Errors & omissions: Anything goes for theatre managers, but not headline writers

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The Independent Online

On a December evening in, I think, 1973, the junior reporter and occasional theatre critic in the Sunderland branch office of The Northern Echo sat down to compose his opinion of the local civic theatre's latest show.

"Traditional pantomime at its best," I opined, "is a very fine thing. That, up to a point, is what you will get this Christmas." There followed a dissection of the shortcomings of Aladdin, or whatever it was.

Picture my youthful indignation, when this appeared in big letters on the billboard outside the Empire Theatre: "'Traditional pantomime at its best' – Northern Echo". By picking out those five words, the theatre had misrepresented the entire review.

I was reminded of that masterstroke of selective quotation by the following headline, which appeared above a comment piece on Thursday: "'Life is tough and the violence will get worse. The regime may soon turn to chemical weapons'."

That second sentence is based on the following paragraph from the article: "I think we need to be very wary about the use of WMDs. Syria is a particularly vicious war and there is of course the possibility that the regime, in desperation, may start using chemical weapons. I doubt that will be the case and the rebels don't seem to be over-worried about WMDs either."

Of course you can expect a theatre management to grab out of a review any words that will help to sell tickets, but a newspaper headline should try to give a fair picture of what the piece is like. That is the challenge. Sometimes, as here, a headline can stay within the bounds of factual accuracy but paint an absolutely misleading picture in the reader's mind.

Picture this: "Facing up to the spectre of dementia," said a picture caption on Thursday's front page. The question arises: what would the spectre of dementia look like? For a spectre is not just any old nasty thought or memory. It is a grisly supernatural vision: you can see it.

Well, the spectre of war, or even unemployment, is easy enough to imagine. But can dementia be represented by a spectre?

Drink up, girls: Marcello Mastroianni, according to a film feature last Saturday, seems to spend the whole of La Dolce Vita "in his 1958 Triumph convertible driving a bevvy of beauties through the streets of Rome".

Hardly. The Italian charmer might well enjoy the company of a bevy, but a bevvy sounds more in the style of some stand-up comedians. "Bevy" goes back to Middle English, but its etymology is unknown. It means a flock of larks or quails, or of ladies. The word is now rarely seen, except in the cliché "a bevy of beauties". "Bevvy" is of more recent and transparent origin. It is a slang term for an alcoholic drink, presumably a contraction of "beverage".

Journalese: Everybody gets labelled with their role in the story, and it takes time and conscious effort to change the label.

"Missing Tia may have been smothered," said a headline on Tuesday. Tia Sharp was, of course, the "missing schoolgirl" from New Addington in Surrey. So the words "Missing Tia" at the start of the headline let the reader know straight away who the story was about. By Tuesday, however, Tia was, very sadly, no longer missing, her body having been found the previous Friday.