Friday, February 29, 2008

Just how engaged is GMTV?

Didn't GMTV just plumb new depths this morning with yet another cringe-making stunt?

You could have scripted it: Feb 29, let's get a blushing wannabe bride-to-be to pop the question live on TV and set hearts a-flutter.

So they found Emma, a long-suffering DIY widow who has spent seven years booking romantic breaks for factory worker Mario without him once taking the hint and dropping to one knee.

Surely, a camera in his face and a few million dew-eyed viewers would clinch it. So, with the help of his mates on the shopfloor, they whipped the poor bloke upstairs for a bogus meeting while they sneaked in the cameras, a presenter and the hapless Emma eagerly waiting to become the happiest man in Hoddesden.

When they rounded the corner, hey presto! he was already kneeling, albeit at his machine and in his overalls, but, still, good sign. Enter on screen, Emma, cherubic, expectant, little box in hand flanked by not one, but two, cameras and what looked like a holiday camp MC with a microphone.

A short speech and Emma ask for his hand. Mario, bemused, eyes darting everywhere, looked bang to rights like a dodgy builder fronted up on Watchdog.

So, will he or won't he? "Yeah, awright" he said, adding when pressed: "She's a little bugger, she is."

And as Emma wept real tears of joy, the MC pressed him further,asking why he hadn't in all those years, made an honest woman of her. There was even the sound of violins.

Meanwhile, back in the studio, presenters Penny Smith and Andrew Castle were openly wetting thenselves as they spoke of how "thrilled" poor old Mario looked.

Then, cut to the factory. There was the couple, flowers in hand, getting into a car "for a bit of a chat", said Castle. I bet. "Have a nice weekend," he added as Smith fairly burst her sides.

If the engagement survives this, let's just hope the wedding video fares a little better.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Style, and doing it by the book

Interesting to see the Telegraph have updated their stylebook for the modern age. It's full of the traditional stylebook pomp, suited and booted by Simon Heffer, and includes for the first time references on how to write for multiple platforms.

For the uninitiated, stylebooks are a newspaper's workshop manual; they're there to ensure all the pages speak in one voice.

In practice, they can usually be summarised by a well-honed introduction setting out the basic aims and three to four pages of banned words, adopted spellings and a few quirks.

In reality, they are often an excuse for the Style Guru of the day to vent matters dear to his or her heart with a pithiness that underlines their ambition to be seen the next Leslie Sellers.

Often, the editor changes his mind (or the management change the editor) before the ink is dry and the keenest pedants eagerly await "the revised version" that never materialises. Meanwhile, everyone uses their common sense and defers to the wisdom they brought with them from their first job - or uses the search engine to find consensus.

They do provide important clarification on issues such as adopted spellings - do we write gipsy or gypsy? Is it fulfil or fulfill? And more: Can we say wed when we mean marry and is Xmas OK for headlines? (and is OK okay?)

Heffer’s offering answers these but also regurgitates loads of age old stuff that fatten up all style sheets and turn them into style books:

Birds Eye doesn’t have an apostrophe, McDonald's does; Cate Blanchett spells her name with a C; farther relates to distance, further means additional – all basic stuff that anyone on a national broadsheet should be able to recite in their sleep. And any intern reporter would be expected to Google before placing in the news editor's basket on a freesheet.

Often style is confirmed or amended on the spin. In 2001, Charles Moore had to think on his feet to confirm the spelling of Taliban (not the BBC’s Taleban). A few years earlier, Max Hastings, aware that young bucks like me were stealthily dumbing down the news pages, banned the words Youth and Celebrity. Moore later told me he had a problem with the way we were using Timeline on the web.

Bill Deedes had bequeathed Hastings the edict: never insult your worldly-wise readers by reminding them of Ministers' christian names. Thus: Mr Howe walked out of Mrs Thatcher's government and Mr Biffen expressed his regret.

The best style guru the Telegraph ever had was Andrew Hutchinson, the managing editor and reader ombudsman whose legendary and revered tome cautioned us against being flippant with the language, with the reminder: “Only Malays run amok.”

His gentlemanly bollockings of subs who failed to spot even the most minor error were legendary. “To err is human,” he told me years ago over a glass of wine in his glass box where my misery was on show to all. “To do it on the pages of the Daily Telegraph is quite another matter.”

He went on: “Never mind this missive had been written in haste by a foreign correspondent . . . passed by a harassed news desk . . . approved by the night editor . . . placed on a page by his lieutenant, the responsibility for this most heinous of spelling errors falls entirely on the shoulders of you, the sub editor.”

I’m not sure how he would have responded to Heffer’s latest assertion:

No journalist should expect his or her line editors to spot mistakes or solecisms or to be there to correct them. While executives handling copy and production journalists should be alert to any errors and should correct them when spotted, the responsibility for any that get into the paper will lie solely with the writer..

How times change. Wish I’d had that with me when I went for my spanking. Would have been more effective than a copy of Debretts down my trousers.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Don't ignore the Flat Earth warnings

Nick Davies's Flat Earth News revelations have become a real talking point but they shouldn't surprise anyone.

His main finding,backed by academic research, was that all but 12 per cent of stories published by Fleet Street's quality papers is original, the remainder consisting of reworked agency copy or PR material, thereby relegating what we do as "churnalism".

The papers at the heart of this expose, the Mail, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent either failed to comment or dismissed it with a few platitudes.

It was a feeble response. Anyone who's ever copytasted in Fleet Street will know just how embarrassingly accurate these findings are. The only revelation was in the sheer amount of recycling involved.

I do recall on the eve of a threatened strike at the Telegraph a few years back, telling anyone who'd listen that a few subs could produce the first 15 pages for weeks from PA, Reuters, and the massive wave of copy that flows by the minute into the corr-wire basket, probably without anyone noticing.

In fact, not merely once did I take a PA story for a first edition slot, only to get staff copy later and find some big-name byline has simply rewritten the same stuff I'd had subbed earlier. Often, the rewrite was not as good as the copy the sub had produced, so I just stuck a byline on it and slipped the page.

I look forward to studying Davies’ findings more closely but don't assume it'll it be a wake up call. In fact, it's going to get worse as digital becomes more dominant.

The push to web-first will mean that one of two things will happen:

1. Reporters asked to produce more versions of one story in more formats will, ipso facto, produce even less of anything original.

2. They will actually focus their attention on the exclusives we’re missing - and leave the breaking news to the agencies such as PA who are far better geared up to do it anyway.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Oh Lord, who's really in charge?

What a wonderful sitcom the Lords' communications committee has become as editor after editor is brought before them to justify who really wears the trousers on their papers.

Editorships are priveleged and powerful positions often steeped in legend, even if often of our own making, and it spoils the image to find they're often just people like the rest of us who do as they're told.

Whatever Rebekkah Wade says about Murdoch or Andrew Neil says about the Barclay Brothers, I'd personally save a bit of taxpayers dosh and retire them to the country with a handful of biogs.

I'd recommend Piers Morgan's The Insider (Murdoch), Max Hastings' Editor (Black) for starters. Brian MacArthur's Today and the Newspaper Revolution (Shah) was pretty insightful too. There's a few on Maxwell but, trust me when I say at least one is only useful for resting your cocoa mugs as you read into the night.