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What's in a name

Derek McMillan

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Sloppy journalism

Mark Twain used to say that a lie could be half way round the world while the truth was still getting its boots on. The Daily Mirror goes into hundreds of thousands of homes and it carries articles like the following:


By Vanessa Allen

CHILDREN called Liam, Paige and Chloe are likely to be troublemakers at school, according to teachers."

The headline and the first sentence contain the same lie and it is all downhill from there. Teachers? Which teachers?

Was Vanessa Allen quoting a survey of teacher opinion? No. She was quoting from a facetious thread on a bulletin board. This is not exactly scientific. Anyone can post on a bulletin board. Vanessa Allen does not know whether a single one of the posters is actually a teacher.

What she does know that this does not represent the views of "teachers" but of a few posters. Teachers do not prejudge pupils on the basis of their names: the statement is so obvious it would not need making were it not for such unprofessional conduct as that of Ms Allen.

As someone posted on the TES website:

"Not all Vanessas are disingenuous and lazy."

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Of course teachers as a group cannot be libelled, but McDonalds with their million dollar lawyers can drag their critics through the courts and criminals like Jeffrey Archer have made a pretty penny by suing for libel.

However there is some consolation. Opinion polls like the one by Mori http://www.wsta.org.uk/mori.htm show that people regard teachers, doctors and nurses as trustworthy whereas politicians and journalists come out at the bottom of the list. The same is true in polls conducted in Canada and Australia.

The differences are startling with 85% believing a teacher would tell them the truth, 13 percent believed the same about journalists and 19 percent about politicians.

Edited by Derek McMillan
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Hey, what’s all this libel talk?

I looked at the Daily Mirror article at and the TES Online page at http://www.tes.co.uk/2134485. It’s quite clear from the context of both these articles that it was a lighthearted discussion which should have been confined to coffee breaks in the privacy of a school staffroom rather than being aired in public – bearing in mind how easily parents might take offence at their children’s chosen names being slighted. Libel might come into question if both first name and surname were publicised in a public forum, but I don't think this happened.

I can recall such lighthearted discussions about names in school staffrooms going back many, many years, but we wouldn’t have made them public. One of my colleagues (back in the early 1970s) used to address every girl pupil as “Debbie”. “Why do you do that?” I asked. “They are all called Debbie”, he replied – and a glance at the class registers indicated that Debbie was indeed the most popular girl’s name in the school in which I was teaching at the time.

I think Emily is currently the most popular girl’s name and Jack the most popular boy’s name in England. Following England’s Ashes victory, watch out for a spate of Freddies…

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Yes it was a lighthearted discussion.

Instead of doing the job of a journalist which often involves serious research and at times personal risk, Vanessa Allen took this lighthearted discussion and pretended it was the opinion of "teachers".

Her article was sloppy and lazy journalism. The Telegraph, Times and Daily Mail follow-ups were even worse, they were only based on reading Vanessa Allen's article.

Nobody was libelled except the teaching profession as a whole but then we have been insulted by experts.

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I didn't read the headline as applying to ALL teachers, but in the context of the article I read it as applying to SOME teachers, namely those who contributed to the online discussion. This is the nature of headline language. If I read the headline "Firemen save family from blazing house" I would assume it referred to the firemen who achieved the rescue. If the headline were "Teachers win prize for outstanding professional performance" I would assume it referred to a group of teachers who won the prize rather than every teacher.

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