“If anyone wanted to construct a machine for the production of error, a newspaper would probably be it.” So wrote Ian Mayes, the Guardian’s first readers’ editor, in his debut column in that role in 1997.
His appointment marked the start of a daily corrections and clarifications column, a first for a UK newspaper, which has mined a rich seam of typos and other slips for which “the Grauniad” is fondly known.
Thus we can recall how an April 1998 obituary declared the show that turned Joan Heal into a star was Grab Me a Gondolier (it should have read Grab Me a Gondola), while four months later the finance pages reported a £250,000 advance for Vikram Seth’s new novel, “A Suitable Buy”. We had a rather agile George Formby standing on a lamp-post, rather than leaning on one, in August 2002, which was around the same time we referred to a Miles Davis album as Sketches of Pain (when Spain was meant).
Readers were informed that the 2003 spring season at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon would feature “The Taming of the Screw”. Anyone spluttering over their morning muesli at this point might have reached for Glaxo’s “controversial treatment for irritable bowl syndrome”, as we once had it.
If further proof were needed of the havoc one missing letter can produce, among the highlights expected at Glastonbury 2010 was the group Frightened Rabbi. “[That] should have been the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit,” deadpanned the next day’s corrections column.
Sometimes the red pen must take itself to task. In 2007 it blushed: “We misspelled the word misspelled twice, as mispelled, in the Corrections and clarifications column on September 26.”
The chief aim of listing corrections is not, of course, mirth. All newspapers occasionally make serious errors, the prompt and prominent correction of which matters not only to those misrepresented but also for the accrual of trust among readers in general. This is not the place to relive the worst of them, and thankfully they have been rare, but suffice to say a category of mistake that engenders particular pain and regret concerns purported life or death.
On 24 February 1914, the newspaper hurried to set the record straight: “In a report of yesterday’s Devon and Cornwall dinner, Mr C W Provis was referred to as ‘the late’ Mr Provis. He is, we are glad to say, still in farily [sic] good health.” Ninety years later, an article that referred to gay and lesbian people serving in the armed forces noted how the admiral of the fleet, Peter Hill-Norton, had “gone a little quiet on the subject”. He had sadly died three months earlier.
If there was a golden age of flawless journalism – something occasionally claimed by wistful readers – it exists mostly in the imagination. In 1928 the newspaper confessed how a “typographical blunder, against which in works so hastily committed to the press as newspapers are, it is not at all times possible to guard,” had caused the author of a letter to condemn “shallow and heartless milliners”. Blameless hatmakers were never in the contemplation of the writer, who had referred more generally to “heartless sneerers”.
However that bungle occurred, it was surely a mishearing that in 1838 led a leading article on the new poor laws to refer to unrest in Todmorden caused not by rioters but by “writers”. Well, the pen is mightier.
Before the arrival of a dedicated column for corrections, readers had to seek out occasional paragraphs prefixed “Erratum” (in the 19th century) or “A correction” (in the 20th century), which were dotted around the paper like a kind of “spot the balls-up” competition.
In the earliest days they included apologies not just for faults in articles. On 26 July 1834, an advertisement headed “Foreign Languages” had promoted books including “a collection of interesting tables, in Portuguese”. As the next edition explained, that should have been fables.
Otherwise, early corrections mostly concerned mistakes with people’s names and, more often – when prices, profits and public expenditure were being reported – with numbers. (Names have remained a challenge: we once called a women’s a cappella group Foul Purpose instead of Soul Purpose, while the president of the European Central Bank, Wim Duisenberg, became Dim Wuisenberg.)
But it is hard to find a correction in 200 years that reveals the editor’s ire more than this one from November 1911. “By a printer’s error, our notice of ‘Tristan and Isolde’ published on Saturday was made to say: ‘The love of the fair is without alloy from any other human interest or feeling.’” This was, said the correction, “a monstrous proposition”, going on to reassure any reader who thought coconut shies were involved that it was the “love of the pair” (the eponymous couple) that was so unalloyed.
Today, a letter to the editor suggesting that an error has been made will usually be forwarded to the readers’ editor for investigation and publication of a correction if merited. For many years, however, the letter itself served as the corrective – at first without comment and then later with a mea culpa from the editor.
On 22 October 1959 a professor from Charing Cross hospital medical school wrote: “Sir – in your issue of 16 October, you reported fairly accurately part of a lecture that I had given the previous day to midwives and nurses. Only one small detail causes me some dismay; although I needed a haircut at the time, nevertheless there were other characteristics which clearly defined my sex!” The letter continued in good-natured vein and was footnoted with acknowledgment from the editor that Prof Norman Morris had indeed been “unfortunately described” as Norma. “We much regret the error.”
At least the professor was approximately identified. Fast forward a few decades and the Guardian carried an article from Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, giving a byline to Jatkuu Seuraavalla Sivulla, which a reader advised was not the author’s name but the Finnish for “continued on the next page”.
Some mistakes become, to use a suitably sporting term, legends. That’s certainly true of this one from 12 August 2003, in which the chairman of a leading English football club appeared to proudly profess his team the worst in the league.
“In our interview with Sir Jack Hayward, the chairman of Wolverhampton Wanderers [yesterday] we mistakenly attributed to him the following comment: ‘Our team was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League.’ Sir Jack had just declined the offer of a hot drink. What he actually said was ‘Our tea was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League.’ Profuse apologies.”
As long as humans and speed are involved in producing journalism, errors will arise, and just sometimes they may be thought divine. This late entry comes from 2018: “A reader noted that our recipe called ‘Spaghetti with radicchio, fennel and rosemary’ didn’t include spaghetti, fennel or rosemary.”
And, so, it seems fitting to end near to where we began, with a note published by Mayes in the corrections column of 26 January 1999: “The absence of corrections yesterday was due to a technical hitch rather than any sudden onset of accuracy.”