Note to subs: please insert headline here...

Sub-editing: Even the most meticulous can commit blunders, as David Randall reveals

In the dog days of August, as executives gather round the dying embers of silly season stories, talk inevitably turns to that abiding concern of newspaper life: what was our greatest cock-up, and can I avoid responsibility for it?

In the dog days of August, as executives gather round the dying embers of silly season stories, talk inevitably turns to that abiding concern of newspaper life: what was our greatest cock-up, and can I avoid responsibility for it?

On the Southern Reporter, based in Selkirk, this summer has already provided the answers. The calamity arose from the ill-advised practice of writing some jocular words beneath a picture, safe in the assumption that a colleague will fill in with something more suitable before the page goes to press. In this case, the paper had a picture of people at the traditional St Ronan's Games week and Cleikum Ceremonies. Underneath it, some joker had written: "Caption, caption about these pious little bleeders and the lady busser doing that interminably boring thing so cherished by Border festivals. What on earth is going on in this picture - these people have got to get out more often for their peace of mind and sanity." Sure enough, this cod caption was published. Exit one editor.

Many famous foul-ups do seem to involve photographs. There was the paper that illustrated a particularly gory news story about serial killers Fred and Rose West with pictures of a leading Quebec separatist and his good lady, and last year copies of the Newbury Weekly News had to be recalled after a story about a local priest facing child pornography charges carried the likeness of another, entirely blameless, Berkshire churchman.

Pictures of the unfamiliar are, indeed, the bane of subeditors' lives - witness the apology once carried by the Pasack Valley Community Life: "In last week's issue, a picture caption listed some unusual gourmet dishes enjoyed at a Westwood Library party... Mai Thai Finn was in the center of the photo. We incorrectly listed her name as one of the items on the menu..."

Let's be frank, corrections, unless you are the guilty party, are an unfailing source of delight. I once had the pleasure of inserting a belated one into The Observer, correcting a mis-reporting of the date of Mozart's death, 200 years after the story first ran. The prize, however, should surely go to the Virginian-Pilot, that in December 2003, ran a correction to its 1903 story of the Wright Brothers' historic flight. This original story contained no fewer than 31 errors and the correction ran to 559 words. So much for declining standards.

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