Thursday, 24 July 2008

The price of spin

Writing in the current issue of the Journalist (house magazine of the NUJ), Paul Ilett warns the wider media of the dangers of criticising public spending on "press officers" ['Don't bite the hand"; p31; Journalist, August 2008].

Ilett is a press officer with the NHS and is worried about a recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request by his local paper, which wants to know how much of the local NHS budget is spent on 'spin'.

He rightly points out to the NUJ audience (many of them, local hacks) that local newspapers would struggle to fill their pages without the work of his team.
"I spent six years as Head of Comms at MORI. MORI's local government research showed that councils that invest in good communications have much better approval ratings than those that do not. The truth is that people like to know what is going on," writes Ilett.

Quite right; and that goes for national politics too. Party political spin doctors have given government communications officers a bad name they don't deserve. The Opposition might think they can add information officers to their hit list for 'cost cutting' measures, but who'll be left to publicise the (pifling) amount of public money they saved along the way?

Did I really say that?

New Scientist's 'Last Word' feature last week had a question about why people can be so aggressive in on-line forums. It's a question that's of great interest to me and my fellow editors.

It's not just that the polite world of SfEPline* can occasionally degenerated into a free-for-all slanging match; communicating via email can be problematic too.

For example, I still can't get used to writing emails to my mother or mother-in-law; their replies don't 'sound' like them, whereas I'm pretty sure my emails 'sound' like me - but do they?

Work-related communication is even more fraught with potential difficulties. I once clattered out an urgent work-related message and fired it off into the ether - apparently without carefully checking whether I'd added enough caveats and requisite 'chit chat'; for the the virtually instant response said my message was 'curt'.

Oh dear! Having built up a rapport with an e-correspondent you would think it's not always necessary to go through the "how are you; thanks for your last message; have a nice day" rigmarole, but apparently not.

(Or is it just that I'm 'curt' in real life too? …Don't answer that, thanks.)

Anyway, I hope that the New Scientist article and the link I gave to a research paper on "email sociability" in the NS blog will get picked up by researchers somewhere. At the very least, business email users could benefit from general guidance as to what is and is not deemed acceptable e-speak.

* SfEPline is a Yahoo group used by members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (of which I'm an Advanced member).

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Fighting flab at 40 - a 'waist' of time?

No need to worry about fighting the flab when you hit your 40s. An exchange of letters in last week's New Scientist (19 July 2008, p73) suggests that putting on a few pounds as you get older is perfectly natural and, in fact, because it's an evolutionary development, trying to buck the trend is probably a waste of time.

The question on the magazine's 'Last Word' page was: "Why, as we age, do we find it easier to gain body fat and … why is it so much more difficult to get rid of?"

Apparently, our bodies become more efficient at storing fat as we get older. One respondent (from University of California) put the age-related fat issue down to evolution, saying that, in primitive societies older people wouldn't get priority for scarce food, so it's in their interest to develop a 'store' for lean times.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3

The mess up of this year's SATs tests for Year 6 children has dominated the news this week. I happen to know someone who has been marking the papers, so I can confirm that the changeover to the new supplier has been horrendous. However, some parents do need to get things into perspective, I think.

I heard one mother on the radio yesterday saying that her daughter was so nervous about the results that she (the mother) had taken a day off work specially to be by her daughter's side when they arrived. Of course, the mother was then complaining that she'd waste a day's annual leave, and now would have to dash across the county to be there when the results finally arrive.

Dear me, some people need to get a grip! It doesn't take a massive leap of the imagination to figure out why that poor girl is so worried about her test scores…

Although secondary schools may look at the scores to help them stream in-coming Year 7s, surely they also take account of information from the Year 6 class teachers?

And while I'm on a roll here, next time you hear a Tory spokesperson banging on about the nation's failing education system, ponder this:
  • As of January 2007 (latest figures) there were 25,018 schools in England (including 2,284 independent schools).

"Since 1997, over 1,400 schools, which required special measures, have been successfully turned round and a further 200 have been closed. 51 schools closed have been given a Fresh Start with a new school opening on the same site.

At the end of the 1997/98 academic year there were 515 schools in special measures but this figure had fallen to 254 at the end of the spring term 2008."

(source: DFES The Standards Site)

As some might say: "Do the math!"

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Of politicians and proofreaders

The Tories are criticising the government's Youth Crime Action Plan on the grounds that it was thrown together at the last minute.

At Question Time in the House of Commons yesterday, Nick Herbert, shadow justice minister, accused the government of " …still cobbling it [the document] together yesterday".

"Can the Justice Secretary confirm that the government was still amending the Youth Crime Action Plan yesterday?" he cried.

Apparently, Jack Straw looked down at the printed and bound document in his hands and said: "This was printed yesterday …"

Perish the thought that Nick Herbert ever comes out of his "shadow", but if he does, maybe he'll find out why the government employs a small army of Information Officers - who work behind the scenes to edit and proofread all government publications.

