Errors & Omissions: Rely too heavily on the internet and risk baffling the reader

Click to follow
The Independent Online

We proceed on the assumption that the reader has access to the internet. No longer do "newspapers of record" devote daily pages of print to, for instance, debates in Parliament.

People who want to read them can easily find them on the web. News stories can refer to all kinds of research papers and official reports in the confidence that readers who want to know more can look them up. But we still should not assume a licence to baffle. The printed story still needs to be complete, whether or not some readers will want to do further research.

John McInerney has written in from Devon to draw attention to this, the opening paragraph of Monday's story about shortcomings at Nottinghamshire Police: "In the glory days of Captain Athelstan Popkess, the police in Nottingham were the envy of Britain. It was under his innovative leadership that the force became the first to give its officers walkie-talkies, to have a forensic science laboratory and to use police dogs. But the country's police no longer look towards the East Midlands with admiring eyes."

From there the story went on to deal with the Nottinghamshire force's modern troubles. Not another mention of Popkess. Such a cursory reference of anyone is a poor show; in the case of a man with the name of Athelstan Popkess it is a disaster.

We didn't have to be told about Popkess's alarming right-wing leanings and his previous career in the Black and Tans, but the information that he was Chief Constable of the Nottingham city police for 30 years up to 1960 really should have been there.

Who he? More bafflement in the same day's Life section. The "Days Like These" feature is headed "1 February 1963: Nancy Mitford writes to Valentine Lawford." It is fair to assume that the reader has heard of Nancy Mitford, but Valentine Lawford? The letter is full of gushing references to "your book" – unexplained.

Step forward, once again, Google. It turns out that Valentine Lawford (1911-1991), diplomat and later partner to the photographer Horst, published an autobiography in 1963.

And who he? Even the most scrupulous writer can mix up the attribution of pronouns. This is from Stephen Glover's media column on Monday: "As editor of the London Evening Standard in 1997, Sir Max [Hastings] urged readers to support Blair... When he stood down in 2002 Tony Blair gave his old cheerleader a knighthood." The reader takes a moment to work out that in that last sentence "he" is Hastings, but "his" indicates Blair.

Joined-up grammar: Liz Hoggard's Thursday column explored the thesis that the John Terry adultery story is interesting only to men, who all love football and respond deeply to this tale of fractured loyalty among team-mates; whereas women find it dull. The column contained this: "Like most women who lack the football gene, the story doesn't really make sense."

That sentence is like a second-hand car, bought at a dodgy auction, that turns out to be the joined-up front and back halves of two different stolen cars. You could say: "Like most women who lack the football gene, I can see no sense in the story." Or you could say: "To me, as to most women who lack the football gene, the story doesn't really make sense." But don't cannibalise the two.

Incidentally, I repudiate the sexist slur that all men are obsessed with football. I hate it. The interest of the Terry story lies elsewhere, with the granting and lifting of the super-injunction. It is a story about the uses and abuses of media freedom, the sinister privacy law our judges have constructed on the back of the Human Rights Act, and the hypocrisy of celebrities who make plenty of money out of the public's curiosity about them – the Terrys' wedding, for instance, was the subject of a magazine picture deal – only to cry "privacy" and scurry off to court when scandal threatens.

Daft headline of the week: "Could Obama's old seat go to a Republican?" That appeared on a news page on Thursday. The answer is obvious: yes it could. They have this system of voting, you see, and it means that any of the candidates could win the election. In fact, the story makes it clear that the Republican candidate has a good chance. The question everyone is asking is slightly different: "Will Obama's old seat go to a Republican?"

Comments