29 October 2013

Journalists: beware the headline writer

There are some people in life you have to avoid offending; for example, however important being nice to your boss is, it's far more important that you're nice to his PA. Treating the janitor and cleaners with respect always makes your working life much easier and more pleasant, too.

But the journalist has a much more important person to please: the headline writer. Whether this is your editor or there's someone dedicated to the role, this person has the power to undermine your entire article, or, in extreme cases, just outright insult you.

This appears to have happened to a Scotsman journalist by the name of Hugh Reilly. Hugh is a retired teacher who writes a column that is quite informal in style, and often more than a little... abrasive.

Yesterday's column, though, was downright insulting. He opened with the clear implication that Gaelic hasn't moved with the times. Lie. He described it as "terminally-ill". Lie. (And why the sub-editors let him away with that superfluous hyphen I'll never know.) He put the responsibility for its current resurgence at the hands of the SNP, who in real terms have done less for the language than the Tories (who oversaw the inauguration of Gaelic-medium education) or the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties (whose coalition government passed the Gaelic Language Act 2005). The SNP is more open to accusations of tokenism towards Gaelic than anything approaching Reilly's claimed "life support".

Reilly also treads that weary line of quoting figures that are incomprehensible to readers. Twenty-five million pounds seems like a lot to the average punter who earns a thousanth of that in a year, but in television terms it's utterly piffling. And of course, several prominent figures claim that this claimed figure is an exaggeration of the true cost anyway.

I could continue to deconstruct the column, but that would only serve to labour the point: Hugh Reilly's article was ignorant and bigoted, and downright insulting to a great many people.

And one of those people, it would seem, was the man responsible for putting a headline on the piece: A tilt at the windmill of Gaelic.

Ah yes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, the great Spanish novel that is often credited as being the first true modern novel, the watershed between the heroic romances of the Middle Ages and the realism and cynicism of Renaissance literature.

The phrase "tilting at windmills" has passed into common speech, and refers to a specific incident in the novel. "Tilting" is a word for charging with a lance, and Don Quixote "tilted" at windmills because he mistook them for giants, believing their whirling sails to be flailing arms.

Don Quixote, as you see, was quite seriously deluded. He was a man declining in years, a retired gentleman, and as a pasttime read far too much heroic fiction -- fiction he mistook for fact.

The headline is frankly brilliant. In a mere seven words, it fillets the entire article and gives the author a tremendous slap in the face.

So if you're ever called upon to write a newspaper column, check you're not going to offend the headline writer before you submit your copy.

No comments: