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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.

9 Comments

  1. Leaving aside the seriousness of the subject matter the ECHR judges will be ruling on, glad someone is on the case of lazy or uninformed EU references.

    I’d willingly believe that it’s more cock-up than conspiracy but it’s not a one-off and the thing is, I once challenged a journalist on this (he was a frequent offender on th Europe/EU thing) and was told that frankly it didn’t really matter as only people that knew the difference would care and that was not the majority of his readers. Nice to see how much he valued accuracy. I just hope that attitude is not too widespread.

    My fear is that, the more something’s repeated, the more it is normalised or gains a credibility of its own e.g. the EU MUST have something to do with this because we’ve seen it said so so often.
    But because we in the UK don’t bother to learn about the constitutional set up that we have (few really seem to understand Westminster, let alone Brussels), we’re getting into a bit of a vicious circle: no one seems to know or care, so we assume they won’t know or care, so the information they are give doesn’t enable them to know or care.

    And with the EU, nothing’s ever simple.
    Look at the charter of fundamental rights which incorporates the European Charter of Human Rights and is annexed to the Nice Treaty – may be it’s confusing given the EU member states are also signatories to the ECHR. The EU has courts, councils etc. but there’s also the European Court of Justice, court of auditors, the Council of Europe none of which are EU. The EU works in different ways depending on which subject is up for discussion.
    So you can understand the temptation to stick in something close-enough-for-jazz and get on with publishing pictures of Victoria Beckham wearing clothes or whatever actually makes it possible to shift more units.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. oops, missed half a sentence there… that should have said:
    ECJ, Court of Auditors, European Central Bank which are EU, and the Council of Europe, ECHR, European Bank of Reconstruction and Development etc. none of which are EU.
    So complex that even when you do think you know what you’re talking about it can get away from you!

  3. We do seem to be blessed with a media that does not understand the EU, you would have thought by now they would know the difference between EU and Council of Europe.

  4. Have to agree with you about facts and the EU. it`s the same about Two Million Britons work in the EU. That is a myth as well, put about by the likes of Mandelson to deflect criticism of the affect of Free Movement of People within the EU (which means the amount of NMS nationals coming here ). And the Three million jobs that are dependent on our EU membership, another fabrication.
    The ignorance about the EU works two ways, sometimes for your side, sometimes for ours.I still think that if the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth be told, We`d all vote to get out.

  5. Nosemonkey, being a bit hasty, are you? The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 and you expect both news agencies and newspapers to have caught on already?

  6. You’re right about subs and the growing use of agency copy as the number of news sources and reporters dwindles. Depressing times

  7. And still, some major media have got it wrong on their websites (and in print, I guess, where that applies). I sent all of these organisations (polite) email on Thursday evening, pointing out their mistake, but they’ve ignored me, sniff, sniff – no reply or correction.

    Daily Mail – “EU payout”

    politics.co.uk – “EU gives Qatada”

    Belfast Telegraph “EU court”

    International Herald Tribune – “EU court”

  8. I noticed the same thing about headlines for Jean Quatremer’s articles in Libération. Articles are balanced and precise but the headline often implies quite the opposite of what the article is saying. Of course many people read only headlines.

    The EU/CoE error is frequent but there is also those who cannot distinguish, as you did mention before, a law proposal, a white paper, an EP resolution or report… Even a random baltic MP answering a question in a press conference about blogs leads to the headline : “EU wants to control blogs”.

    At some points, I would actually wish for some EU funding for training those in charge. I guess a few hours should be sufficient as most errors are just basic.

    Of course other errors are more subtile : it becomes more difficult to explain why writing a few months ago “Sarkozy, president of the EU” is false and misleading.

  9. Pingback: The dishonesty of the EU debate | Nosemonkey’s EUtopia