Some of the boldest departures from the accepted style of individual newspapers, from the way pages look to the use of language, are accomplished gradually, almost by stealth. Little or nothing is said publicly and only the most observant readers realise what is happening. Yet the differences a month later may well be considerable. Other groundbreaking refinements are imposed overnight. If that seems rash, given the comfort many people derive from continuity, one newspaper very nearly got away with it.
A new editor had set about modernising The Irish News, a long-established morning newspaper based in Belfast and selling predominantly to Roman Catholics, many of them of conservative outlook. One of his first acts was to drop from the front page masthead a simple reference to the saint commemorated on each of the six days of publication. Not a single reader wrote or telephoned in protest. A little while later, a newspaper in Dublin, also serving a mainly Catholic readership, printed a short item about the change. The poor old Irish News was immediately deluged with complaints.
This example helps to show that even readers set in their ways will accept stylistic changes, provided their introduction is either gradual or attracts no fuss. How many people who regularly see The National have realised that officials are sometimes referred to as spokeswomen or chairwomen? Both words were discouraged during the first five months of this newspaper's life. I then decided that continued objection was unreasonable.
Had I suddenly mellowed towards political correctness, or become a militant feminist? Hardly. I had bowed, however selectively, to the persuasive power of everyday usage. It is important to remember that among those people who do notice such refinements, as many are likely to resent them as to applaud. In recognition of the unease felt by some, I asked writers to continue to avoid "chair" unless they meant something to be sat upon or an academic position; in time even that may have to change.
It then occurred to me that if I was prepared to give way on chairman and spokesman, despite their decades of perfectly useful, gender-neutral service, other concessions would logically have to follow. At the beginning of this month I ruled that people whose family names were preceded by "al" should retain the prefix at subsequent mention. The original decision to drop it after the first reference had been taken in the interests of the brevity preferred by busy readers.
None of the people I consulted at that time raised any objection. More recently, however, Arab colleagues have convinced me that the omission can be seen by some as a mark of disrespect. That seemed a very good reason to change the policy. Once again, it would be interesting to know how many people whose names include "al" have actually noticed. It is inevitable that more amendments will be made to the language of The National. Our style is not set in stone and nor should it be. This is a young newspaper that has been born in a rapidly changing world. Our use of English will, from time to time, reflect that change. Some refinements will be minor and take place gradually and discreetly; others, according to circumstance, may be more dramatic, requiring immediate implementation.
The challenge is to find a way of ensuring that when we take account of a need to keep up with the times, we neither depart from the high standards we have set ourselves nor forget the lesson of The Irish News and its saints. Colin Randall is the executive editor of The National. email@example.com