Errors & Omissions: Shocking revelation... other rival newspapers really do exist

Remember the email from the late Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe complaining about a lack of helicopters in Afghanistan? Well, I'm going to tell you a secret. The existence of the email was first disclosed in the Daily Mail.

If you didn't know that already, it is because last Saturday this newspaper played a daft little charade that newspapers frequently play on such occasions. Our news story reported: "The emailed memo sent on 5 June was classified as 'Nato secret' but was passed to a newspaper by Conservative MP and former Grenadier Guards officer Adam Holloway."

The "a newspaper" formula has been widely used for many decades, but it is still pretty pathetic to try to deprive your readers of useful information simply to avoid mentioning the name of a rival newspaper. And meanwhile, the internet has arrived. Anybody who wants to know where the story came from can find out easily enough. The charade gets sillier and sillier. Time to recognise the shocking fact that other newspapers exist and sometimes carry interesting stories.

Lucky escape: Another bad habit of newspapers is cooking up a false feeling of drama, as in this picture caption from a news page on Monday: "Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, cleared a crucial obstacle yesterday, lowering its smokestacks to squeeze under a bridge in Denmark as it left the Baltic on its maiden voyage to Florida."

"Cleared a crucial obstacle" and "squeeze under a bridge" suggest that there was some risk that the ship might not have made it, remaining for ever trapped in the Baltic Sea. Come off it. The people who design and operate ships can easily find out the heights of bridges they must go under.

Misfire: This is from a news story last Saturday: "The internet's reliance on the English language has long been maligned as a hangover from the web's beginnings as a communications tool for the US military." Maligned? Not quite. I think the writer meant "criticised". "Malign" is a very strong word; it means to speak ill with deliberate malice, and it carries the strong suggestion that what is being said is false.

Decline and fall: Most of the things that "everybody knows" are wrong. One of them surfaced in Bruce Anderson's Monday piece: the familiar idea that the fall of the Roman Empire was accompanied, if not caused, by spectacular dissipation on the part of its ruling class. Anderson was arguing that drug prohibition should be relaxed. "The aim of these measures would not be the promotion of universal hippydom: still less, to bring the decadence of the late Roman empire to the streets of south London."

In fact the familiar monsters of depravity – Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus – ruled the Roman Empire at the height of its power in the first and second centuries. The nonentities who presided over its decline in the fourth and fifth centuries – Honorius, Arcadius, Valentinian III – were Christian gentlemen of comparative personal respectability. No druggies they.

And here is a piece of more recent history. "Hippydom" should be "hippiedom". They say that if you remember the Sixties you weren't really there, but I definitely remember the spelling of "hippie".

Translated from the American: "The European Court of Human Rights has said that the display of crucifixes in Italian public schools violates religious and educational freedoms," said a news report from the US news agency the Associated Press, which we carried on Wednesday. These schools are not what anybody in this country understands as public schools. In a British newspaper they are state schools.

Mixed metaphor of the week: "Obama in last-ditch dash to stave off Democratic defeat," said a headline on Monday. Obama may dash, or he may stand and defend a ditch. He cannot do both at once. The headline, it is only fair to point out, reflected the story. An unruly mob of metaphors can so easily crowd into stories about business and politics. In this case we had the President making a "flying visit" to New Jersey to "put his weight behind" the re-election of the state's Democratic governor, while at the same time trying to "salvage" his party's fortunes. Meanwhile, the Republicans were "salivating at the prospect of being able to land a blow on the President".

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