Errors & Omissions: Forget the boring facts – all we want is a really clever headline


Writing headlines is an art – and a challenge. Nothing we do in the print trade comes in for more criticism. Headlines are believed to typify everything that has always been wrong with journalism – brash, stupid, shameless, addicted to forceful expression at the expense of factual accuracy and intellectual discrimination. It's all true, of course, but nothing makes the ink pulse faster in the veins of a true old-fashioned newspaper hack than a really clever headline.

One day during the 1984 miners' strike, Arthur Scargill, the miners' leader, had the misfortune to be photographed at a rally waving his right hand in the air in a way that looked horribly like a Nazi salute. The Times ran the picture with a scrupulously fair caption that began: "Mr Arthur Scargill giving a greeting ..." I know, because I wrote it. The Sun, a stranger to such inhibitions and an unabashed enemy of Scargill, adorned the picture with a headline: "Mine Führer". What an absolute disgrace, but how I wished I had written that headline!

A headline, of course, is supposed to showcase the most interesting aspect of the story. That is right and proper. But sometimes a fine line divides emphasising the exciting bit from constructing something that isn't quite warranted by the facts.

On Tuesday, for instance, this appeared above a news story: "The Islamification of Britain: record numbers embrace Muslim faith." Golly – dramatic stuff. The story, however, informed the reader as follows: "Previous estimates have placed the number of Muslim converts in the UK at between 14,000 and 25,000. But a new study by the inter-faith think-tank Faith Matters suggests that the real figure could be as high as 100,000, with as many as 5,000 new conversions nationwide each year."

So, in a nation of 60 million, one person in 600 is a Muslim convert, and in 20 years that will double to one in 300. If things go on at a flat rate of 5,000 a year, Britain will become a Muslim majority country in a mere 6,000 years. Even at a compound rate of 5 per cent a year, the process will take about 120 years. The Islamification of Britain" clearly has some way to go.

Here is another headline, from Monday's paper, this time simply daft: "Is this the perfect chair?" The design article that followed failed to answer the question – not surprisingly, since it cannot be answered. How would you identify the perfect chair?

Lapse of taste: Here is the opening sentence of a fashion feature, published on Monday: "Puffer jackets are to fashion as the Brussel sprout is to a Christmas dinner, not to everyone's taste, perhaps, but they appeal to a discerning palette."

Two points to note here. "Brussel sprout" is a curious back-formation. In speech Brussels sprouts are often called "Brussels", which creates the impression that "Brussels" is a plural, with the singular "Brussel". Not so: it is just the capital of Belgium. The singular of "Brussels sprouts" is "Brussels sprout".

And then there is "palette", which should be "palate". The two words happen to be pronounced similarly, but their meanings and derivations are quite different. A palette (from French) is the thin board on which an artist mixes colours. ("Pallet" is a closely related word, but that is another story.) The roof of the mouth is the palate (from Latin). People once believed that it was the seat of the sense of taste, so the word also means taste or judgement.

Gone west: Monday's Notebook column reported: "North Korea's bonkers dictator Kim Jong-il has taken at least one step towards open government: he has allowed state television to broadcast a Western film, for the very first time."

This is confusing. The film in question turns out to be Bend It Like Beckham, which is not what you would think of as a Western film. Stagecoach and High Noon are Western films – or possibly western films, but in any case the capital letter does not clear up the ambiguity. Bend It Like Beckham is a film from the West.

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