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A subeditor’s craft: Unsung heroes upholding standards, giving grace to others’ words, going home in the dark

It was rarely acknowledged that it was the subs who had ultimate responsibility for what appeared on the printed page

The subeditor is, or used to be, the unsung hero and heroine of the newspaper industry: unsung, and frequently abused. I heard an editor in the old days characterise subs as “pathetic people who change other people’s words and go home in the dark”.

It was rarely acknowledged that it was the subs who had ultimate responsibility for what appeared on the printed page. We were the ones who had to make sure the facts were factual, to spot potential libels, and to suppress unintended double entendres.

My boss Jack Jones, the finest chief subeditor I was fortunate enough to work with, cautioned me on my first night on the Irish Press subs’ desk that the two things a sub must have are a sound knowledge of the laws of defamation, and a filthy mind.

We also had to value accuracy, linguistic clarity and grace of expression. And of course it helped to know how to punctuate.


In its heyday in the 1970s, when I worked there, the Irish Press had one of the best-informed industrial correspondents “in these islands”, as we used to say back then. Let us call him GD. He was a gentle man, and a gentleman, that rarest of phenomena in the raucous business of daily newspaper production. The only drawback was that GD wrote in so convoluted and gnomic a style that it often seemed to the paper’s long-suffering subs that his mother tongue must have been Mandarin.

It did sometimes feel like imprisonment on the subs’ desk

One evening when we were working away on tomorrow’s edition, GD approached the chief sub and asked him who had subbed his story that had appeared in that morning’s paper, dealing with some industrial dispute or other. Subs at all times had to be shielded from the wrath of irate reporters. On that occasion, however, the chief sub, who really should have known better, pointed to Sean Purcell, my neighbour on the desk, and said: “He did.”

An expectant silence fell. We did not know whether to dread the rancorous confrontation between the indignant newsman and the hapless sub that was surely inevitable, or to hug ourselves in rich anticipation – there were not many diverting occurrences in the long night of the sub. To our surprise, however, GD put a hand on Sean’s shoulder and said with feeling: “Thanks, you made me say what I meant to say.”

It was a memorable moment, unique in my experience. What was it they sang in Oklahoma? “The farmer and the cowman should be friends ...”

Sean Purcell, who died just a couple of weeks ago, was something of a legend among subeditors, a legend I was in at the making of, since we worked together not only on the now defunct Press but later at The Irish Times. His subbed copy was clear and clean and always, always accurate.

Although he had never learned the alphabet – there was a hiatus somewhere in his early education – he was a superb stylist in the English language. And that counted for a lot on the Irish Press, where all reporters’ copy was reshaped from top to bottom, or, indeed, from bottom to top, for frequently a sub would rejig a piece of copy by lifting the final paragraph and making it the first.

Sean was a demon for detail. I recall a night when he and I almost made the paper miss the midnight deadline, so engrossed were we in a dispute over the pronunciation of the word “impious”; he turned out to be right, as so often.

He was mischievous, as I suppose we all were. One evening when I was standing in for the chief sub I gave Sean a story to edit on Dr Rose Dugdale, one-time socialite, holder of a PhD on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and an IRA activist. One of her more colourful exploits was the burglarising of her own family’s home in Devon and the theft from it of pictures and other items valued at some £80,000 – at her trial, her father appeared as a witness for the prosecution. In Ireland, she took part in a raid of Russborough House in which paintings worth £8 million were stolen by a Provo gang.

The story I gave Sean to sub was an account of the capture of Dugdale, and in particular the elaborate measures taken by gardaí to prevent a possible attempt by the IRA to rescue her. The headline Sean wrote, or should I say tried out on me, was:

Massive guard mounted on Dr Dugdale

I looked at him over my specs and said: “Sean ... !”

But one of Sean’s skills was to appear the picture of rubicund innocence. I told him to rewrite the headline. He did so, snickering.

Such were the innocent diversions of our long stretches – it did sometimes feel like imprisonment – on the subs’ desk. Sean never doubted that subbing was an honourable craft, and that the sub had a duty to the reporter whose words he was if not changing then rearranging, and to the reader who needed to be able to trust that what he or she was reading was accurate, fair and authentic.

The age of fake news in which we are nowadays mired was still far off. We did our best, we upheld certain rigorous standards, we gave what grace we could to words written by others ... and then we went home in the dark.