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Ever since Jeremy Clarkson published his vile tirade against Meghan Markle, I’ve been thinking about the editors who “put it through” as we say in journalism, to describe the process of sending an edited piece through to a designer, who lays out the page and adds pictures, before it continues on its way to a sub editor, who then checks it for errors, until it’s eventually ‘proofed’ (checked for any remaining errors on a page) by a different person to the one who edited it, and then signed off by the most senior editor just before it goes to print in the evening. At some point it will also have been sent to a legal team.
So a piece is usually read by at least three different editors before it ever sees the light of day, perhaps as many as five or six. In short, there are several points at which a piece can be flagged for concern. It horrifies me that no one in that lengthy chain of command thought twice about letting Clarkson’s column go to print – or perhaps, even worse, that they did and were overruled.
But, Jeremy Clarkson is the only byline on page, because as is the case across the vast majority of magazines and newspapers, editors are not credited for their work. Since I became an editor a few years ago and my own byline in print became less frequent, I would find it a shame that an editor’s mark is pretty much invisible. You often come up with an idea, send a brief to a writer, help coax their piece into shape by working on perhaps several drafts, pore over the facts and the syntax and the thesis, the pictures and the headlines, but once the piece is published there is no trace of you.
Which is why there is very little accountability. Yes, internally, an editor will get bollocked by the editor above them if a piece gets published with a factual error, a typo in the standfirst, or the wrong picture caption, or it hasn’t been sent to legal, for instance. And yes, there is some fury directed towards a publication when a piece is received badly by readers, with the Independent Press Standards Association getting involved if enough complaints are lodged. But usually, it’s just a trending Twitter hashtag, such as #boycotttheSun, which doesn’t target an individual editor. Usually, the writer gets most of the flack.
And so, when it comes to nasty comment writing such as Clarkson’s, there is no real sense of accountability beyond the person who wrote it – who, as with too many comment writers in the British press, may have such form for being controversial they cease to be controversial at all.
If the editor of Clarkson’s comment knew their name was going to be printed too, would they have sanctioned it? I’d be surprised.
Of course, there are flaws to this fanciful idea of an editor’s byline. Comment pieces are so often bound up with the author’s politics that an editor would probably not want their name anywhere near it, even if they thought the piece was fair and reasonable. Because even fair and reasonable pieces can blow up online if enough people decide against them. It’s why so many journalists stay clear of comment writing altogether (including me – and besides I change my opinion every week).
Then there is the issue of which editor to credit. The commissioning editor, who sanctioned the idea, or the editor who approved the final copy? Often, the editor who writes the headlines – sometimes the most controversial thing on a page – is a different one again. It’s a complicated ecosystem that makes it near impossible to hold one person fully accountable. You could put the most senior editor to approve the pages down, but they will often have done the least of the work – fine if the piece goes down like a lead balloon, less fine if it wins an award.
This leaves the writer as fair game, and, while the ire towards them is often fully justified, it doesn't stop the cycle – they’re one cog in a giant machine.
So I don't have the answers, but I’d love to hear what you think. Is there a fair way of increasing accountability in journalism? Just leave a comment or reply to this email.
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This week in links
I’ve been watching TAR, the brilliant film about a narcissistic maestro Lydia Tár who abuses and humiliates her students that will surely win Cate Blanchett an Oscar. The film is so convincing – it opens with a New Yorker interview between Tár and real-life New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik – that at first I was sure Tár was based on a real conductor. When reviews first came out it was billed as the ‘first cancel culture film’ but that feels a little reductive. If you loved Whiplash, you’ll love this. And you can read an excellent New Yorker interview with its director Todd Field, here.
I’ve been commissioning Izzie Price for the Telegraph on why classical music breeds abuse of power, prompted by the despotic world depicted in Tár, in which the maestro cannot be questioned and precision and discipline are fetishised. Izzie spoke to several people (anonymously) about their experiences of abuse by (usually) male conductors. One of the main criticisms levelled at the film is that it feels unfair to make Tár a woman when there are so few famous female conductors in the first place. Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t female abusers, but perhaps we should first have some films celebrating women leaders in classical music before we tear them down.
I’ve been reading this extraordinarily spunky interview with Azealia Banks by the excellent Shaad D'Souza for the Guardian, as the rapper returns with new music and is back with a major label after a bumpy few years of controversy. This quote in particular, will stay with you for days: “You deserve to reap what you sow. In the future, when you’re walking down Times Square and you see Kanye West drinking flat Sprite out of a McDonald’s cup out of the garbage can, you can bring it all back to this moment.”
I’ve been listening to Steven Bartlett’s interview with Derren Brown on Diary of a CEO. I usually love Steven’s podcast and think he’s a brilliant interviewer, always there with the right follow up question and sharp analysis. But recently I’ve felt slightly uncomfortable with the “therapy” feels of his episodes, from his intrusive questions about people’s childhoods and digging deep into significant trauma, to his quiet, intimate, therapist-like manner. Is it too much? Would love to know what you think…
I’ve been interviewing the living legend that is Akon for my celebrity culture podcast Straight Up which I co-host with my friend and fellow journo Kathleen Johnston. I’ve always loved interviewing famous people past 40 because they tend to be so much more relaxed, open and generous when it comes to interviews – the older the better. Certainly Akon did not hold back…Listen here.
I can’t stop thinking about Albus Dumbledore. No, really. If any ‘dream therapists’ would like to offer some counsel as to why Albus keeps popping up after hours, please reply to this email. Although I am perhaps less open to hearing why, when he asked me to show him my Patronus, it was a tiny green rabbit.
You articulated what I could not re. Diary of a CEO! I cannot agree more
Such a good/ prescient piece. I am often staggered by how pieces like this get through so many editors? Even if it doesn’t offend the editor in question, who wants the shit storm! Or are they - as I often fear - so siloed in their own echo chamber, that they don’t consider how their words could land... either way, great piece. Thank you!