Old hacks in journalism were always careful to advise newcomers against making fun of the misprints of those in rival publications. ‘What goes around, comes around’, went the old adage. Those in glasshouses should be wary of throwing stones. Shakespeare himself warned of being hoisted on one’s own petard, and there is the well-worn biblical injunction not to seek to cast out the mote in thy brother’s eye without first removing the beam from thine own.
It was sound advice, but not always well heeded, and when it was announced that red-top The Star – Ireland’s brightest daily, according to itself – was about to appoint a political correspondent to the Dáil, it evoked much mirth from the staid, po-faced, broadsheet commentariat. The amusement level was further heightened when The Star kicked off its political coverage with a story featuring the then Fine Gael TD, Paul McGrath. The story was embellished with a photograph of Paul McGrath – unfortunately, it was the wrong Paul McGrath, and according to the Star, the ace Ireland footballer and nation’s sporting hero had delivered an incisive speech to the national parliament.
The faux pas made for much hilarity in the columns of the Sunday Tribune until inevitably, it came back to bite its owner. Some time later, the Tribune published a supplement entitled ‘Who’s Who in Mayo’. Among those featured was Liam MacHale of Ballina, the State Solicitor for Mayo. But the accompanying picture turned out to be that of a well known Mayo footballer and basketball star who, even today, is part of the backroom team of Mayo senior football. On that occasion, he who laughed last, laughed best.
There is not a scribe or columnist who, at some time, does not fall foul of the gremlin in the machine (a more charitable explanation), or of his or her allowing the brain to slip into cruise control. But the more straight-laced the publication, the more amusing the slip up.
Ireland’s paper of record was once prone to – presumably before the proof reader was shown the door – an unfortunate habit of misspelling a particular detail in its death notices column. Thus the deceased’s address would contain the information that, say, Bill Smith of Eglinton Road, Galway, was ‘formally’ of Ballyhaunis. Sometimes, there would be added the invocation of ‘angles guard thee’ (even where the departed had no known affinity with the science of mathematics).
A daily paper, reporting on an acrimonious Dáil argument between rival politicians, was wont to remark that one or other ‘had gone for the juggler’. A sports writer claimed that his hero was unequalled ‘in the hundred meters’, while another spoke of ‘an excellent duel player in both codes’.
Journalists are well aware of the mayhem which can be caused by the misplaced comma or the rogue hyphen. Newspaper lore is rife with examples, such as the advert in a British paper that read ‘after using your ointment, my face started to clear up at once, and after using two jars it was gone altogether’. Or the interview report which read ‘what first caught my eye was the large silver cup which Charles had won for skating on the mantelpiece’. Or the motorcycling magazine that recommended, “From Llandrindod you proceed along the lovely valley of the Ithon, growing more beautiful as you proceed.”
But surely nothing could match the dismay of Sir Harry Johnston when his scholarly book on Africa contained the much quoted line, “The Nilotic race is remarkable for the disproportionately long legs of its men and women. They extend on the eastern side of the Nile right down into the Ugandan Protectorate.”