Why subs should survive

February 24th, 2009

A fierce debate has been raging in the BBC and at Guardian Unlimited on the role of sub-editors in the electronic age. This guest blog is written by Tim Llewellyn, who was a sub-editor on The Daily Sketch, The Sunday Times, The Times, The Globe and Mail (Toronto) and at BBC News, before ‘going outside’ to report in the Middle East for the BBC.

timllI know about this debate from each side: being a sub-editor and production person and shaping others’ work; and, later, as a reporter, craving a good sub to save me from myself. Unfortunately, as economics bite at newspapers and “live” broadcasting tactics take over, the safety net and crafting epitomised by the good sub or desk man are becoming history.


Roy Greenslade asks: if broadcasters can write their own scripts without any intervention from subs, why cannot their newspaper equivalents?


First, broadcast subs do vet scripts when there is time. Nothing is supposed to go on-air unchecked. However, now that so much is “live”, much of it spuriously so, mistakes creep in, the spoken word is mangled, pronunciations are dire. (I recently heard “the Royal ‘Corpse’ of Engineers”) and prepositions are either widely misused (“centres around”) or dropped altogether ( as in the silent “against” in “protest against”). Such solecisms so infuriate viewers and listeners that they often miss or misunderstand the story altogether.


Greg Dyke might still be the Director-General of the BBC and the weapons inspector David Kelly still alive if Andrew Gilligan had written down and editors checked his story on the Today Programme in June, 2003, alleging that the British Government had “sexed up” the dossier on the alleged threat to British interests from Saddam Hussein. In fact, it was a live Question and Answer, in which Alastair Campbell and his team were able, with such dire results for the BBC, to spot carelessly used language and sourcing.


Unfortunately for broadcasting style and content, reporters and correspondents, especially in TV domestic news,  are allowed to indulge in bidding auctions with the editors as close to the deadline as possible (the assumption being that what is late and live is better than what came in an hour earlier). These practices, and deliberately late filing, bypass the checking system.


There is another point: most broadcasters’ written pieces are rarely more than one minute and 30 seconds long; and TV pictures obviate a lot of words a radio or print journalist would use. So the broadcaster is using maybe 200-250 words, a script written for the ether rather than the record. It is vital that the broadcaster be accurate and articulate, but the newspaperman is filing material that will be read and re-read, used as gospel by researchers, and, er, BBC producers.


The printed world I grew up in from the age of 17 and much prefer to broadcasting will be a nightmare if subs and editors are further reduced or demeaned. No intelligent writer or reporter should want his material to go in unchecked, or cut—as most material has to be— unintelligently. I recall on The Times reducing by half a 1,200 word editorial by an eminent young tyro journalist of the day: the space allotted in the page was 600 words of 9pt. setting x 2 cols., very time-consuming  material to send back to the linotypes for resetting. Much of it had to be cut on the Stone—chipping words and making commas into full-stops, that kind of malarkey, as well as condensing this chap’s thoughts on the J-Curve or whatever. I went in next day expecting a court-martial, but the ediorialist said he had not even noticed it had been cut.


As to “outsourcing” (a word no sub should pass), how can subs divorced from the newspaper’s locale, culture, customs and local knowledge apply the necessary editing skills? What about checking back with reporters?. What if a reporter has made an easy slip, say, writing Kylie Minogue instead of Kylie Morris? Or Boris Karloff instead of Boris Johnson, or even Boris Johnston?  Would our “outsourced” person spot this?


Titles are relevant. Subbing for the Sunday Times is different from subbing for The Times. But good subs can sub anywhere, be adept with the different skills and techniques.. However, making sure that a piece is comprehensible and accurate remains the main responsibility. The awful grammar, over-writing, repetition and bad usage in even the best broadsheets —especially among columnists—is evidence that the sub is being reduced as fast as the size of these sheets increases. May the slump bring newsprint rationing.  


I fear Roy Greenslade too readily accepts the subs’ demise.  A sub might have saved him from writing, in his second para, “I used the opportunity to make clear where I stand on…but probably failed to get across that I do not approve…” This should be “where I stood on” and “I did not approve”. Surely Roy knows about reported speech. A good sub would have reminded him.


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