Coffee House

The genius of the Spectator’s Peter Robins

26 March 2014

Some of the best journalists in Britain rarely, if ever, have their names in print. One of them is my colleague Peter Robins, the genius chief sub editor (or, technically, production editor) of The Spectator. In his Times column today (£), Matthew Parris has a story about Peter. Here it is:

‘If you sometimes feel you’re getting gobbledegook from this columnist you should realise how much worse gobbledegook you’d get were it not for that most self-effacing of species, the sub-editor. I blush to remember the errors from which this page’s subs have rescued me.

But I believe The Spectator’s Peter Robins touched new heights last week when, after I submitted a column quoting the Latin phrase from which we derive “Don’t speak ill of the dead”, he sent me this email:

“Hello, I’m a tiny bit worried about your Latin . . . You seem to be reading ‘dicendum est’ as third-person present indicative passive, ‘is said’ — but that would be ‘dictum est’, I think. Dicendum’s the gerundive, making this something called a future passive periphrastic conjugation: ‘is to be said’, which in Latin has the force of advice from the speaker.”

He was right. In 50 years’ time, will such paragons even exist?’

I had no idea that Peter had sent this email, but it’s a tiny example of what a great sub editor does all the time. Matthew’s rather sombre endnote is one you hear a lot – are subeditors doomed, as newspapers contract and collapse? My own theory is that brilliant subeditors, like Peter Robins, will be needed more than ever. Here’s why.

In theory, the digital age means that star columnists like Matthew Parris could write on a blog, charge £10 a year and try to make more cash than they do from a newspaper. The digital world has given columnists the ability to sell their wares directly to the public. But this hasn’t happened – columnists have remained within the family of a newspaper or magazine. Why? Because few columns are really the work of just one person. It’s the result of the relationship between the writer, the commissioning editors and the sub editors. No columnist, no matter how renowned, has tried to break free of this arrangement. As a columnist, I can tell you why: we rely too much on other journalists, the people whose names you hardly, if ever, see.

Claim your gift

NO COVERBut the role of the sub editor goes far beyond saving the writer from himself. If you pick up any issue of The Spectator, you’ll see the magic of our world-class team sprinkled all over it. Peter stays until the wee small hours, way after everyone else has gone home, sweating the small stuff, working on the contents pages, finding pictures to draw the readers’ attention and the captions which transform the picture into a joke. It is these small touches, his love of language and attention to detail that make The Spectator the kind of magazine you want to have around your living room.

The skills of a good sub editor now stretch beyond fixing copy. The digital era means subs now write internet-only headlines, Kindle-only headlines, tags, master the dark arts of search engine optimisation and far more. The evolution of the media means new formats, so there has never been a greater need for versitile subeditors who adapt to these new formats. And design, too. The Spectator’s ‘NO’ cover (above), giving our answer to the Royal Charter on press regulation, was designed in about ten seconds by Pete.

I’ve worked for newspapers that have unwisely cut back on sub-editing. It seems to work, at first, because there is no immediate cliff-edge drop in quality. But the rot accumulates. Errors creep in that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. Sloppy writing goes unchecked, flabby ideas go unchallenged. And even then, the newspapers don’t suffer immediate penalty – readers who have been with the same title for years put up with a lot, before giving up on it. But when they do, the reputation for quality is hard to win back. The management respond to falling revenues with even more cuts, which send even more readers into despair. This is what I call the cycle of doom.

So, the self-effacing species that Matthew talks about are not a luxury. Having good sub editors – nay, great sub editors – is essential for any publication that takes good writing seriously. And not for nostalgic reasons, but for reasons of hard-headed capitalism: money follows quality. That’s certainly our belief at The Spectator, which is why we’re comfortably in the black and read by more people than ever.

I’m not saying that there will be as many sub editors around in 50 years time. But I am saying that the newspapers and magazines who will be around in 50 years time will have bloody good sub editors. And they’ll know that they couldn’t survive without them.

