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.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
Life and Style
fashionEveryone, apparently
Voices
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
art
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
Sport
Husain Abdullah returns an interception off Tom Brady for a touchdown
nflLeague has rules against 'sliding to ground on knees'
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
Arts and Entertainment
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Maths teacher require...

KS1 Teacher

£21500 - £31500 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work...

Java Developer - web services, XML and API

£330 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Lond...

Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Maths Teacher required to teach Furthe...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style