Errors & Omissions: Don't judge a person's behaviour by his profession

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The Independent Online

Undigested agency copy is a dangerous diet. Last Saturday we published a picture of the actor Martin Clunes riding in an open carriage on the racecourse at Ascot. Next to it, somebody had shoved in the following words: "First Ladies Day, now Luvvies Day.

"The actor Martin Clunes may have made his name as one of the Men Behaving Badly, but he was on his best behaviour yesterday as he arrived for the fourth day of Royal Ascot ..."

Can it be that people who write this sort of stuff really believe that their readers cannot distinguish between an actor and a character he plays? Amid today's celebrity culture, some people may need reminding that there is this thing called acting. The actor, a real person, pretends to be a different, imaginary person – the character. The audience agrees to pretend that the imaginary person is real, thus turning him into an image of power and wonder. That is called suspension of disbelief. (The celebrity, on the other hand, is a half-real, half-imaginary person in whom members of the public believe without any decision to suspend disbelief, thus turning themselves into fools.) Martin Clunes, being an accomplished actor, is able to pretend, convincingly, to be a rude man "behaving badly". But that does not make it in any way remarkable that in real life he is able to behave politely.

Now, the headline. It seems nobody can write anything about actors these days without calling them luvvies. I would not ban the word: on occasions theatrical people can be sentimental and self-important. But it's coming to something if a man can't enjoy a day at the races without being called a luvvie.

The honest headline on an honest report of the facts would have been "Actor attends race meeting". But that wouldn't look like much of a story. That, of course, is the trouble: in truth there is no story. There is an agreeable photograph. We would have done better to leave it at that – a stand-alone picture and caption.

Journalese: There have been two big stories this week – the Budget and the World Cup. So we have seen plenty of cross-references from the front pages of newspapers to further coverage inside. And very often we have seen the dread words "Full reports". Not just "Reports" but "Full reports".

Whenever I see that little line at the end of a front-page story – "Full reports, page 6" or whatever – I wonder what it is supposed to mean. How full does a "full" report have to be? Presumably it has to include all the information material to the story. But space is always limited, and reporters are fallible human beings. Is there any further relevant information that is not in the report? That question could be answered in the negative only by an omniscient deity.

Must we not accept that in the realm of human knowledge there is no such thing as a full report? You might as well offer the reader "Herd of unicorns, Page 6".

I suppose, in truth, "Full reports" is a shorthand form for "As much as you will want to know". That is not meaningless, but it is a big claim to be making in a cross-reference. And we should not be surprised if the reaction of the readers is grumpy; for this is a statement about their mental capacity as much as about the contents of Page 6.

"Full reports?" growls the sensible reader. "I'll be the judge of that."

Out of Practice: Raymond Fischer writes from south London to point out this, from an obituary published on Wednesday: "Although she later qualified as a barrister she never practiced."

"Practice" and "practise" are a nuisance. When people find a distinction so difficult to remember, we may suspect it serves no useful purpose. There are thousands of English words that serve as both noun and verb, with no distinction of spelling. In origin "practice" seems to be an arbitrary variant spelling of "practise".

But having said all that, newspapers ought to get it right. The noun is "practice": the verb is "practise". A useful aid to memory is the analogy with "advice" and "advise".

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