NB: This piece was published without going through a sub editor. I rest my case.

Give the perfect gift this Christmas. Buy a subscription for a friend for just £75 and you’ll receive a free gift too. Buy now.

Show comments
  • Tim Holmes

    Always amusing to hear a cheerleader for austerity explain how spending cuts create a “cycle of doom”.

  • Jane

    I hate to say this, but isn’t ‘dictum est’ third-person perfect indicative passive rather than third-person present indicative passive? That would be ‘dicitur.’ Very interesting article though!

  • Fencesitter

    Fraser’s appreciation of the sub-editor’s art is much appreciated. If anyone wonders why The Sun continues to sell more than its rivals, the answer is to be found in the vicinity of the subs’ desk. For an example of what they do best, check out the “Bin bagged” front page that greeted the death of Osama bin Laden.

  • Andrew Saint

    This guy may know his Latin but some of the English grammar and syntax in The Spectator is pretty ropey. As for the heading on this piece – it’s another example of the “luvvie-in” among Spectator journalists, which is one of the reasons I stopped subscribing to this magazine.

  • Fencesitter

    A timely piece from Fraser given this story on Hold the Front Page…

  • Fencesitter

    As a sub-editor, I wonder if anyone would like to comment on the following six-million-dollar stylistic conundrum.

    When denoting a large amount of money, such as six million pounds, my own preference is to write “£6million”, but the Daily Telegraph, whose style I respect, would write it as “£6 million” with a space between the number and million. I suspect the DT’s style is probably more correct, but I don’t know why. Possibly because it reflects the way it would be written out in full as words: six million pounds.

    A similar question arises over the use of ellipses at the end of a sentence…

    If the three dots are being used to indicate an omission in the middle of the sentence, then is is right to leave a space either side of the dots. But if the dots are being used to at the end of a sentence, as above, then perhaps they aren’t, strictly speaking, ellipses, as nothing need necessarily have been omitted. Therefore no space is needed before the dots. Like this…

    I think it looks better than …

    But I realise that “looks better” is an insufficient reason.

    • Andrew M Brown

      Using a ‘thin space’ is one answer.

      • Fencesitter

        I hadn’t considered that typographical possibility. Much obliged.

  • Fencesitter

    The Guardian’s online style guide is excellent on apostrophes and much else to do with the sub-editor’s art.

  • Selina Mills

    Hes so cute!

  • Sean Hogben


  • Nico Fanget

    Cue 100 subeditors/proofreaders piling in to point out it’s “versatile”, not “versitile”.

  • Rockin Ron

    “In theory, the digital age means that star columnists like Matthew Parris could write on a blog, charge £10 a year…”

    I had to laugh at the assertion that Matthew Parris is a star columnist. He is a weak, wet, wimpish, mummy’s boy who has failed at just about anything he has put his hand to, and that is the reason, perhaps, that he is viewed as a successful writer. If Mr Parris thinks this is too harsh a judgement, I challenge him to move to the online payment model and start charging £10 per download. I doubt if there would be many buyers. I’m sure he is an amenable fellow, but writers are ten a penny and that state of affairs should continue. He’s hardly Bernard Levin is he?

  • FrankS2

    Who subbed this?!

    • Fraser Evan

      At the end he notes “This piece was published without going through a sub editor. I rest my case.”

  • FrankS2

    As a former grumpy (and undervalued) old sub, I do agree. I wonder if it was my lack of Latin that finally did for me!

  • Bert3000

    Good subeditors are worth their weight in gold, but a really good subeditor would have told you to stop trying to show off with latin quotes.

  • Gavin

    Also, sub editor, sub-editor or subeditor. Call in a top sub!

    • Fencesitter

      I like the hyphenated version, but it seems to have been dropped by a lot of users, including Oxford Dictionaries.