It's not all "spin" at the GCN, Nick!

Three little dots

A couple of months ago, while participating in a copy-editors' discussion group, I learned that there's a keyboard shortcut for the ellipsis - the three little dots I'm so fond of using in my on-line musings.

Thankfully, I wasn't the only person in the discussion group who didn't know that if you type alt+; you get … but there were several people who expressed outrage that a so-called "Advanced" copy-editor didn't know that it's wrong to type . . .

The thing is, if you learned to type before computers became commonplace, and if the sort of material you work on (i.e. science and technical, rather than fiction and ephemera) rarely uses the … , then you probably never had cause to type alt+; - in anger or otherwise.

Still, I am always willing to learn something new … … …

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Don't be 'discontented' this summer

Oh no! You and Yours (Radio 4's flagship moaners-and-groaners lunchtime slot) is today running a package on the "rise of the trade unions", and wondering (in its trailer) "Are we facing a summer of discontent?".

My answer: "Yes! ... I'm discontented with lazy journalism that always portrays trade unions as a 'bad thing'."

Trade unions are not 'the enemy' - they're just groups of people who realise their voices are more likely to be heard if they all speak together.

You and Yours is quite happy to give airtime to all sorts of unreconstructed individual opinions, but can't stomach the idea that when an elected trade union official speaks on the news, they're speaking on behalf of tens of thousands of individual members.

Note to self: take the dog out between 12 and 1 today!

Monday, 14 July 2008

Maternity benefits should pay attention to biology

Last week poor Zoe Williams lost her mojo amid a post-natal hormonal fug (see Guardian G2, Friday 11 July); this week Sarah Veal (TUC) and Sylvia Tidy-Harris ( have ferociously debated the merits (or otherwise) of employing women of child-bearing age - not once, but twice… in one morning (on Woman's Hour, then on the Jeremy Vine show).

Yes, motherhood is top of the news agenda … again.

Ms T-H is an employer who says she won't employ women of child-bearing* age…
Hmm … I wonder how she'd react if an employee of hers discovered they were ill? What if (heaven forbid) they contracted cancer and had to take 6 months off to undergo surgery and recover from chemotherapy?

Those who complain about new legal provisions to protect their employees might do better to go back to their offices and do a bit of 'forward planning'. Employees are not bound to stick with an employer for ever - women of child-bearing age are just as likely to go out and find a new job (with better terms and conditions!), as they are to get pregnant. Nothing in life is predictable...

Sensible employers do understand that having a baby is a life-changing experience, and offer as much support as possible. But for all the maternity leave, childcare vouchers, and flexible working hours, the one thing that's not often on offer to new mothers is a 'good ear' to help returners talk through their problems.

I was lucky to work for an employer who offered excellent support for its female employees - including an on-site crĂȘche. Nevertheless, three of us who worked in one division - and who all became pregnant with our first babies within a short 'window' (arousing comments like "There must be something in the water round here...") - all left once we had served enough time to avoid having to pay back our maternity pay.


In my own case, I'm pretty certain it was a question of hormones.

I took the full amount of maternity leave, going back to work when my baby was seven months old. In that short time my life had changed completely - not just a new baby, but a new (and as we later discovered, unsuitable) home as well. (Oh, and I almost forgot - recovering from emergency surgery!) Plunging back into the office, even on reduced hours, was another massive upheaval.

Even just the simple change of routine to get to work took some coping with. Where once I could have woken up, dress, breakfasted and been on the road to work in around 60 minutes, now I had a whole new list of things to do before I could step out of the house - wake, feed, dress baby; pack bag for nursery; mop up sick; change baby's nappy (again), change me (smudges on suit). [No need to explain further - this is a common scenario for all mothers, whether they're going out to work or just a basic shopping trip or school run.]

I was very lucky that my baby thrived at nursery, though quickly picked up the usual assortment of childhood bugs, which meant time off work. Despite my employer's flexible attitude I didn't feel that I was doing either job (employee; mum) justice.

I didn't sit around staring at my PC wondering what my baby was doing, but my brain definitely wasn't in gear either at home or at work.

The idea of working at home was therefore appealing; crucially, I wouldn't have to be at a certain place at a certain time. And as I had always had the idea of working for myself in the back of my mind, it seemed - at the time - like a logical thing to do.

What I hadn't thought through, though, was the the many benefits I have lost by taking this route: job security, career progression, and the biggie - a decent pension. And my employer lost a member of staff with more than five years' service, who they'd only recently sponsored through a post-graduate diploma.

When I handed in my notice, with baby's first birthday approaching, no one questioned my decision; not family, not friends, not my employer. Everyone just assumed I was a grown up and I'd made a grown-up decision.

