Newspapers should drop their courtesies

Charles Moore of the Spectator reports that the Times is dropping courtesy titles in its writing. Where once Charles would have been Lord Moore, he will now be merely Moore on second mention.

Such are the peculiarities of newspaper style guides. In my experience as a trade hack few subjects engage an editorial desk more than house style, which like the British constitution accrues unevenly and unwritten under various whims, until nobody really understands it.

The tendency over time has been for newspapers to prefer using full names on first mention and surnames subsequently, with no courtesy titles. Where once the absence of an honorific was reserved for convicts, the lawless and lawful now enjoy equal esteem. The effect is egalitarian, if lacking in the civility that such formalities can engender.

It is not only stuffy Britons who worry about these things. As recently as November 2017 the New York Times outlined its nuanced approach to titles, describing President Trump on first mention, then Mr Trump thereafter. Military ranks are also omitted if a retired soldier is serving in a civilian role, but kept otherwise. Such rules will go on, at length.

Americans are rather fond of a good title, preferably with initials and some Roman numerals. Perhaps this is because in republican America seeking status is encouraged, while in monarchistic Britain the pressure is on the establishment to downplay class.

Readers might recall that the privately-educated Tony Blair was mocked for dropping his tees. More recently a biography of David Cameron was titled Call Me Dave, reflecting a similarly informal bearing. Such insouciance can get you in trouble in less modern countries.

Of course, even French presidents aren’t as prickly over rank as academics. Those with PhDs can be particular about how they are addressed, including the wives of leading American politicians. Such arguments have become a feature of public life where deference to expertise is a partisan issue.

Fading out titles strikes me as good practice for any reflexively disrespectful journalist. Not everyone will agree on principle, but in practice any hack who’s had to guess whether a female interviewee is married is likely to be sympathetic.

Jimmy Nicholls
Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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