Errors & Omissions: How journalistic shorthand can rob an event of its significance


Those of us who remember the "anti-Vietnam" demonstrations were carried back to the 1960s by the following opening of a news story on Wednesday: "Poor Tony.

As if the perpetual ire of the anti-Iraq movement and half the Middle East were not enough to contend with, now James Bond himself has had a dig at the former Prime Minister."

As with Vietnam 45 years ago, so with Iraq today. It starts off as the name of a country. Then it becomes the name of an event – instead of writing "the Iraq war and its aftermath" you can just say "Iraq". Thus: "The Labour Party must never forget its shame over Iraq." (Or "pride", if you belong to the diehard pro-war "Would you rather have left Saddam in power?" faction. But I digress; the use of the word "Iraq" remains the same in either case.) And, of course, if "Iraq" means "the Iraq war", then those who oppose the war are "anti-Iraq" – except that they are not.

I'm telling you: A sidebar to the same story carried the headline "BBC told to kill Blair obituary". Right, so they will have to drop the obituary, then, because someone with authority to give the BBC orders has said that it must. That is the picture painted in my mind by the word "told".

Not a bit of it, of course. The story is about "Labour figures" who were approached by the BBC to be interviewed for the Blair obit, and objected that it was "in poor taste" to be getting ready for the death of a man aged 58. The BBC's reaction suggests that it is taking no notice (and quite right, too – people can die at any age and the corporation has a plain duty to be ready to broadcast an obituary of any former prime minister).

It's the same old trouble. Those who write headlines are locked in a perpetual struggle to cram a quart of meaning into a pint of space. Any word as blessedly short as "told" is likely to pop up often – even when it ought to be "urged" or "asked" or "under pressure".

Near miss: Here are two misfires from Thursday's news pages, brought about by presenting facts in a clumsy order: "He appeared alongside former Olympic swimmer Weissmuller, who died in 1984, and Maureen O'Sullivan, mother of Mia Farrow, who died in 1998." Funny, I thought Mia Farrow was still alive.

"Next week, when the weather is predicted to be chilly, most parents will want to know their child is eating something nourishing – whether it's a new boy who would rather chase a ball round the playground than sit up with some wholesome soup, or a teenage girl ..." Yes indeed. New boys who have put on plenty of muscle chasing balls round the playground are particularly nourishing.

Yes, yes, I know it is O'Sullivan who died in 1998, and the boys are eating, not being eaten. The reader soon realises the truth. But if the sentences were recast, the reader wouldn't have to do a double-take.

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