A time to apologise for headlines…

DOES it matter if children have trouble reading a traditional clock? It does if you are the editor of the Sun, who this morning leads his newspaper with a story alleging that schools are removing “old clocks” from exam halls as children “can’t tell the time”.

The front page features a clock face overlaid with the words “THICK TOCK”.

Having spent plenty of time reading and writing headlines, I’d say that one is a classic, but not in a good way. It will have seemed clever at the time, taking tick-tock and adding the letter ‘h’ to produce a punning headline that sums up the story.

So what’s wrong with that? In terms of wordplay, nothing much, I guess. It’s just that the Sun is shouting that our children are thick. I think that’s offensive but, hey, that’s the problem with being a liberal softie – you just fall into the terrible habit of taking these things seriously.

The story, such as it is, is based on a teacher telling a conference that pupils do not have time for analogue watches as they rely on their mobile phones to tell the time. A-level and GCSE students are said to have complained that trying to read the clock wasted valuable time in exams and sometimes caused confusion about how long they had left.

Does it matter if schools replace old clocks with digital clocks? Not one bit is the sensible answer. But the Sun calls on an outraged Tory MP to fume a bit (other fulminating MPs are available).

Rob Halfon, who chairs the Commons Education Committee, chunters: “This should be an alarm call. All children should learn to tell the time traditionally. It’s incredibly important. It teaches them numbers, order and how the world works.”

The thing is, it doesn’t teach them how their world works. If they don’t wear watches and use their mobile phones, a clock face is alien to them.

Now I love a clock face and always wear a traditional watch. I don’t feel properly dressed without it, and it’s true that there is a sort of beauty in the simplicity of the minute hand and the hour hand.

But I’m not sure it’s about numbers so much as shapes. A glance at a traditional clock face lets you know the time because of the way the arms are arranged, and the numbers back that up.

But children who are confused by traditional clock faces aren’t thick; they just see the world differently.

Incidentally, do you think Mr Halfon really said, “This should be an alarm call” or were those words fed to him? People quoted in tabloid newspapers do sometimes end up speaking tabloid-ese.

Front-page headlines can be more offensive than the Sun’s pun about clocks, of course. Yesterday, the editor of the Daily Express told MPs that some of his newspaper’s front pages were “downright offensive”, made him feel “very uncomfortable” and had contributed to an “Islamophobic sentiment” in the media.

The Guardian ran with the headline: “Daily Express editor calls its front pages ‘downright offensive’” – a true reflection of the story, if a little cheeky.

Gary Jones only took over as editor of the Daily and Sunday Express a month ago, and the past front pages he was disparaging had been produced under a different editorial regime.

“Cumulatively, some of the headlines that have appeared in the past have created an Islamophobic sentiment which I find uncomfortable,” said Jones.

“It is my responsibility to ensure content is accurate and newspapers don’t look at stereotypical views that may or may not be around in the general public. I should be held to account and be answerable.”

Heavens, next thing you know the editor of the Mail will be saying that his front pages down the years have been corrosive and hateful. But don’t bet your clock on it.


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