Errors & Omissions: Caution over legal reporting can get out of hand – allegedly


Press people have it drummed into them with Pavlovian intensity that, for fear of contempt of court, you must never publish anything about an accused person that might prejudice the trial. But in the early part of this week, in relation to the Arizona shootings, caution was carried to absurd lengths.

On Monday a picture caption referred to "six people allegedly shot dead by Jared Loughner" and on another page he was an "alleged mass killer". As late as Wednesday a news story spoke of "the suspected shooter, Jared Loughner".

Calm down. The contempt of court danger applies only to British proceedings. The other worry is defamation, but it is fanciful to suppose that Loughner might sue a newspaper for libel – he was caught red-handed and we have reported as fact that, as all the world knows, he fired the fatal shots. So there is no legal purpose in shoving "alleged" or "suspected" into every other sentence.

On grounds of accuracy, we should not use the word "murder", for that will be for a jury to determine; and there is no harm in nodding towards the legal proceedings by calling Loughner a suspect. But that is as far as it goes.

Too much: This headline appeared above a news story on Wednesday: "Radio 1 boss: our DJs' picks turn listeners off." No they don't, because they are not broadcast, as the story made clear. What Radio 1's head of music was actually quoted as saying was that producers have to keep control of playlists because if DJs were allowed a free hand, the balance between new and familiar music would be wrong, and the station would lose listeners.

There is never enough room in a headline, but in this case the omission of "would" produced a falsehood.

Look at the picture: Last Saturday's magazine carried an interview with the actor John Malkovich, in the course of which this comment appeared: "His burgeoning film career in the 1980s was cemented by his breakthrough performance in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons, arch and overdressed in powdered wig and frills."

Directly above was a still from the film, in which Malkovich is quite plainly not wearing a powdered wig. A run-through of the DVD reveals that on formal occasions the feline aristocrat conforms to the wig-wearing stereotype of the ancien régime, but most of the time he wears his natural dark hair tied back.

One other thing. How can anything be cemented by a breakthrough?

Fashionable idea: Writers are often accused of dressing up opinion as fact. In a news report on Monday, a fact was dressed up as an opinion. The story was about the successful campaign in the 1960s to save St Pancras station in London from demolition. It reported: "In 1963, Victorian Gothic design was then considered deeply unfashionable."

No, it wasn't just considered unfashionable; it really was unfashionable. It was considered fussy, false and sentimental. That opinion has since been overturned, but it is still a fact that Victorian Gothic was unfashionable in 1963.

Ethnic oddity: On Wednesday, an arts page article about Bartok carried this headline: "Extended play for a magical Magyar."

The use of the Hungarian name "Magyar" isn't wrong, but it is whimsical and awkward. It originates from the days before 1920, when Hungary was a large multi-ethnic country. The habit grew up, in English, of saying "Hungarian" for an inhabitant of Hungary and "Magyar" for a person of Hungarian speech and culture. So a "Hungarian" in English usage might be a "Magyar" or a Romanian, Slovak, Jew or whatever. That way of thinking has uncomfortable overtones of ethnic overlordship, and relates to a bygone age.

Today, better to stick to "Hungarian" – though you might have to sacrifice some good headlines.

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