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When nearly right is totally wrong – and why the great subbing debate is a huge red herring

Spoiler alert: former editor Neil Fowler believes the days of traditional sub-editors have gone – and those calling for their salvation are ignoring the realities of life.

Neil Fowler

Posted on: 19 March 2014

What’s wrong with being right? I would like to think it is a reasonably rhetorical kind of a question. ‘Nothing’, I would also hope, is the standard answer most people would proffer.

In health care, for example, nurses are expected to give patients the right quantity of medicine. In car servicing, we count on mechanics to tighten up each nut and bolt to the required torque; we have a presumption they will not forget to check whether the brake pads are worn or not.

In other words, nothing is wrong with being right in those two occupations. In fact, being right is a prerequisite, an obvious necessity for people working in those roles.

Yet, strangely, the same necessity doesn’t exist in the media. We have come to accept that ‘nearly right’ is fine, that it doesn’t matter if we aren’t exactly correct. And shame on us for that acceptance.

Demise of the sub

In the regional and local press, for example, this acceptance is exemplified by the current arguments over the decline of the traditional role of the sub-editor.

It’s an easy argument to make, of course. Newspapers are poor because they’ve sacked all the subs. If only there were more subs, sitting near to the reporters, regional and local newspapers would be free of errors, life would be local, and life would be better. And sales would increase.

No, they wouldn’t, as any rational observer of the industry appreciates. As businesses, regional and local newspapers existed for two centuries happy to be subsidised by advertising; and, in the same way, it is arguable that reporters have been happy to be bailed out by the subs for much of that time, too.

And the argument also ignores the fact that both readership and sales of regionals, in particular, have been declining since the 1960s.

The consensus seems to have developed that subs are in place to prevent the appearance of poor spelling and illiterate grammar. One classic example says that distant subbing hubs (in 2010) allowed ‘Brighten’ to go through instead of ‘Brighton’ on to a page of that city’s Argus newspaper. Locally based subs wouldn’t have been so lax, went the reasoning.

Not so. There was only one person culpable for that mistake – and that was the writer. He/she should have been right the first time and not relied on someone else to clear up after them.

Anthony Longden’s passionate defence of the sub-editor in these pages last year (An endangered art, InPublishing, November/December 2013) highlighted a story he had read in his local paper that he couldn’t understand.

His view was that a sub-editor worthy of the name couldn’t have seen it. Possibly, though that was not provable. Perhaps, though, it could have been seen by a sub who just wasn’t very good at the job.

I’m not sure that it was a problem created by the lack of a sub-editor, if that were the case. I’d argue it was caused by poor management. Why was the paper employing a reporter who couldn’t make sense of a simple story?

It’s easy to conclude that this is all a problem of cost-cutting in a particularly stressed sector of the business – but mistakes crop up on a far too regular basis in both nationals and broadcast, too, and have done so for years.

Inaccuracies everywhere

I always find it worrying that I often notice inaccuracies in stories of which I know a little. Take the Baby P saga, for example. I’ve followed this quite closely over the years – and have come across an alarming number of incorrect headlines (that would have been written, ironically, by our doomed sub-editors) as well as actual reports about the subject over the years, in both print and on radio.

The most recent was a heading last autumn in a quality national – ‘Baby P’s mother to be freed after five years in prison’. Wrong. She had actually been in prison for six years and two months at the time of the story and, for supporters of the skills of sub-editors, at no point in the story was it said that she had spent five years inside. The sub had made the classic error of assumption.

And, too often, other stories follow a similar path. Just look at the corrections and clarifications columns in the nationals. So many basic errors of fact that it is no wonder trust in news media remains so poor. Think of stories about which you may know something. How many times have some facts or inferences only been nearly right? Too many in my case.

Sadly it is not just in news that the media falls flat. Take drama. In December, amongst the recent festive offerings, the BBC showed two high profile series – The Great Train Robbery (in two parts – A Robber’s Tale and A Copper’s Tale) and Death Comes to Pemberley (P.D. James’s crime sequel to Pride and Prejudice).

Both were littered with many blatant historical errors that the producers seemed to be saying to viewers – we’re not even nearly right, and we’re not that bothered.

In A Robber’s Tale, for example, cars used in the 1962 Heathrow robbery that funded the actual train heist had registrations for a year later. And that was just one of numerous gaffes.

(On the same theme, in the Dr Who drama, An Adventure in Time and Space, broadcast in November, actor William Hartnell in 1963 was lucky to have owned a car registered in 1966. Perhaps he really did have a Tardis.)

And in Death Comes to Pemberley, guests at the house were fortunate to be given a style of sumptuous English breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausages) decades before such fare became commonplace.

