This email from Courier Mail editor Liz Deegan dropped into our inbox, forwarded by a Crikey reader, who said “maybe Sunday Mail editor Liz Deegan SHOULD be a bit more critical, given the huge drop in editing standards since Slave Central (sorry, News Central) took over”:

But Crikey is siding with Deegan on this one.

From: Deegan, Elizabeth
Sent: Tuesday, 8 December 2009 09:31
To: Thompson, Scott; Reynolds, Anna
Subject: FW: Sub-editing complaint + the Fourth Estate

I’m sharing this not with the intention of making any criticisms about sub-editing but because I think this has to be the most excessive reader response of all time.

From: XXXXXXXXXXXXXX [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: Sunday, 6 December 2009 1:11 PM
To: Deegan, Elizabeth
Subject: Sub-editing complaint + the Fourth Estate

Dear Ms Deegan,

I have a broad complaint about sub-editing at The Sunday Mail, and have been spurred into formulating it after reading an error of expression in today’s Glenn Milne piece. I imagine that Mr Milne’s piece is syndicated, but if your paper runs the piece I think it’s fair enough that it take receipt of complaints arising. Unable to see a contact address at The Sunday Mail website for a chief of copy editing, nor a direct address for Mr Milne, I am directing my mail to you. Forgive me if sub-editing matters are not really your department, but I do put a “Fourth Estate” spin on the sub-editing problem that I think brings the complaint into your remit.

The general complaint I have concerns a certain laxity in English grammar running through TSM‘s copy, but I confess that I haven’t kept note of examples prior to making this complaint. My general practice, of a Sunday morning is (1) to read the paper after my mother, since it is she who purchases TSM, (2) to wince as I notice the grammatical errors and other infelicities of expression, (3) to exclaim  over the real howlers to my mother, who, although she is 82 years of age and has never written for publication, did go to Brisbane Girls’ Grammar in the War years, has a much better command of grammar than most of your writers, and shares my pain at what is being done to the English language in the name of journalism these days, and (4) to focus heavily on Frances Whiting’s column because she has both a certain observational knack and good English and I breathe easier for the couple of minutes that it takes to enjoy her column. However, this morning, perhaps because the error is so annoying and because Glenn Milne is paid quite enough to know better, I am moved to make my wince-and-groan a little more assertive.

In  paragraph 11 of Mr Milne’s piece, he says that “Labor has already honed in on what Abbott’s key weaknesses might be …”. Of course he means “homed in on”. The metaphorics of the two turns of phrase are like chalk and cheese (or, in this case, like knives and pigeons), and the grammatical constructions quite different (“to hone” is a transitive verb taking a direct object; “to home in on” is an admirably double-barrelled example of the English prepositional verb, highly indirect in its transitive effects) … so it’s not just a one-phoneme slip from correct usage to groan-making error (as I suppose one might compassionately say is the case with those other painfully common mistakes, including out of the mouths of ABC journalists, “slither” instead of “sliver”, and “to spite” instead of “despite”). Certainly the “hone in on” clanger is a common mistake, these days, but  it’s disappointing to find it being made by prominent journalists and commentators — I note that Paul Kelly made precisely the same one this morning on Insiders. In a way, given that we can all fall prey to circulating errors of expression, it is even more disappointing to find that sub-editors don’t prevent the aforementioned prominent commentators putting their mistaken ideas about English usage to press — sub-editors constituting, after all, one of those classes of professional whom we rely upon to be better than their betters. This is supposing that your press still uses copy editors and sub-editors — I am giving you the benefit of the doubt in supposing that you haven’t done away with the positions.

I see that TSM boasts of being the third-highest-selling paper in Australia. Surely one of the obligations accompanying that kind of public standing is to ensure that you employ copy editors and sub-editors who really know their English and who know how to read carefully, not least when handling the copy for prominent columns. And to ensure that, having employed good people in the quality-control department, that all copy be put under their eyes. Howlers like this just should not get through. In addition to the professionalism of plain expertise in language, there’s a question of professional cunning in matters like this one: one knows, as a thinking sub- or copy editor what to keep a weather-watch on in the way of howlers-of-the-day because the media so commonly teaches itself and the public particular mistakes in cycles … if I, as a member of the public, can notice Paul Kelly and Glenn Milne make the same mistake in one morning’s media output, having noticed for some time the same mistake being made in the conversation of even educated people around me, then a thinking sub-/copy-editor ought to know that this is a mistake that’s abroad, and they ought correspondingly to have their antennae set to double-check every occurrence of “hone” (as every occurrence of “slither”). Let me repeat the point made in passing just now: newspapers teach readers mistakes if they make them on a consistent basis. The third-highest-selling newspaper in Australia owes more to the traditions of the Fourth Estate and to its citizen-readership than to permit itself to write like The Cooroy Rag did when it used to attract Stuart Littlemore’s attention on Media Watch (NB: these days, under different editors, I find The Cooroy Rag watches its “p”s and “q”s very nicely).

