One of the most delightful periods of my career was spent commissioning the opinion pages of Scotland's national newspaper, The Scotsman. Furnished with a generous budget, I was able to afford exquisite writing. The finest came from a columnist I rarely agreed with, but whose work I always adored.
Ian Bell is a compassionate socialist with an intellect that makes professors appear dim and thrilling mastery of the English language. When I took responsibility for his copy he had just won the 1997 Orwell Prize for journalism. Britain confers no higher honour on a columnist and Bell deserved it utterly. I never had the courage to tell him that when we were colleagues. He had an endearing habit of mocking flattery. I hope he reads this column.
But Bell did not begin his career as a writer. The Scotsman's graduate training scheme was geared to recruiting reporters and, in the year he chose journalism, it had already picked two (Sally Magnusson, now of the BBC, and David Hearst, now of The Guardian). Bell became a novelty by joining as a sub-editor, the lowest caste of editorial personnel who earn their meagre livings correcting the style, grammar and accuracy of their "betters" on news and features desks.
As a columnist, Bell is vehement about the value of sub-editors. He does not lack confidence as a writer and he has not been successfully sued, but he never wants to publish a column that has not profited from a good sub's attention to detail. In the ten years that I worked as a newspaper executive and then as a columnist, I took the same view. Subs are almost always underpaid but they are only rarely underappreciated by the writers whose reputations they safeguard, and then only by fools.
Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror, does not fit easily into this category. However, in a recent speech he argued that most subs could be dispensed with. I hope he will not repeat that opinion to his journalism students at City University London. They might believe him and that would be appalling.
Nothing in a newspaper or on a website should be published without someone checking it for grammatical, factual or legal errors. Editors pretend that they read every syllable published, but I know from harsh experience that such Stakhanovite effort is not possible for every article on every page of every edition. The finest correspondents make mistakes. To err is human and, at least in this respect, journalists are members of the human race, despite what popular opinion contends.
Professor Greenslade went on to suggest that journalists are now so highly educated that they should sub their own stories. "I write my own blog every day," he said. "I produce copy that goes straight on screen - why can't anyone else do that?" His is an egregious prejudice in a leader committed to excellence in the professional education of journalists.
Excellent subs are not disposable relics of a bygone era. They are the keyhole surgeons of journalism; fast, precise and adept at ensuring that prevention averts the need for expensive or embarrassing cures. At best they write attention-grabbing headlines and turn convoluted codswallop into plain, comprehensible English.
A good sub should be treasured, rewarded and respected.
Crucially, subbing skills should be praised and taught at each and every university that makes any claim to educate journalists. Young people whose English has been corrupted by text speak and the retreat from grammar and language teaching in schools need it urgently. Even among my brilliant cohort of journalism undergraduates, there are a few who, despite impressive academic qualifications, make basic errors that must be expunged. Nothing teaches grammar better than lessons in sub-editing and if people who teach journalists will not uphold standards in the use of English, we cannot reasonably expect others to do it.
I do not have space to identify all the excellent national newspaper and magazine editors who have started their careers on the subs' desk. So many have risen from the back bench to the editorial chair that to abolish subbing would risk inflicting on journalism damage comparable to that imposed on team sports by the sale of school playing fields.
Subbing is a foundation for excellence in journalism. It matters as much to the trade I love as wings do to birds. Journalism educators who wish to promote wisdom, enlightenment and rigour should proclaim its virtues with pride. After all, Roy, subbing is journalism's own version of peer review, albeit faster and with fewer opportunities for nepotism and bitching.