Now does this matter? And if it does matter (which it does), what is to be done? Surely the answer is to have more layers of checking (ie. subs in news, even more script editors, researchers and production executives in drama)?

I offer a resounding ‘no’ to that. There is a more simple answer. How about showing personal responsibility and getting it right first time? Not nearly right, just right.

I’ll concentrate on news. Errors in television drama (especially from the BBC) are down to nothing short of idleness and incompetence; the funds and budgets are in place to ensure that ‘nearly right’ should never be countenanced. So no more on that.

Structural change

If we are to have a sensible view of the role of sub-editors, we must acknowledge that the funding model of news has changed. The luxury of having time and resource to rewrite and fact check every reporter’s story has gone.

That doesn’t mean that copy should not be checked and revised when necessary, but it does mean that there needs to be a great deal more of ‘right first time, every time’.

The initial responsibility for that lies full square with editors who recruit and the universities and colleges, which educate our would-be journalists.

For starters, let’s have some simple rules – and this isn’t unreasonable – on spelling and grammar.

If a potential student can’t spell or construct sentences to a high level of competence, they should neither gain a place on a journalism course nor should they qualify if they can’t pass tough tests in both disciplines.

For the 2014 cost of a three-year degree course or a one-year post-grad diploma, every student has the right to leave college or university with expert skills in complete usage of the English language along with a detailed knowledge of newsgathering techniques.

If they have snuck through the system, they should never be given a job in news if they are lacking in either of these fields. Yet, clearly, that is happening now. What are editors doing?

And it isn’t unreasonable. If a would-be accountant is innumerate, no job, I’m afraid. An actor who can’t remember lines? No role there. Colour blind? No train driver’s seat for you.

Today’s reporter must be more skilled in writing than ever before. It might not be fair, but tough. That reporter now needs talents in headlines, on-the-hoof editing and digital as well as being able to write a straightforward news story quickly.

Irreversible tide

There can be no argument about it – as the economics do not stack up in any other way. Whatever mistakes media managements have made over the years – and there have been many – there is no evidence to show that the tide of change could have been held back. The business of news has changed structurally and will not revert to any form of type.

Clearly this is principally so in the regional and local press, but for nationals, magazines and broadcast too.

Anthony Longden’s article referenced twelve characteristics of a good sub from Jeremy Tunstall’s 1971 book Journalists at Work, though surprisingly the ability to spell and understand grammar wasn’t among them. Perhaps he thought that those skills didn’t need to be stated. Sadly, time has proved him wrong.

I would update them for the digital age, where templated boxes on pages and online are the financial realities of life for many, reduce them to eleven – and demand universities produce candidates with these skills:

1. The absolute ability to spell correctly.

2. Good grammar. Know your pluperfects from your future conditionals.

3. A full understanding of the necessity to check and check and check.

4. A logical approach to news generation.

5. A sense of time.

6. An ability to assess length and the balance of a story.

7. The necessity to write clearly in a well-ordered way.

8. The ability to write intelligent headlines (perhaps even using those old chums, subject, verb and object).

9. The knack of getting to the heart of the story.

10. A continuing sense of excitement about news.

11. A capacity to cope with dull stories and get the best out of them.

Student journalists should be tested on all of these and if they can’t pass strenuous exams – especially on numbers 1, 2 and 3 – they should be allowed nowhere near any newsroom, either traditional or in the local coffee shop.

Of course, there remains the need for editors, lower case ‘e’, to oversee and reduce when necessary. But that role is for fewer people and is far removed from the old chain-smoking geezer who was there to change your ‘Brightens’ to your ‘Brightons’.

All this is very achievable, as one clear example shows. For more than 50 years, Which? magazine has prospered because nearly right was never good enough. Only right is right at Which?.

I’m biased, as I was editor there a few years ago, but the willingness to take a stand on being absolutely right all the time has paid dividends. Its circulation is stable and high – and it commands astonishing levels of trust with massive amounts of personal responsibility given to its researchers in producing copy that is always totally accurate.

So let’s never use sloppiness and an acceptance that ‘nearly right’ is all right ever again. The modern-day journalist should be right first time, every time – and should accept no excuse for failing to reach this very simple standard.

About Neil Fowler
(Details last updated: 24 March 2017)

Neil Fowler is a freelance media, communications and management consultant. He is an associate member at Nuffield College, Oxford, where he was the Guardian Research Fellow, investigating the decline of the UK regional and local newspaper sector. He is co-editor of three Abramis ‘hackademic’ books; the latest, ‘Brexit, Trump and the Media’, is published this month. He has edited four provincial dailies in England and Wales as well as Which? magazine. He was also publisher of the Toronto Sun.

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