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Falling journalistic standards at the Guardian – again (or still)…

Posted Oct 12 2012 9:16am

It might be my birthday, but that’s no reason why I should abandon my attempts to hold the Guardian to a higher standard of written English than it currently manages to achieve.

Consider this from Mars Curiosity rover discovers rock similar to those found on Earth :-

“The rock was chemically more alike to an unusual type of rock found on oceanic islands such as Hawaii and St Helena…”

No, it wasn’t.

The rock was either “more akin to” or even, simply, “more like”. In context it cannot be “more alike”.

It could be “more alike” than another sample, if they were discussing two or more samples of Mars rock, and comparing them to Earth rocks – but they’re not.

Which poses a question (it does not beg the question, which means quite the opposite) – as it’s pretty much impossible to get a journalists’ post at the Guardian without a degree these days, why is nobody checking to ensure these people can actually write standard, grammatically and syntactically correct, English?

Interesting factoid: standards are higher, often much higher, at the Guardian, among journalists and contributors of my generation (give or take a decade), than among the bunch of 20-30-somethings currently writing much online drivel (I’m assuming it’s online – I’d hate to think people were paying good money for this in the print version).

I have an ongoing, and so far one-sided, campaign at the Guardian, trying to convince them that if they want to start charging us for online content, or as one clown suggested recently, start taxing broadband to support newspapers , then they need to raise their standards. Considerably.

And I do know that baby hacks, no matter what their paper qualifications, have to learn their trade – to learn to convey information in a way that is accurate, entertaining, and above all, well-written. So far their occasionally execrable efforts are online and free, but if it’s ever chargeable then, sorry, they don’t learn at my expense.

Time was these same people would have cut their teeth on provincial papers and, after 10 years or so, moved to the nationals with a marketable skillset and, possibly, a favourable reputation. That doesn’t seem to happen any longer and some have clearly come straight from uni, with zero writing skills, to a post at the Guardian.

In at least one case, that’s entirely due to nepotism. I wouldn’t care were it not for the fact that the guy’s skillset is too meagre even for the Dandy – he has no discernible talent and seems to exist simply to piss people off in CiF and, to be fair, he excels at that. ;)

I would happily subscribe to the Guardian’s online edition (only part of which is available free and I suspect a paywall of some sort is inevitable), but not when their hacks are allowed to write egregious crap unchallenged. Sub-editors should exist as a buffer between hacks and the printing/publishing process, in order that drivel like that above (seizing on that article might seem picky, but it’s merely the tip of a vast Grauniad** iceberg), never reaches the public. It’s not happening, so what, exactly, are subs doing with their time if not checking copy? Do they even still exist?

**For the youngsters, the notoriously typo-prone Guardian once, in its Manchester incarnation, famously referred to itself as the Grauniad. I suspect the tale is apocryphal, but I do hope not; it deserves to be true.

This current problem, of course, can be laid firmly at the door of computerisation, when hacks became their own subs.

As any blogger with standards knows, it can be hard to spot your own mistakes – it’s as if the brain thinks “Oh, that’s mine, it’s got to be right,” and skips over the errors. I find that going off to do something else, then returning to what I’ve written to proof-read it works pretty well, but at a newspaper, hacks seem to just hit the Publish button, with zero error-checking. And the Publish button means just that these days.

That’s because, in the absence of a sub-editor, for whatever reason, there’s nothing between the hack and the newspaper buyer but an automated machine that incorporates his copy into a printing plate, and a vast, automated, printing and collating behemoth that commits unchecked stupidity to the finished paper.  True, random copies are hauled out for checking, but just the layout, not the actual text, word by word, and so mistakes are released to annoy pedantic buggers like me.

Of course, for online content, even that doesn’t happen. and the Publish button means just that. My blog offers me a post-publication copy** to edit and update it if necessary – do newspaper computers do anything similar? It mostly seems not.

**Though I hope by then that I’ve already corrected what needs to be.

The Guardian – and no, I don’t have a grudge against it, it’s just the paper I read the most – used to have an excellent Readers’ Editor called Ian Mayes, who shared my views on journalistic abuse of our language (nice guy too, since moved on to greater things), and misuse of “begs the question” drove him to despair, as he felt that the battle was lost.

Sadly, he was right, but at least we pedants will insist on getting it right, so all is not yet lost. And – here’s a thought – just when did “pedant” become a term of abuse? (If you doubt that, spend some time in CiF.) Being right isn’t a crime, and there is absolutely nothing laudable about trying to make a virtue of being wrong. Doesn’t stop people trying, though.

My journalistic hero, by the way, was Keith Waterhouse, a man capable of being moved to incandescent fury by a misplaced apostrophe,** and who raised pedantry to an art form – the world needs more like him.

**He created the AAAA – the Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe.

To beg the question, by the way, means to avoid it, a usage which also exists in the phrase “to beg off,” meaning to cancel an appointment or an engagement, or to decline an offer (as it might be, to go for  drink). Generations of misinformed people have insisted on using the former arse about face, thus making the common usage the completely wrong one.

There might be an excuse for them, there is certainly no excuse for a well-educated journalist. And yes, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary, they are educated to a higher standard than the norm, in that they got into a university and emerged with a decent, and possibly even relevant, degree.

For the record, I did neither. Even so, I would be mortified if I ever wrote as badly, in this blog, as the new generation at the Guardian does.

There is more, far more, to journalism than simply putting words on a page and praying that no-one pays too much attention to how you’ve done it.


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