A valediction: Going quietly

This is my last column. I am handing in my sheriff’s badge (building pass) and giving back my gun (BlackBerry). It’s time to adjust my Stetson (cycling helmet) and with a wry smile start down that empty road with only tumbleweed for company. Some sort of valediction is in order, but what should I say? Goodbyes are awkward and security guards are waiting to escort me from the building, so I’ll be brief.

You may be wondering how the readers’ editor’s role panned out from my perspective. Poring over the work of your fellow writers and subjecting it to public scrutiny can be an uncomfortable experience for everyone involved. Occasionally it is painful, but if there is resistance to the idea of an internal ombudsman (or woman) here at the Guardian I’ve seen little evidence of it. With few exceptions journalists have been willing to own up to mistakes; indeed in many cases corrections appeared because writers handed themselves in.

That readers are not the only ones worrying about media ethics will have been apparent from these columns: time and again when I investigated ­complaints about the way stories were covered I found that issues raised by readers had been considered by writers and editors before publication. I didn’t, of course, always agree with the ­editorial judgments.

In addition to the many thousands of communications from readers over the past (almost) three years, journalists have also been in touch now and then to gripe about the Guardian’s failings; a Guardian writer sent this epistle from his alter ego to the editor of the style guide and me last April:

Custodians of the English language
You may think I am making too much of this, but bear with me. I just started reading this story on our blessed website [about cricket] and of course, the first thing I read was the intro: ‘Former England captain Michael Vaughan is among a raft of high-profile omissions from the first Test squad to take on West Indies at Lord’s next week.’
Now, I’m afraid at that point I gave up, such is my loathing of the word ‘raft’ when used out of context in this absurd way, but more generally because it signifies that the piece is not written in English but in a new language called webese which I fear will increasingly take over, as hard-pressed writers have to churn out stuff and use words like “raft” to ramp up (is that webese?) the significance of what they are writing about. I noticed someone wrote to the readers’ editor yesterday criticising the rampant cliche levels in the Guardian and picking out “eye-watering” as swine flu-like in its contagiousness. This bleedin’ raft is another example: four players who might have been thought to have a reasonable chance of being selected for the first Test have been omitted. Sink the raft and just give us the facts. Please be vigilant as we float, on our non-metaphorical raft, towards the linguistic rapids.
Your obedient servant
Sir Bufton Tufton KBE

In October Bufton Tufton was impelled to write again: “I noticed a ‘rushed to hospital’ in an intro last week. I winced but let it pass. Two days later, it was in a front-page caption. Can you deal with it in the appropriate ­fashion? Surely only news if the ambulance carrying the grievously injured victim dawdles on the way to hospital, stopping at a drive-thru McDonald’s, taking in a movie etc etc. What’s to become of us all?”

Regular visitors to this spot will know that readers, rather than writers, have usually provided topics for the column. Your concerns about the Guardian’s ethical, grammatical and numerical standards have allowed me to explore subjects as diverse as fused participles, plagiarism, hoaxes, the use of ­profanities, reporting suicide, content unsuitable for children, statistics, ageism and devolution. The dialogue is bound to continue.

My successor has yet to be appoin­ted, but it will be business as usual in the readers’ editor’s office as far as ­corrections are concerned. For the next few weeks, until the new readers’ ­editor takes over, David Marsh, the style guide’s editor, will write in this slot. I was joking about the security guards by the way.

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