Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

A headline is a powerful thing

The European Court of Human Rights is not an EU body. You’re reading a blog that focusses on European poltics, so you almost certainly already know this. But, it seems, the vast majority of people do not. More importantly, far too many journalists and editors do not. This, from this morning, for example:

Press Association, 19th February 2009

News headlines are powerful things. They are, after all, the only part of the story that the vast majority of people will read – sometimes read without even realising it while passing news-stands (Ken Livingstone’s team, notably, complained about the subliminal impact of pro-Boris Johnson headlines in the Evening Standard during last year’s London mayoral elections) or, in this age of the internet, while skimming through a website.

Headlines exist for three reasons: a) (obviously) to act as markers for where new items begin, b) to convince people to read a story (increasingly important in the current age of page views and web advertising), and c) to pander to the audience’s prejudices (thus reaffirming the connection the audience feels with their publication of choice). This is why the Sun’s headline writers are notoriously paid such vast sums of money – no matter how much you may dislike that paper’s approach, they excel at the snappy headline that sells papers and builds reader loyalty. That’s why it’s the most popular newspaper in the UK.

But the vast majority of headline-writers are not well-paid Sun subs. They’re underpaid and – increasingly – overworked hacks. Along with writing headlines and checking the spelling, grammar and punctuation of lazy writers*, subs have also long been responsible for both fact-checking. When a sub cocks something up, that’s usually it. They are the last defence against error.

And yet more and more newspapers are dumping their sub-editors. More and more errors are starting to creep in. And more and more newspapers and websites are relying on agency copy rather than their own, original content.

This is why the above example of confusion about the status of the European Court of Human Rights is worth flagging. This originated from a Press Association newsfeed this morning. A Press Association newsfeed that is automatically reproduced on hundreds of websites, which in turn receive millions of page views.

“EU judges to rule on Qatada case”, it says – referencing the attempts of the suspected al Qaida organiser to avoid being deported from the UK to face possible torture in Jordan, a possibility thanks to breaching his bail conditions, even though he previously won an appeal against deportation under the terms of the UK Human Rights Act in April last year.

But, of course, with headlines the details are unimportant. Headlines are all about inspiring an initial, gut reaction from the audience to draw them in to read more. And for a certain section of the population, seeing that “the EU” is going to have final say over whether a man dubbed “the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda in Europe” gets to stay in the UK is likely to inspire one gut reaction above all others: anger.

Yet the EU has nothing to do with this. The Council of Europe, certainly; but not the EU. And yet for the casual browser of news sites, the impression will have been left that the EU somehow has control over the UK’s immigration and security policy; that the EU has powers that it does not possess.

Or, at least, they would have done had I not been on news duty this morning for one of those sites that relies on PA copy, and asked them to change the headline to remove any misleading references to the EU.

It is ignorance and misunderstandings like this as much as any deliberate effort to twist stories for political ends that is distorting the debate about the EU in the UK. If even the news agencies are making such errors, what hope for the increasingly under-staffed newspapers (the few staff that remain increasingly being young, inexperienced and cheap), or the websites that replicate agency copy – often via entirely automated systems?

If I hadn’t been on news duty for one of the sites that carried PA copy this morning, would anyone else have spotted the mistake? Would any other hack online news editor have known that it is the European Court of Justice that is the EU body? Would they even have bothered to check the body copy of the story? I doubt it. Because one of the other joys of this new age of agency copy is that if you alter it, it becomes yours*; if, however, you leave it as it is to publish through your automatic systems, you are immune from prosecution should that copy contain a libel. Editors are, in other words, actively discouraged from editing agency copy.

And so the power of the likes of the Press Association and Reuters begins to increase exponentially – and their ability to shape political debate grows with it. But while the public’s scrutiny of the press has grown massively in recent years with the advent of the likes of blogging and comments on articles, allowing readers to hold the press to account almost instantly, the press’ own scrutiny of its content is diminishing to its lowest ever level.

If an agency can get wrong something as basic as the international body a court belongs to, what else are they getting wrong? What other mistakes are slipping through the journalistic net now that the subs and experienced, subject-specialist editors are being jettisoned? And how are these mistakes going to shape our political discourse?

A headline is a powerful thing. A misleading headline can be a dangerous one.

* I’ve worked (and continue to work) as both writer and sub, so I can say this with confidence: subs are always necessary – and it’s impossible to sub your own copy.

** As an irrelevant aside, one of the joys of this is that I’ve read some of my own film reviews (done for an agency over the last several years) published in newspapers under other people’s names, with only one or two words altered.