The Guardian’s recent firing of controversial columnist Kelvin Baldeosingh after the publication of a column under his by-line which the Guardian has not, it seems, removed from its online site raises an issue that I think needs urgent ventilation.
Some say that it’s really very straightforward; four other columnists have recently been fired before Mr Baldeosingh, so his is merely a case of a fifth columnist getting the Guardian’s axe. So let’s deal with that claim right away.
That group was led by Shelly Dass, head of news at Guardian media, who sought refuge behind the old Latin post hoc ergo praeter hoc fallacy. In English, that says that not everything that happens shortly after an event is the result of that event.
My response? That’s true. But some post hoc things are praeter hoc—especially in an organisation where ad hoc seems to characterise much of the decision making.
I say that that is “my response” but that’s not entirely accurate; the suggestion actually came from Wired868 Editor-in-chief Lasana Liburd. Responding to a comment on a Mr Live Wire piece on the issue of KB’s axing, Liburd offered this conclusion: “Seems like [the Guardian’s] editorial decisions are made on the hoof. Or the paper truly does not have any core principles and makes it up as they go along.”
“…makes it up as they go along” is the definition, in seven words, of ad hoc.
But Liburd does not stop there. Elsewhere, he elaborates: “The role of the editor is a paid job that comes with certain responsibilities. You cannot give that a pass because you’re afraid to hurt the writer’s feeling and, in theory, put your entire company at risk of lawsuit or upset thousands of people.”
Several of the many comments on the story also seemed to suggest that the blame for KB’s misfortunes is to be laid squarely at the feet of the editorial staff. They seemed to endorse Liburd’s suggestion that the Sunday Editor had the option of leaving Baldeosingh’s column out of the paper.
One Dylan, however, took a different, very interesting position. “I wouldnt blame the editor rather than the abilities and mind of racist misogynist themself,” he writes. “The column […] failed writing school 101. It then also offended some, precisely because the writer was not clear enough in their prose.”
“Maybe blame the editor in context of legibility,” he continues, “but also the writer is also part of problem here. Simply because what they had in their head did not translate adequately to paper. And im pretty sure no matter what you say here, some writers do not take kindly to editors fixing their prose.
“I would imagine based on his own ego,” he adds, “which i have confronted via email a couple of times, this could have been a factor.”
Did you, he finally asked Liburd—and, through him, all the others seemingly sharing the same position—ask that before blaming the editor?
We shall return shortly to a peripheral issue raised by the “I’m pretty sure […] some writers do not take kindly to editors fixing their prose” part of that comment. But staying with the main issue for the moment, I note that Liburd, who confesses (the word is NOT too strong) that he once worked at the Guardian, says that the editor’s role “…comes with certain responsibilities.” Nice and vague. But that’s precisely where the shoe pinches, isn’t it?
For me, the key questions are these: Are those responsibilities in the press in general nice and clear? Are those responsibilities in the Guardian nice and clear? Do they or do they not include giving the sacred cows a free pass to say whatever the Spirit moves them to say?
Isn’t it precisely what Liburd is pointing to when he says that the Guardian continues to publish Sat Maharaj and Raymond Ramcharitar?
Or what Michael Samuel is getting at when he asks this rhetorical question: “Seriously though, does somebody love Raymond?” Although with the recent passing in the Guardian family, I think he might have thought of changing the tense.
It has to be noted that Liburd almost completely ignores the importance of his own observation that editors are paid employees. (Is Dass’ boss, Nicholas Sabga, an editor, Liburd? Does he qualify?) That observation becomes doubly important when the editor depends for his/her pay on the Guardian principals.
And it is triply important because we are in a prolonged guava season whose end is NOT in sight.
In these times of lean, who dares take a chance on losing a job? Maybe an unapologetically irreverent columnist with an Atheism-given right to be published but surely not the Guardian Sunday Editor!
To return, then, as promised to the peripheral issue. I have heard the argument that editors should not tamper with the Letters to the Editor section because that stuff adds a ‘people’ feel to the paper. I don’t buy it.
I suspect that I am not alone. Former newspaper columnist Niala Maharaj probably did not read, could not bring herself to read from the start all the way to the finish a piece we recently carried in Wired868. I conclude this from the comment she attached to it to the effect that, sound though the writer’s ideas might well be, he was sadly lacking in the area of language and syntax.
For me, those who need that ‘people feel’ have the option of going to the market or to the cinema—well, not these soulless, silent, one-size-fits-all halls that pass for cinemas nowadays—or to the Oval during a T20 match or the Stadium during a national football match.
Or the Soca Monarch or Chutney finals or a Machel Monday or a 3 Canal concert.
I am partial to what I call ‘intrusive’ editing, which adds value in the news and sports pages, whereas in the features, columns and letters pages where there is generally more personalised stuff, I prefer the ‘minimalist’ approach.
Some editors take a different view, insisting on “authenticity.” Readers, they command, must “hear the writer’s voice” and not have it edited out in the interest of increased clarity, greater readability and/or grammatical accuracy.
I’m all for “authenticity.” But wherever it is, whoever the author, whether it be reporter, columnist or letter writer, if it’s syntactically wrong, I’m simply not going to leave it in unless it’s between quotation marks or done for effect.
In an online publication, of course, such as Wired868, an entirely new issue arises with the readers’ comments; there’s authenticity with a vengeance, in its myriad shapes and forms.
So tell me honestly: Was there a naughty little thought sneaking in through the back of your mind when you saw the missing apostrophe in “wouldn’t’ and that awful concoction “themself”?
Et passim, as the Romans say.
Or is it just me and Niala?