Word of Mouth, Radio 4, Tuesday<br/>Great Lives, Radio 4, Tuesday

Sub-editors are strange creatures &ndash; I should know, I was one
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Every so often in journalism someone has the idea of doing away with sub-editors: writers input copy directly, someone comes up with a headline (that new bloke in the canteen seems quite bright), and out pops a paper.

Subs smirk sardonically into their style books knowing what a disaster it will be.

I was expecting Word of Mouth, in which Michael Rosen toured the newsroom of The Sun, to be more about the language side of sub-editing, but it was as much about the people. And they – we, still, really, at heart – can be a strange bunch.

Rosen asked a married couple, Elaine and Neil Roberts, if work spilled over into their private life. Elaine had me slightly worried – "I can't order that because it's spelt wrongly on the menu" – and for ages, she said, they didn't go into a local restaurant at home because a sign outside said, "Lot's more room upstairs."

The senior sub Chris Hockley, who handles the big stuff, is clearly a guru of the subbing world. He says he draws a picture in his head before he starts and then strives to get that on the page. And when he's got a story like the 7/7 inquest, he puts himself in that situation: "I try to feel the emotion." I have to confess there wasn't much of that on the Indy sports desk, where I learnt my trade.

There weren't many women in sports journalism then, and there are only a few more now. But elsewhere there are far more women editors, subs and writers – and in what's been called "the feminisation of Fleet Street", subjects previously confined to the women's pages are now staple fare.

That's largely down to Mary Stott, pioneer of the women's page at The Guardian, who was celebrated by her old colleagues Katharine Whitehorn and Dame Liz Forgan in Great Lives. They drew a vivid portrait of a team stuffed with talent and engaged in nothing less than a revolution.

The Guardian's women's desk was in the middle of the features department, and Dame Liz recalled being in the middle of deep discussions, where no subject was off-limits: "I would notice chaps loitering, perching, just listening."

The Tories, who, as I've said before, hate the BBC, are also engaged in nothing less than a revolution, courtesy of the cuts. They are, however, not a team stuffed with talent, as evidenced by the good kicking they're inflicting on the World Service.

Many of its benefits are intangible – promoting Brand Britain, if you like, crucial for a nation dedicated to punching above its weight. The BBC can still claim to be the global journal of record, the place you go to for a straight take on a story. The Foreign Office, which holds the purse strings, should be able to see that. I know times are hard, but this is just stupid.

Comments