What no one had factored into the equation was that I was still breastfeeding (just) and even if I hadn't been, I would still have been, like Zoe Williams, in the post-natal hormone fug. A few more months and I might have made a totally different decision.

So I applaud any efforts to extend the maternity leave period. Surely it's better for employers to mark a little more time waiting for their familiar, trained and refreshed female employees to return to work, than to hurry them back when they're still struggling to get a grip on their new life status, and their biology is working against them?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that all new mothers should be forced to stay at home, but I do think there should be greater consideration given not just for the obvious outward signs of new-motherdom, but for what's happening on the inside.

Interestingly, a quick Internet search for scientific studies of female hormones after birth draws lots of articles about post-natal depression, but nothing at all on general issues of hormonal changes. [Not surprising, as a lot of medical research is geared up to developing drugs to cure 'illness', rather than understanding perfectly natural phenomenon.] Wikipedia says that in some East Asian countries: "... confinement traditionally lasts 30 days, although regional variants may last 40, 60 or as many as 100 days".

* She's currently 'representing' one Katie Hopkins, the scourge of last year's Apprentice who kept her own maternal status a secret until she reached the show's finale. Nuff said?

Sensible verses

I haven't read any of Salman Rushdie's novels, but perhaps I should, because I was extremely impressed with the interview he gave in last week's Guardian (by Stuart Jeffries; Friday 11 July; G2, pp4-7).

He came across as an incredibly brave (OK, and arrogant too, I grant) individual who has some very useful things to say about today's society. Most pertinent was the line picked out as the headline:
"Everybody needs to get thicker skins"
He continues: "There is this culture of offence, as though offending someone is the worst thing anyone can do. Again, there is an assumption that our first duty is to be respectful."

As I read this, the radio was bumbling away in the background, but my ears pricked at (yet another) item about the problem of teenage knife-crime.

Thankfully I don't know anyone involved, but if what I read, hear and see via the media is true, "respect" (or perceived lack of it) is one little word that often sparks off these vicious attacks.

So, 'sensible verses' from Mr Rushie...

Pride and Prejudice - you couldn't make it up…

Did anyone else spot the irony* of the Daily Mail giving away copies of Pride and Prejudice on DVD today?

I know that a free dose of Colin Firth is very tempting, but do try to resist this "offer". You can pick up a low-cost second-hand DVD on eBay instead.

[*or has the DM's editor just decided on a new strap line for the paper?]

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Marcus gets serious

Did Marcus Brigstocke know what was coming next?

Was it just an incredibly serendipitous piece of scheduling that resulted in his sketch featuring the:
"open[ing of] the crypt [and releasing] the Tory undead ... the restless, vicious lost souls of nasty judgemental Conservatism ..."
on Radio 4's The Now Show (Friday 11 July 2008; 17:40 mins into show) being followed by ...

... Norman Tebbitt on Any Questions?

Fantastic stuff, Marcus.

People have frighteningly short political memories, and don't forget that there's a whole generation of young voters who don't know anything about the divisive politics of the 1980s and early 1990s, so it's about time someone somewhere jogged our memories.

And while I'm at it, well done to MB for his blistering attack on the car-tax whiners. As MB put it so succinctly:

"Shut up! You myopic doughnuts!"

Holidaying with a clear conscience

Tom Robbins, writing in last Sunday's Observer (6 July 2008), uncovers the complex chain of custody that lies behind many so-called "eco-holidays".

So many companies are jumping on the green bandwagon that a spokesperson from Tourism Concern told Robbins: "Already the word 'eco' has lost all power and meaning".

Holidays aren't the only commodity to suffer from greenwash, though, and it's bound to be a recurring theme of this blog... (just wait 'til I get started on the "make your own humus" eco-food fanatics!)

Robbins's article highlighted the difficulty of choosing an eco-holiday. A great example was when he tried to book a skiing holiday through a tour operator whose name suggests a high standard of environmental monitoring.

To find out what happen, see "Are you being green washed?", Observer, Sunday 6 July 2008.

For a rather different analysis of the holiday scene, try Green Futures, the house magazine of Forum for the Future: "2020 Postcard" by Imogen Martineau, March 2006.

This freelance life

This month I'm "celebrating" 20 years as a professional writer/editor, and I'm into my 9th year as a home-working freelance.

I've done the things they recommend for keeping sane when you work alone - networking, news-groups and the like. They're great for procrastination; and sometimes I've been able to help out fellow editors who've been stumped by this strange language of ours. But it's just not the same as calling across the office to say "Did you see such-and-such on the telly last night?" or "I can't believe he just said that..."

And that's why I'm here. This blog will be a series of short snippets I've picked up as I go about my day - on the school run, walking the dog, listening to the radio, watching the TV, or reading the papers (mainly The Guardian and New Scientist). If you want to join in the chat, feel free. But hey, go easy on me! I might once have been nick-named the "Yorkshire Terrier", but I'm definitely more bark than bite.