An Irishman's Diary
Most lines of work involve risk management, occasionally. But as the John Terry court case demonstrates, journalism has the added challenge of asterisk management, which can sometimes be just as difficult.
In general, asterisks are deployed in newspapers to soften the effects of words that, uncensored, might offend a certain class of reader. The trick for journalists is to remove just enough of a rude word to give the appearance of decorum, while leaving no doubt as to what the missing letters are. Thus even the most prudish reader will fill in the gaps and have only his or her own dirty mind to blame for the results.
But the case in London centres on what Terry’s lawyers called the “industrial language” used in football. And it’s an interesting choice of words. Because indirectly, the hearings have exposed journalism’s lack of industry standards in this area.
Among the many variations in asterisk management, strange to say, the Sun’s reports have been the most elliptical. Typical of its coverage was a reported comment from Terry to Anton Ferdinand, viz: “F*** off. F*** off. F****** black ****. F****** knobhead.” We might pause in passing to note the irony that Terry finds himself in court over one of only two words in his outburst that could be printed in full by newspapers. But just as interestingly, meanwhile, for its page one headline, the Sun went with a different quotation – the alleged retort from Ferdinand: “You s*****d your mate’s missus”.
The asterisks here may have puzzled even the most dirty-minded readers. Some crossword and Scrabble enthusiasts were probably working through the various possible seven-letter past participles (“shocked . . . sheared . . . stroked . . .?”) before they reached the second paragraph of the story, where the word “shagged” was spelt out in full.
It was spelt out in most newspapers, in fact, this one included. So presumably, the Sun’s asterisk rules relate to the size of the font. As with carpet maintenance, the deeper the “shag”, the more care required.
Compared with the Sun, most newspapers felt the need to give readers more of a hint as to what the four-letter term used by Terry was. Many went with a three-asterisk “c***”. But perhaps controversially, The Irish Times opted for the two-star “c**t”. This was presumably to eliminate any possible confusion, although a few of our more innocent readers may even now be wondering why Terry was calling Ferdinand a “Celt”.
Except during national emergencies – Roy Keane and Saipan, for example – this newspaper has a three-asterisk per rude word limit: hence the various “f***king” references yesterday. But curiously, like every paper I have seen, we also saw fit to print the word “knobhead” in full.