Errors & Omissions: Some see it as a joke – others see a blasphemous headline

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The Independent Online

This headline appeared above a football match report on Monday: "Galacticos fall at the feet of Jesus." (Readers who do not follow football need to know that the Galacticos are the Real Madrid side; they had lost to Seville, one of whose goals was scored by a player called Jesus Navas.)

Some people seem to think blasphemy against the Christian religion doesn't matter. Surely nobody cares about all that old stuff any more. And to some, I suspect, being rude about God looks like a blow for freedom of thought against ancient forces of obscurantist oppression. A newspaper should not feel inhibited about criticising religion, or mocking the clergy and church institutions. But there are good reasons to be vigilant against careless flippancy.

We would certainly not insult either Judaism or Islam in such a way. Bigotry against either Jews or Muslims is abhorred by all decent people. In the case of Islam there is a further, less creditable, reason for being polite: we fear that angry Muslims tend to make trouble. To feel free to insult Jesus because Christians are unlikely to picket your office hardly places you in the heroic tradition of fearless campaigning journalism.

Some people, even in today's secular society, do actually believe in Christianity, and revere the person of Jesus. Why mock that reverence – "fall at the feet of Jesus, har har" – for the sake of a clever headline? What is the point of casually alienating thousands of readers?

And is it such a clever headline anyway? It is based on the following sentence from the report: "Seville got their noses in front when a back-heel from Diego Perotti sent Fernando Navarro down the left and his cross was headed in by Jesus Navas." So it was the head of Jesus, not his feet, anyway.

Was it the word "cross" that triggered the dismal attempt to make a joke about a man being called Jesus, which is perfectly normal in Spain and Latin America?

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Principle objection: The Deborah Ross interview, in last Saturday's magazine, quoted Lord Tebbit as follows: "We didn't sort out welfare. We didn't deal with the incipient failure of our schools. We didn't deal with the health service. Those were our principle shortcomings."

That should be "principal shortcomings", but I hope my fellow pedants will not be too shocked if I argue that this whole principle/principal thing is an unnecessary nuisance. The two words spring from the same Latin root, and it is difficult to see what would be lost if we spelled them the same way. Who is going to confuse a word meaning chief (principal) with a word meaning an axiom or rule of conduct (principle)?

However, the words are, in fact, spelled differently and we need to get it right.

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Too clever by half: A feature article on Monday, commenting on the 40th anniversary of the first broadcast of Monty Python's Flying Circus, took the Python team to task for "Oxbridge smart-aleckry". Would any comedy writer today, it asked, "name-drop so many historical names ... Richard III, Marat, Jean d'Arc, Lincoln, Edward VII ..."

Who is this Jean d'Arc? Jean is the French form of John. That should be Jeanne d'Arc. If you're being clever, get it right. Otherwise, don't bother to be clever and just write Joan of Arc as any ordinary person would.

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Mass of nothing: A picture caption on Tuesday described "a massive secret tunnel under London once used by MI6 as a safe place for classified documents". Can a hole in the ground be massive? Well, in the vague sense of merely big it can. But in the more exact sense of being a big, heavy lump of stuff it cannot. (I am grateful to Jon Summers, of Somerset, for pointing this out.) So "massive" is not the best word to use here.

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Another miracle: "Has science found the cause of ME?" asked the splash headline on yesterday's front page. No, this column can exclusively reveal that it was a joint effort between theology, literary criticism and media studies.

The words "science" and "scientists" ought to be banned from headlines. Neither tells the reader anything that is not crashingly obvious. You might as well publish a headline that says "Archaeology discovers Saxon tomb" or "Cricketers win the Ashes". And always there is that yokellish tone of reverence before the wonders of science that takes us right back to the 1950s.

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