Peter Oborne had some weighty reasons for leaving The Telegraph this week – mostly to do with the alleged influence of advertisers on editorial content. But he also bemoaned the lack of sub-editors on the paper. This is something that afflicts many English-language media (I can’t speak for those in other languages), where the quality of grammar, punctuation and other basics are routinely appalling. (Yes, I know sub-editors have other roles.) The Telegraph is indeed a regular treasure trove of errors. The BBC – which, as a public media body with one of the world’s best-known brands and a much-visited news website – bears a particular responsibility to keep standards high. But hardly a day goes past without some error appearing in its news website articles, in captions on television programmes, or in what presenters read out from the autocue. And it’s not just about grammar – factual errors are common in the media, too. The Independent on 13 September 2013 ran an article about Henry Kissinger that included the line “His North Korean counterpart, Le Duc Tho, declined the award”. (I sent a correction via the website, and the error was put right, also receiving a polite acknowledgement from the Deputy Managing Editor.)
I am not alone in suffering flushed cheeks and rising blood pressure when I spot such errors. Fellow members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders regularly vent on the subject in the society’s online forum. A few, like me, actually take the trouble to contact the offending publication’s editorial staff to point out errors. (Some are better than others in making corrections but, ironically, even The Telegraph sends a personalised response.)
But the few errors that I and other eagle-eyed readers and viewers spot and try to correct are presumably the tip of an iceberg, and thousands of mistakes must be out there every day. What to do? Clearly the economics of employing staff to check what others have written have changed. Occasionally, a major faux pas will slip through. But mostly it’s just that time pressure is such that the writer feels unable to read through what he/she has written – or that he/she simply cannot be bothered. Should it really be left to people like me to point out the mistakes?
Books seem to be no exception. The phenomenally successful 50 Shades of Grey is, famously, replete with grammatical errors – not that most readers would notice, or care. Leafing through David Essex’s new Travelling Tinker Man and Other Rhymes in a shop just this week, in “The Sea” I found the dubious rhyme “fruits de mare”.
It seems that no one is immune from the problem. Reporting on Oborne’s resignation from The Telegraph, the Huffington Post wrote: “He also accusing the newspaper of trying to operate without sub editors.” Perhaps HP needs a sub-editor?