Giles Coren’s tirade against the sub-editors on The Times seems to have cast the people who perform this vital stage of newspaper production in a poor light.
Acquaintances of mine have since lambasted sub-editors, probably because they know I used to be one. One described them as, “pernickety, humorless, touchy, afraid of opinions, overly sensitive to legals and not half as clever as they think they are.” Another thought that they only served to dumb down the literary jewels that writers claw from the cerebral cortex.
Siding with Coren, Laura Barton woefully describes in The Guardian the newspaper editing process. “A writer files an article to an editor, who then passes it to a sub-editor, who sets it out on the page, cuts the words to fit, checks for spelling and grammatical errors, wanton cursing and factual inaccuracies.”
It took her colleague David Marsh, a sub-editor on The Guardian, to give the full story. “Perhaps she [Barton] didn’t have space to mention the coruscating headline-writing skills, visual flair, compendious knowledge and ability to turn sows’ ears into silk purses on a daily basis that makes the sub-editors who put together the very section that she writes for one of the most brilliant journalistic teams in the business.”
Marsh goes on to stress the vital role of the sub-editor at a time when some are arguing that the position is superflous in this digital age. “Today’s subs design, lay out and publish pages (in print and on the Web), write headlines, standfirsts and captions, edit, cut and make sense of copy (from whatever source and no matter how dubious its quality), check facts, grammar and house style, ensure stories are legally safe, select and crop photographs, edit picture galleries, handle audio and video … In short, they are the people who know what “coruscating” means. And they can write, too.”
It is all too easy for writers and reporters to take a flippant and dismissive view of sub-editors but when a sub-editor falls down the job, his or her newspaper can be made to look silly, at best, as can the writer of the piece; at worst, the publication can become the defendant in a libel case.
An example of a newspaper being made to look stupid can be found in today’s editions of The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. Both papers picked up on a story from The Press Association that originally ran in The Brighton Argus.
The story in question concerns Oscar-winning film director Lord Attenborough condemning modern films for de-sensitizing people to violence and blaming them, in part, for the wave of knife violence sweeping Britain. He told The Brighton Argus that he “abhors the pornography of violence” in modern films.
The Brighton Argus article goes on, “Lord Attenborough said, “Thirty years ago if Gary Cooper pulled out a gun the audience would give a sharp intake of breath.”" That quote appears in the other three versions of the story, although the Daily Mail fails to cite the source.
I shall now don my sub-editor’s hat. Thirty years ago would refer to 1978. Gary Cooper died 17 years earlier in 1961. I doubt cinema audiences would have been giving a sharp intake of breath, unless the ghost of Cooper suddenly appeared trying to find a vacant seat.
And cinema audiences must have sucked every milliliter of oxygen out of auditoriums during the denouement of “High Noon” and the demise of the Miller Gang from the barrel of Cooper’s gun, with some assistance from Grace Kelly.
The sub-editors handling this story should have modified Lord Attenborough’s quote to read, “Fifty years ago.” And before howls of protest cry out about the sanctity of a quote, it is permissible to modify a quote to make it read better, providing the meaning of the quote is not altered. In this case, such a modification would have saved Lord Attenborough from embarrassment.
But since the quote is already flawed, it should have been cut from the story. It doesn’t add anything and only serves to make it appear that the 84-year-old Attenborough has gone ga-ga.
Maybe all the sub-editors involved were cowed into leaving the quote alone because of the recent criticism and because it came from a peer of the realm. Maybe it was because they have a poor knowledge of mathematics and the cinema. Whatever the reason, the sub-editors were clearly not doing their job.