as the first of the Beatles was being told by the butler. It was me.

As part of our listening system we had a number of GPO operators on our books who used to tip us off about news items… When the phone went and it was one of our regular tipsters, I didn’t pay much attention until he asked if I knew Brian Epstein was dead.

The operator, who was on a retainer with the agency, had heard the news while connecting the first, frantic call between Epstein’s butler and one of his assistants.

Knowing that it was the newspaper likely to pay the most for the story, Stott called the Daily Express, which immediately dispatched a reporter to the scene. “Hence the story about the tip-off to the press before anyone else knew,” he wrote. “True, but no murder conspiracy.”

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It’s a reminder that the recent phone-hacking scandal was not Year Zero for the tabloids intercepting telephone calls, or having someone else do the dirty work. Perhaps the greatest difference between then and now is not the ease with which it can be done, but the ease of detection.

Digital systems always leave an audit trail. When voicemail boxes are accessed, there is a record of the number that has made the request. Despite the use of disposable “burner” phones by journalists and private investigators, this information has been crucial in securing convictions.

Along similar lines, it’s likely that a fairly perfunctory forensic analysis could determine where a recording of a 999 call was made. (Though in the case of George Michael, my guess is that the origin of the audio is an open secret in several London newsrooms.)

Back in the Sixties, bribing a telephone operator would leave little evidence. And in the days of the old electro-mechanical Strowger telephone exchanges, a corrupt engineer could easily attach a few crocodile clips at the appropriate place and listen in to any conversation on a subscriber line. Unless caught in the act, he’d almost certainly get away with it.

So how common was the practice? Did the papers and press agencies have a whole division of Post Office Telephones staff on their books? That’s one that can only be answered by the veteran tabloid operatives who were there, and whose ranks are now thinning precipitously. The pre-history of phone hacking is yet another topic that awaits its historian.

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Please do not shoot the sub-editor. He is doing his best


FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2017

Professor Geoffrey Pullum’s articles on Language Log are required reading for anyone who cares about language usage. So – speaking as a former sub-editor – it was almost an honour to see our sort pulled out for a bloody good thrashing in a recent post.

At issue was a leading article in the Times, which contained the gormless sentence:

Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.

The writer’s original copy had read: “to legally minimise their tax liability”. According to the professor, the person responsible for un-splitting the infinitive and mangling the syntax was “a sub-editor with a green eyeshade and a brain the size of a walnut, moving adverbs from positions where they modify what they are supposed to modify… to positions where they don’t even sound like vaguely reasonable English.”

Walnut

Cracked: The brain of a sub-editor (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

This was presented as evidence that sub-editors could be replaced with a computer or done away with completely, “letting sophisticated writers position their adverbs wherever they think the sense of the sentence demands.” (It’s worth noting that many publishers have had the same notion about getting shot of the subs, normally after a visit from the management consultants. The results are always unfortunate.)

He is quite right about the article in question and the idiocy of avoiding the so-called split infinitive, but I feel a duty to come to the aid of my fellow walnut-brains. It goes without saying that we subs fillet out far more barbarisms than we add. And in the latter case, we are sometimes acting against our own judgment.

Sub-editors are expected to follow the publication’s style guide. Whether it’s a work of wit and common sense that may be read for pleasure (such as The Guardian Stylebook) or an extended sneer peppered with inanities (Simon Heffer’s effort for the Telegraph), it is definitive. Orders are orders.

The Nuremberg defence is not one that cuts it with Prof Pullum. In an older blog post on similar shenanigans at the Economist, he wrote:

…editors and proofreaders have trained themselves to accept these offences against grammar (in the belief that they are upholding the standards of the magazine as laid down in the style book). Writers and editors alike have blinded themselves to the realities of the grammar of their native language, wrongly imagining that by doing so they are working in the interests of their readers.

Well, fair enough. Even the better style guides can be pusillanimous when it comes to shelving pseudo-grammatical bunk and following common usage and common sense. Newspapers should be using their privileged position to lead on these matters, not flogging dead horses to avoid a few angry letters from retired schoolmasters.

Here are five instances where – in my opinion – they ought to take a stand. In each case, I’ve looked at the style guides of the three quality newspapers, plus the Economist.

 

Split infinitives

GUARDIAN [] “It is perfectly acceptable, and often desirable, to sensibly split infinitives – ‘to boldly go’ is an elegant and effective phrase – and stubbornly to resist doing so can sound pompous and awkward.”

TIMES [] “Do not use except in famous quotes such as ‘to boldly go’ or in limited emphatic constructions such as ‘I want to live – to really live’.”

TELEGRAPH [] “Not a mortal sin, but most can and should be avoided. Be guided by the relative ease of understanding. To boldly go easily becomes to go boldly, or even boldly to go.”

ECONOMIST [] “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

As with so much else in 2017, it seems utterly ridiculous that we’re even having this debate. Rules about the split infinitive are a nonsense on par with avoiding cracks in the pavement. The Guardian’s advice should be the last word on this, and all newspapers should take note.

