5G Coronavirus conspiracy theorists applaud demise of sub-editing


A recent item on the Stuff website reminded me – as if I needed reminding – why we should all bow down and thank God for sub-editors.

Pacific health director Gerardine Clifford-Lidstone told MPs the virus had ‘seeded itself’ in Auckland’s gang communities and among rough sleepers during an online select committee briefing on the Government’s response to the pandemic.

Either the Delta variant has mutated to the point it can travel via broadband or that story and a sub-editor had only the briefest of encounters, if they met at all. At least the name was correct: She is Gerardine, not Geraldine.

I got a further reminder last week with news of the death of a man whose name will mean little, if anything, to most readers of the Tuesday Commentary unless they like crime fiction.

His name was Robert Richardson, and he was the creator of the fictional amateur detective Augustus Maltravers. He was also a sub-editor.

Richardson worked on quality London newspapers: The Observer, the Guardian, and before that the Independent. His obituary in the Guardian (repeated on Saturday in the Otago Daily Times) described him as “a stickler for detail”. It must have been tempting to include a memorable piece of work by Richardson that has gained legendary status among subs with a few miles on the clock. It was his Ode to the Ancient Sub-Editor, written as entertainment for an Observer Christmas party.

It has made regular appearances and his death was an excuse to do so again. I had encountered it on the ozTypewriter website a year ago when Robert Messenger was lamenting the demise of spikus vulgaris, commonly known as the sub-editor. (The link is here)

The ode begins:

It was an ancient sub-editor and he stoppeth many libels,

Fowler’s Modern English Usage and the ODWE were his bibles.

We met in the Bodoni Arms, it was his favourite venue,

He sat alone, a pint in hand, and made corrections to the menu.

The only journalists who will not admit to having been saved from themselves by a sub-editor are either insufferable egotists or so dull-witted we might question their suitability for the professions. Subs are, in the words of Philip Meyer, the author of The Vanishing Newspaper, “the last line of defence”.

I recalled some of the sub-editors I had encountered as a young reporter, the vast majority of them forbearing and helpful. One, beetle-browed and looming, would appear at my desk, not only to show me the changes he had made to my apprentice copy, but to explain why they had been made. It was education on the fly (and, on an afternoon newspaper approaching deadline, almost literally so).

They taught me grammar lessons that have stayed with me (not that I pretend to be a grammarian). They taught me that hanging participles were something up with which we should not put. Today they pepper copy like mass lynchings. Later, as a fledgling stone sub, they warned me about the widow lines on a page that have current newspaper columns in perpetual mourning.

I remembered some memorable ‘saves’ (not mine) such as the murder trial reporter who thought a blood specialist giving evidence was a haemorrhoidist rather than a haematologist. And the young innocent, sent to do a story about foreign objects found in bottles at the milk treatment plant, who dutifully reported the presence of “French lettuce”.

It also drew me back to a memoir written by my old friend, the late Gordon McLauchlan. An erudite writer, Gordon had been a sub on the Napier Daily Telegraph. He recalled in A Life’s Sentences that he had subbed the ‘most execrable prose” produced by branch office reporters.

The aging Telegraph Hastings correspondent was a very nice man whose reports, especially on rugby, were convoluted and obscure…One rugby report started: ‘That the weather had been inclement during the previous week before the match between Celtic and High School Old Boys on Saturday afternoon on Rugby Park, Hastings, was evidenced by the fact that the playing surface was in the sort of condition that mitigated lively back play and ensured the game was mainly confined to the forwards’. I sent it back to him with a memo: ‘Your sentence, which started at the end, convinced me the rumour is true that you go over back fence and round the block to your front gate to get the morning paper.’

The uncharacteristically terse response was: ‘Cheeky bastard’.

I have no doubt that Gordon continued to knock his copy into shape and that the Hastings correspondent would cheerfully take the credit for any praise offered at the rugby clubhouse.

It’s a rare thing, indeed, to hear reporters admit their deathless prose was made infinitely better by a sub-editor. I remember one instance where a convoluted and incomplete feature was filed by a reporter on an overseas assignment. It took considerable work at our end, knocking it into shape for publication. The published version was submitted by the reporter to a journalism competition…and won.

And subs with a flair for headline writing can make a story memorable (sometimes for the wrong reason). Vincent Musetto’s HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR in the New York Post became part of tabloid history. So, too, did the Sun’s tone-deaf GOTCHA when the General Belgrano was torpedoed in the Falklands War with the loss of 323 lives. The New Zealand Herald’s propensity to play cleverly with words has resulted in headings like THE WINDSOR CHANGE on Megxit and the screamer PANDEMONIUM after the first New Zealand Covid case. If nothing else, subs are a creative bunch.

Sir Harold Evans was one of my heroes. He wrote a book called Essential English for Journalists and in it he praised the subs’ bench (or text team, for the benefit of his American readers). He said that collectively it embodied several characteristics:

  • ‘Human interest’ qualities of sympathy, imagination, insight and humour
  • Orderly and well-balanced minds
  • Coolness under fire
  • Quick-thinking
  • Judgement
  • Knowledge of media law
  • Capacity to absorb and communicate facts
  • Ruthlessness, rightly directed.

The best of the sub-editors I have worked with possessed all those qualities and more. Of course, there were a few who were pedestrian and a couple who could strangle the life out of any story. One dead hand replaced my first paragraph “XX is an undischarged bankrupt” with “XX has also known difficulties”.

And sometimes subs can be blind. I don’t know who wrote the headline HILARY, FUCHS OFF TO THE POLE or whether it is an imagined part of New Zealand newspaper history, but there is no doubt that the (then) Manchester Guardian ran the following headline on stories about explorer Sir Vivian Fuchs: “Savage Cold Could Halt Fuchs”, “Sir Vivian Fuchs At Palace” and “Sir Vivian Fuchs For Antarctic”.

Nevertheless, I’m sure most journalists wish there were more of them. Spikus vulgaris has not entirely disappeared from the scene but it is an endangered species. Another of them, the man whose poetic description of the species transcends many others, has gone. He described his own memorial:

On either side shall angels weep, and proudly in between

You will see a pencil, blue, crossed with an eyeshade, green,

And on Carrara marble, carved in ninety-six point caps,

You’ll read subs’ eternal question: ‘Who wrote this piece of crap?’







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