      • Fencesitter

        Here’s a possible rationale from the Guardian’s style guide:

        Our style is to use one word wherever
        possible. Hyphens tend to clutter up text (particularly when the
        computer breaks already hyphenated words at the end of lines). This is a
        widespread trend in the language: “The transition from space to hyphen
        to close juxtaposition reflects the progressive institutionalisation of
        the compound,” as Rodney Huddleston puts it, in his inimitable pithy
        style, in his Introduction to the Grammar of English.

        ideas and new concepts often begin life as two words, then become
        hyphenated, before finally becoming accepted as one word. Why wait?
        “Wire-less” and “down-stairs” were once hyphenated, and some
        old-fashioned souls still hyphenate e-mail.

        Words such as
        chatroom, frontbench, gameplan, housebuyer and standup are all one word
        in our publications, as are thinktank (not a tank that thinks), longlist
        (not necessarily a long list) and shortlist (which need not be short).

        is no need to use hyphens with most compound adjectives, where the
        meaning is clear and unambiguous without: civil rights movement,
        financial services sector, work inspection powers, etc. Hyphens should,
        however, be used to form short compound adjectives, eg two-tonne vessel,
        three-year deal, 19th-century artist. Also use hyphens where not using
        one would be ambiguous, eg to distinguish “black-cab drivers come under
        attack” from “black cab-drivers come under attack”. A missing hyphen in a
        review of Chekhov’s Three Sisters led us to refer to “the servant
        abusing Natasha”, rather than “the servant-abusing Natasha”.

        not use hyphens after adverbs ending in -ly, eg a hotly disputed
        penalty, a constantly evolving newspaper, genetically modified food,
        etc, but hyphens are needed with short and common adverbs, eg
        ever-forgiving family, much-loved character, well-established principle
        of style (note, however, that in the construction “the principles of
        style are well established” there is no need to hyphenate).

        an adverb can also be an adjective (eg hard), the hyphen is required to
        avoid ambiguity – it’s not a hard, pressed person, but a hard-pressed
        one; an ill-prepared report, rather than an ill, prepared one.

        Use a hyphen in verbs where necessary to stop this kind of thing happening:

        told: don’t
        panic buy

        (While not panicking may well have been advisable, they had actually been told not to panic-buy.)

        Prefixes such as macro, mega, micro, mini, multi, over, super and under rarely need hyphens: examples are listed separately. Follow Collins when a word or phrase is not listed

        • DrSpinola

          The Guardian’s style guide? These days it’s restricted to articles about how to wear trousers and where to buy fair-trade quinoa.

  • Temporary ID

    “in 50 years time” (twice in the last paragraph) should be “in 50 years’ time”.

    • HookesLaw

      I know you are right and your comment is particularly apposite… and the anglo saxons may well have said something like, in 50 year-es time.
      But somehow – rephrasing it something like, in the time of 50 years, or, the time belonging to 50 years does not really look right.

      • Scott Burns

        Why not ’50 years hence’?

        • HookesLaw

          That’s still possessive isn’t it?
          Anyway I always promise myself never to get involved in apostrophe’s arguments’

          Meantime’s in other news’
          Kim Jong-un is now living on borrowed time… mark my word’s.

          • Temporary ID

            “Fifty years hence” contains no possessive (think of “50 years ago”, which also doesn’t).

            • Jennifer

              “Fifty years hence” does the job, but in fact so does “In fifty years”. There is no need for “time” to be tacked on in constructions like “in five days”, “in two weeks”, etc.

              • Temporary ID

                Quite right.

          • johnfaganwilliams

            apostrophe arguments

            • FrankS2

              Shoot leave’s and ‘eat’ them as Lynn Trus’s would of said.

          • post_x_it

            Why would it be possessive? “50 years hence” just refers to a time span of 50 years, not belonging to anything.

      • Temporary ID

        What is inevitable in the singular – “a year’s time” – must be inevitable in the plural.

    • FrankS2

      Why not just say “in 50 years”?

      • Temporary ID

        Another good solution.

Can't find your Web ID? Click here