As for what it says about the state of Australian journalism that Glenn Milne counts as a prominent commentator … well, I won’t go there except to say that he wouldn’t cut the mustard at junior levels in countries with a genuinely literate tradition of journalism (France, the UK … the Australia of yesteryear). Having mentioned Insiders, I will venture to suggest that Milne shows his lack of both analytical and linguistic class every time he occupies the couch with the likes of Annabel Crabb and Misha Schubert. And having drawn the names of Fairfax journalists into the odious comparison, I will invite you to comment on the subject of why it’s apparently good enough to feed Queenslanders impoverished English, English of a standard that is not considered passable down south. I was educated in a country school a few miles up the road from Kevin Rudd (hence my reference to The Cooroy Rag), at about the same time in history. By which I mean to indicate both that I am no fancy-pants Mexican and that I also know that Queensland is still affected by the educational differentials — decades of underfunding and early school-leaving — that made Pauline Hanson’s inadequate command of English unproblematic for a lot of Queenslanders when ordinary Victorians found her an unthinkable candidate. A newspaper editor sensitive to local conditions might claim that s/he has to cater to a not very literate public in Queensland. That may well be the case, but while that might be the grounds for a small vocabulary-base for your newspaper, and while it may be an argument against long sentences, it doesn’t justify the promulgation of out-and-out grammatical errors on a weekly basis.

I have worked both as an academic teacher and in scholarly publishing (I edited a relatively significant humanities journal under the Routledge imprint). I am therefore aware of two factors that inform the mistake that has led to this complaint: (1) the importance of people of great linguistic proficiency filling the roles of copy editor and sub-editor; (2) the difficulty of finding them in Australia. Even literature academics, whether in this country or in the USA — but not those from the UK or France, in my experience, where language standards are high in many primary and high schools, let alone at university level — need help keeping their grammar in order. In the US, the UK, and France, the publishing houses and newspapers can draw on the extraordinary high standards of language competency — and love of language —  that still seem to characterize the graduates of many universities. I’ve worked with copy editors from the UK and the USA and have been very impressed with their commitment to what they do and their command of language. My experience of Routledge journals in Australia was much less high-grade, even though their decision-makers were very good. Clearly, the numbers that come through the Arts faculties of the universities in these other countries is so much higher than our tertiary sector handles. In this country, I know from teaching in the Humanities in some of our best universities, the quality of many high-school-leavers language basics is poor and it doesn’t necessarily get vastly improved in the course of a three-year B.A. I appreciate that it cannot be easy to find good people for the no-profile, low-ish-wage jobs of copy editing, when even B.A. graduates are not necessarily disciples of good usage. Still, when you run the third-highest-selling newspaper in Australia, it must surely be “not an option” to do otherwise than ensure that you somehow find such people and that standards be met.

You may think that I am “riffing” a bit wildly on a single mistake in a single column. But I don’t think I am. As I say, although I haven’t spent the past 12 months recording mistakes in order to send you a dossier, I do have the “wince-and-groan” experience each time I read TSM. I hope that I have managed to convey the idea that there is a link between what might be dismissed as a pedant’s moan and an essential matter of responsible publishing. I take the notion of “the Fourth Estate” very seriously, not least because it makes clear the fact that privately-owned media, by dint of their influence upon large readerships, necessarily have public, indeed civic effects. Obviously, you trade on the claim to inform the “public”, “the citizenry” about public and civic matters because that’s always the front page material, notwithstanding the importance of “leisure” material in TSM. If the notion of “the Fourth Estate” seems a bit grand for a newspaper that aims to be a more relaxing affair than the weekday papers (although I would hope that you are proud to consider yourself a Fourth-Estater), then I simply return to the sheer readership statistic over which you preside: chances are that TSM is the most substantial read of the week for a large part of your readership; that readership being very large in absolute terms, the potential to either militate in the direction of sound English usage or that of poor English usage, across a massive swathe of Queenslanders, is immense. I would urge you to militate toward the former with greater commitment than TSM‘s present language standards allow.

Most sincerely,

Peter Fray

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