Getting things right is not a luxury

In sacking most of its sub-editors, Express Newspapers is making a classic error. The job these peop

You might have read about the Newseum, the $450m (£251m) museum dedicated to news and journalism that opened in Washington, DC this spring. Well, a chap from the New York Times paid a visit and asked at the front desk where he would find exhibits on copy editing - or sub-editing, as it is known on this side of the Atlantic. After a little discussion he was referred to the history section.

It should be no surprise. For as long as I have known newspapers, and probably for much longer, people have been trying to consign sub-editors to history, and the Express titles have become the latest in line, having decided to make most of their subs redundant.

You can see why proprietors and managers like the idea. Here is a bunch of people drawing sizeable salaries for work that either isn't really visible - checking and correcting what reporters write - or looks like something reporters could do themselves - getting stories to the right length and adding headlines. They are obviously asking to be axed, and managers who take this view will often find support from some of the writers and reporters: the ones with big egos.

We had a taste of the emotions behind this a few weeks ago in the abusive, bullying email that Giles Coren, a writer at the Times, sent to subs who had changed his copy. ("I care deeply about my work and I hate to have it fucked up by shit subbing," and so on, for about 1,000 words.)

Delightful as it may be to imagine a world where the pristine prose of good reporters and fine writers slips seamlessly into the published page without any interference by the mean-spirited, literal-minded, knuckle-scraping subbing classes, it can never be more than a daydream.

The founders of the Independent, all of them writers, dreamed that dream in 1986: they would exploit the new technologies of computerised production to liberate their peers from the tyranny of the subs' desk. After only a couple of dummy editions, however, they acknowledged that it couldn't be done.

Ten years later David Montgomery, a manager whose only trick was to cut costs, wanted to sack all the subs at the Daily Mirror. Reporters, he decided, would write copy exactly to length, with headlines, and this would slot into template page designs and go off to the presses with the barest minimum of editorial engagement.

The Mirror may not be in great shape today, but if Monty had had his way it would no longer exist - the very fate that now awaits the Daily and Sunday Express if Richard Desmond persists in thinking they can do without subs.

The mistake all these people make is to imagine that subs are old-fashioned, like linotype operators, and can be overtaken by technology or progress. In fact subbing, far from being a tedious industrial process, is part of the raw material of the industry, just like reporting and comment.

The medium for news is words, and words are tricky things. An editor I once knew used to say that even the best writers, working to a daily newspaper schedule, made a mistake in spelling, grammar, style or fact at least every 500 words. Further down the scale of writing ability - and remember that some brilliant reporters are poor writers - errors were far more common.

Remember, too, how costly errors can be. We know, sadly, that Richard Desmond is not too worried about producing newspapers that make errors of fact and judgement, and he may also be happy to produce papers that are full of spelling mistakes and stylistic inconsistencies, but how many libels is he ready for? And how close is the relationship between declining standards on the Express papers and declining sales?

Do not be fooled, by the way, into thinking that all this has something to do with the challenges of online and 24-hour production, and that the defenders of subs are mere Luddites. Speed - measured in minutes and seconds - has been important in news for at least a century and a half.

But no less important, then and now, are accuracy and clarity. News that is not accurate or clear is not just of lesser value; it is almost worthless. And to achieve accuracy and clarity you need a second pair of eyes every time, and even a third pair. Those eyes are the subs' eyes.

I haven't been to the Newseum, but I am certain of this: if it offers a halfway accurate picture of the news industry, the work of sub-editors will be in evidence in almost every exhibit, even the most modern. By the same token, I have no doubt that over the course of Giles Coren's career in journalism, sub-editors have saved him from far more errors than they have ever introduced into his precious copy.

They spoil us

I scarcely needed another reason to buy the Daily Mail, but there it was on the front page: "Free Haircut 100 album". That's right: Haircut 100 and Melanie Phillips.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party