Possibilities (2007)


May 14, 2007 at 4 PM

BBC Accused In Headline Bad Writing Claim

This has to be a serious contender for one of the worst-written headlines ever: “21/7 accused in Muslim bias claim”. Where to begin? What does it mean? A good headline should draw you into a story by piquing your interest, not by making you totally confused.

The perpetrator is the BBC News web site, whose domestic arm I’ve criticized before. Not only do they regularly publish stinkers like this, but I’ve also noticed they really seem to adore “set to” — as in “BBC set to receive criticism about its headlines”. In almost every case, the word “set” could be omitted and the clarity would be the same. “BBC to receive criticism about its headlines.” Or “set to” could be left out entirely and the tense of the important verb changed: “BBC receives criticism about its headlines.”

Is there some reason for avoiding directness? The headline editors should take a page from the book of the lawyer who listened to the “21/7 accused”.

Cross examining him, Nigel Sweeney QC, prosecuting, responded by saying: ‘That is total and utter tripe.’


Headline writing is an art, of course. Some think the era of Google means that headline writers can’t afford to be as creative as they used to be in the days of “Headless body in topless bar”. That’s no excuse for “set to” or the other monstrosity above, but there is a logic in writing headlines that explain the story succinctly and mention the key names or details. Fortunately despite that trend, it seems that the art isn’t quite dead yet.