Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Journalists and the secret of eternal youth

Saturday 17 September 2011 12:55

Ever noticed how people you see on TV are always smaller in real life? Or your friends seem to look jollier on Facebook? Reader Sarah Lawson from Edinburgh has also observed something odd about the pictures of the journalists who write for the 'Independent on Sunday'.

"In this digital age," she writes, "it would seem to be an easy task to update the wee pictures accompanying each article. It feels as if I have been looking at the picture of Simon Price, with those funny wing things on his head and heavy eyebrows, for ever. Does he still look like that? Terry Durack has been updated to his new slimline version. I think it is time for a new look for other contributors. Perhaps they file their contributions by email and never come to your offices, so you do not know what they look like either?"

Now, I'm going to let you into a secret, Ms Lawson. While I can vouch for the fact that Simon and Terry are handsome chaps, most journalists are older, balder, more wrinkled, squatter, obese and ugly than their byline pictures suggest. There is a game played at 'Sun' and 'News of the World' Christmas parties of "Match the Journalist to the Picture Byline". It is said to be very hard to win.

How do they get away with it? Journalistic commitments to truth and honesty never evaporate faster than when they encounter personal vanity. I was once responsible for editing a Very Grand Lady Columnist, famous for her tirades against hypocrisy in all its forms. I suggested we update her picture byline, which clearly had been taken some 20 years earlier. The VGLC went along with the idea, but got her way by simply rejecting the results of every new sitting. She still writes alongside the same girlish image, even though she is now drawing her pension.

Why do we need these mugshots? 'The Economist' and 'The Wall Street Journal' appear to be no less successful without them. Yet they have certainly proliferated. Where once a reporter might have been awarded a picture byline as a badge of honour for a report from a war zone, now the office junior can get one after a week in the job. And are our mornings greatly enhanced by the portly visages of Richard Littlejohn or Simon Heffer?

Our designers explain that picture bylines help to project the personalities of writers and, in comment sections, to break up vast areas of grey type. For me, there's another bonus. While I'm sure you'd rather see a shot of Natasha Kaplinsky or Keira Knightley at the head of this column, picture bylines ensure we oldies and uglies still get a show in an image-obsessed age.

And what about Simon Price? He tells me he missed his appointment with his "fantastically talented" cyber hairdresser and so is not currently wearing his usual plastic antennae. "So I've reverted to 'natural' hair-horns and do indeed look like that 2002-vintage photo. I'm a menace in cinemas, but useful in crowds!"


Message Boards: Is the T5 chaos a typical British shambles?

BA's inability to get its new terminal functioning more than a week after its opening drew a scathing response from readers:

Neil McGowan

Come back Captain Mainwaring! Privates Pike and Frazer will be manning the check-in for BA872 in the church hall. The warden and verger will be in charge of security. Willie Walsh earns £584K a year.


Be fair: it's a very complex operation. The folk who have pocketed large amounts to sort it out should have their salaries looked at, but this kind of thing happens when you have massive construction work.


A "soft launch" at T5 instead of a glitzy send-off would have ironed out early glitches. A launch at a peak travelling time was too ambitious. You don't try a new recipe on a party for thousands.


Do we never learn from the lessons of recent history? The Millennium Dome was another landmark construction that ended up an eyesore of British ineptitude. The Olympics will need to be glitch-free.

Jennifer Dibble

The comparison with Warmington-on-Sea is unfair. Captain Mainwaring et al weren't nearly as entertaining. Incidentally, that was a soft launch: 40,000 passengers, as opposed to 70,000.


Perhaps this fiasco will stop further airport expansion plans. If Stansted got a second runway, ancient villages would be knocked down so that more people could watch their holiday plans collapse.


Incompetence has seeped into our national character. We expect nothing less. What price the UK as a global laughing stock? Did someone mention a party in a brewery?


Maybe a few more passengers should follow Naomi Campbell's lead. For too long British service companies have got away with their customers' meek acceptance of risible management.

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