The Telegraph’s assertion that “boldly to go” is as easy on the ear is plain bonkers. It sounds absurdly stilted, like the first half of some half-recalled proverb (“boldly to go, quickly to come”, perhaps).

The Economist just runs up the white flag, leading Prof Pullum to suspect they may be keeping this policy just to irritate him. See this, this and this.

 

‘Warn’ without a direct object

GUARDIAN [ ? ] No policy in style guide.

TIMES [] “Transitive verb that requires a direct personal object… however, we can afford some flexibility in headlines.”

TELEGRAPH [] “‘He warned that…’ is wrong. The speaker must warn somebody or ‘give a warning that’.”

ECONOMIST [] “Warn is transitive, so you must either give warning or warn somebody.”

This is a bloody stupid edict. Why should we waste two whole words in saying “The Chancellor gave a warning that…” rather than “The Chancellor warned that…”? There is absolutely no reason to ban intransitive “warn”, except to give the writers of style guides and green-ink letters something more to fuss about.

What’s more, it’s an injunction that is universally ignored in practice. The Telegraph has broken its own rule at least four times in the past two days alone:

…Time Team presenter Tony Robinson, who warned that…

Economists, however, warn that…

…heritage organisations, who warn that…

…the US investment bank warned that…

There’s no shortage of similar examples in the Economist. This is a perfect example of a zombie rule that doesn’t yet know it’s dead. Time to drive a stake through the corpse.

 

‘Like’ in place of ‘such as’

GUARDIAN [] “‘Cities like Manchester are wonderful’ suggests the writer has in mind, say, Sheffield or Birmingham; it’s clearer to say ‘cities such as Manchester’ if that is what she means.”

TIMES [] “Do not use as a synonym of ‘such as’.”

TELEGRAPH [] “When giving named examples of people or objects we should use ‘such as’, as in ‘He said that he admired players such as Jones, Smith and Brown’. The sense is that he admires those players specifically. If we used ‘like’ it would mean that he admired players with qualities similar to those of Jones, Smith and Brown.”

ECONOMIST [] “‘Authorities like Fowler and Gowers’ is a perfectly acceptable alternative to ‘authorities such as Fowler and Gowers’.”

If we were to take this one seriously, then “people like us are not welcome here” would have to mean “people resembling us, but not including us, are not welcome here”. That’s simply not how the word is used, and it’s difficult to dream up instances where this “exclusive” reading would be a useful one.

In any case, “such as” is a phrase that should always set alarm bells ringing in a sub-editor’s walnut. If we are saying “He admired players such as Jones, Smith and Brown”, did he simply say that he admired those three players? If that is the case, why not say “He admired Jones, Smith and Brown”?

This becomes important when an article says something like “Labour politicians such as Corbyn, Abbott and McDonnell have opposed the move”. Was it only those three, or are they representative of a wider group? What exactly is that “such as” prompting us to infer?

 

‘Data’ as a mass noun

GUARDIAN [] “Takes a singular verb (like agenda), though strictly a plural; you come across datum, the singular of data, about as often as you hear about an agendum.”

TIMES [ ? ] “Strictly plural, but can be singular through common usage.”

TELEGRAPH [] “Data are plural.”

ECONOMIST [ ? ] No policy in style guide.

The Guardian gets it right, the Telegraph gets it wrong, and the Times sits on the fence and gets splinters in its arse. “Data” as a mass noun is useful to us in the 21st century; “data” as a plural is not. Bugger the Latin. Once a word becomes a full member of the English language, it’s under our roof and it abides by our rules.

 

‘Due to’ for ‘because of’

GUARDIAN [ ? ] “Traditionalists argue that ‘due to’ should only be used when it is the complement of the verb ‘to be’, and could be replaced by ‘caused by’; otherwise, use ‘owing to’ or ‘because of’. The distinction, once routinely taught in primary schools but now assailed on all sides, especially by train and tube announcers, is being lost.”

TIMES [] “Must not be used as the equivalent of ‘because of’ or ‘owing to’. The phrase must be attached to a noun or pronoun.”

TELEGRAPH [] “Due to is used adjectivally and, therefore, needs a noun to modify (‘His lateness was due to rain’, not ‘He was late due to rain’). Illogically, there is no similar rule for ‘owing to’. The use of ‘because’ solves problems in this area (‘He was late because of rain’) and is preferred.”

ECONOMIST [] “When used to mean ‘caused by’, due to must follow a noun.”

For good or ill, a style guide’s job is to prescribe usage, not describe it; we have linguistics departments to do that. This time it’s the Guardian that fudges it, though it manages to sneak in a bit of Hefferesque snark toward rail workers.

Is there a single good reason to maintain the distinction between “due to” and “owing to”? I can’t think of one. Getting rid of it is long overdue. The newspapers owe it to us.

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