Brenda Maddox

The Pernicious Editor

A photograph of the robed and crowned Queen to which the words ‘flouncing out’ were appended was able to make headlines, especially when coupled with a mistake in judgement by the beleaguered BBC. Her Majesty, it was later explained, was not walking out of a photographic session in anger, but peacefully walking in. That ‘before’ and ‘after’ should have been transposed was an editorial error by the private producer of the programme, compounded by the BBC’s foolish mistake in boasting of the fake sequence as one of its forthcoming attractions.

But too much blame has been heaped on the BBC for an editorial exercise in which any broadcaster, producer, or writer for that matter, engages. All editing is lying. That is, it takes a sequence of words or pictures and tidies them up to make the intended meaning clearer.

The most outrageous comment I heard in recent weeks was the irate Muslim cleric who claimed that his reported statement that homosexual men were an abomination and should be thrown off a mountain was quoted ‘out of context’. In what context would those vivid words be benign?

Any quotation is, by definition, out of context. To tweezer a few significant words out of the mass of verbiage in which they were issued is the job of any editor or producer or speech writer. To call this practice dishonest can only mean that the accuser has never worked with words, never tried to get the essence of a statement, a speech or a letter into a small space where it stands a chance of catching the reader’s or viewer’s attention.

There can be no doubt that television is guilty of distorting reality more than the print media. Time is shorter; costs are greater. The question to ask is when the viewer should be informed that some lines were spoken by actors or some of the words omitted in the interests of brevity. Some of the fault lies in the credulity of the viewer, who tends to believe that a picture cannot lie.

A couple of years ago I had the heady experience of appearing on University Challenge, on a team fronted by the Royal Society of Literature. When I got to the Granada Studios in Manchester, I was surprised to see that the gifted Jeremy Paxman does not do only one of these shows at a time – he always looked so spontaneous and keyed-up for the event – but records several in a single day. Different teams, different audiences, repeated trips to ‘make-up’ yield a slew of programmes which BBC2 later broadcasts in its own arranged sequence.

Our team performed clumsily and flubbed many of the literary questions which seemed chosen just for us. Many weeks later, when the programme finally went out, a friend told me he was surprised that our team had got ‘the Jane Austen question’ wrong. ‘Which Jane Austen question?’ I asked him. There had been several. ‘You mean that the programme was edited?’ he gasped in shock–horror.

He was more shaken when I told him of the several others filmed that day, or that the one question to which I alone knew the answer (was it planted just for me because I had written a book on the subject?) had to be repeated and refilmed. ‘Could you say “DNA” once more, Brenda?’ asked St Jeremy. ‘The cameras didn’t get a clear view of you saying it.’ (Or words to that effect.)

Would that repeating and rephrasing be disallowed by purists who want nothing out of context? For that matter, should every schoolchild be taught about ‘the noddies’? The standard practice after a television interview is to have the subject smile and nod for the camera to give a series of shots that can be interposed to make the on-screen interview seem brighter.

But it is not television alone that is guilty of editing. Every biographer who uses a tape recorder accumulates hours of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘let-me-put-that-another-ways’, out of which only one or two quotes are extracted for the final text.

All quotes, let me repeat, are by definition out of context. The alternative is seamless verbiage without beginning or end. Any editor who allowed that through would deserve to be thrown off the mountain.

To be sure, editing involves more than cutting. It can include rewording and substituting the editor’s preferred words for the writer’s. I have had some apoplectic moments when dealing with American editors of my biographies written and published in Britain. They are deeply suspicious of English touches, especially in text written by subversives like myself who have crossed the Atlantic and pledged foreign allegiance.

When the American editor of my 1994 biography of D H Lawrence looked at the text already published (and edited) by Sinclair-Stevenson, she spotted a terrible error. In a passage referring to the author Norman Douglas’s 1917 arrest for child molestation in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, she pencilled fiercely in the margin: ‘The Natural History Museum is not in South Kensington. It is in Brompton.’ She had never been to London but had a reliable guidebook for her fact-checking.

Lawrence himself was almost too much for her. When I quoted the description of the bullfight that opens The Plumed Serpent, ‘the bull once more lowered his head and pushed his sharp, flourishing horns in the horse’s belly, working them up and down inside there with a sort of vague satisfaction’, she threw away her blue pencil in outrage. ‘The author will have to be responsible for this editing herself’, she said. ‘I don’t have to read this.’

However, moving on in my text, she took exception to a phrase in which I referred to a ‘passive homosexual’. Her marginal comment was that she did not think that homosexuals would agree that there was any such thing as a ‘passive homosexual’. ‘I believe that the buggeree is also the fellator,’ she wrote knowledgeably. To which I could only respond in the margin, ‘I don’t have to read this!’ and the offensive phrase survived.

So, all editing is suspect. The only guard against its follies is eternal vigilance. The creator of prose or pictures must be ready to fight and fight again to protect the original intent.

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