About March last year, someone who should know explained to me how the Sydney Morning Herald was assigning stories to sub-editors. With the exception of the sports pages, she said, there were no section specialists. In a system that sounded a bit like taking a ticket at the David Jones delicatessen counter, sub-editors would work on whichever story popped up next in the electronic queue. My source, I thought, would have been very well placed to function as an arts specialist, but it evidently hadn’t occurred to anyone at the paper that they might exploit her superior knowledge.
Perhaps if they had, the SMH could have avoided the embarrassing review that came out last week in response to the SSO’s Romantic Perfection concert.
I have every sympathy for reviewers: for each concert they need to write something pithy and insightful and they have to do it fast. If typographical errors, or perhaps Freudian slips, turn up in the mix it’s really quite understandable. And in the case of a major daily broadsheet like the SMH, a reviewer should – I would have thought – be able to rely on the sub-editors and proofreaders.
Apparently this is not so. We got Hugo instead of Hugh, at one point Wood instead Wolff (or Wolf!), the wrong date for the performance, and, to add insult to injury, a particularly ungainly and meaningless headline that doesn't bear repeating. (Prima la musica theorised to me that this headline was devised by the same soul responsible for “A Domingo stole our ladies”. That seems entirely plausible.)
But the really puzzling stories are the ones where the sub-editor takes it into his or her head to change something that was correct in the reviewer’s original text, as when composer Georges Lentz turned up as “George Lenz” in the SMH last year. [Needless to say, it’s equally perplexing how these spelling errors are allowed to remain in the online versions.]
Or, about 10 years ago, when a sub-editor at the Melbourne Age decided, in a review of cellist Lyn Harrell, to switch all the reviewer’s masculine pronouns to feminine ones.
I can only echo Professor Diggory Kirk and mutter: What do they teach them in sub-editor school?