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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Surely We Can Be Civil About This

National Post, 5 December 2002

On Tuesday, George W. Bush, the U.S. President, broke rank with other members of his administration and even his father on the issue of Iraq’s leader. Admittedly, the position in question was more about etiquette than politics, but it was still a major shift.

“The issue is whether or not Mr. Saddam Hussein will disarm like he said he would,” Bush told the crowd in Louisiana. “We’re not interested in hide-and-seek inside Iraq.”

Like other U.S. officials, the President has long referred to the Iraqi leader simply as “Saddam.” During the Gulf War, one rationale for sticking with “Saddam” was to avoid confusion with King Hussein of Jordan, a U.S. ally. Such variations in terminology may be useful for politicians, but more often than not they create major headaches for newspaper editors. Most papers, including the National Post and the Toronto Star, refer to “Saddam.” It is a practice some readers find intentionally disrespectful. Saleem Qureshi, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alberta, argues that the practice would be comparable to calling President Bush by his nickname, “Dubya.”

” ‘Mr. Hussein’ is far more appropriate,” Qureshi argues. “You can attack him, you can kill him, but you needn’t insult him.”

But Gerald Owen, the Post’s style maven, points out that “Hussein” is Saddam’s father’s name, not a family name. (Saddam’s family name is not commonly used anywhere in the Middle East.) Qureshi grants that this is technically true, though he points out that Saddam’s sons Qusay and Uday both go by the name “Hussein,” which might make it a family name in practice, if not in strict theory.

But even if he is to be called by his last name, should that be “Hussein” or “Mr. Hussein”? Should honorifics be bestowed universally if they are to be used at all, or are exceptions to be made?

Such a question was posed by an angry reader of The Globe and Mail last year who wrote to complain about the paper’s references to “Mr. bin Laden” and “Mr. Atta.”

“When will the honorifics stop for the terrorists?” the reader wanted to know.

The answer is maybe sometime around 2030. The Globe has a policy of awarding courtesy titles to everyone, including mass murderers, for at least a few decades after their confirmed deaths.

But other media outlets would answer the same question very differently. The Star, like the Canadian Press, doesn’t grant honorifics to anyone in its news stories. (Their obituaries are another matter: “Mr. bin Laden” might still make an appearance in the Star if the paper ever decides to publish his obituary.) The National Post’s practice has been more complex. On Sept. 11, 2001, this paper published a news story reporting that between 2,000 and 3,000 Arabs were “under the command of Mr. bin Laden.” It was the last time bin Laden would be extended such a courtesy in the Post’s news pages — and Mohammed Atta has never been awarded an honorific.

Given the atrocities these men have committed, disputes over newspaper naming etiquette might seem frivolous. But such controversies have a much broader significance, shedding light on the public’s changing attitudes toward public decorum. Throughout Canada and the world, news editors have been struggling to maintain a sense of fairness and proportion in reporting stories of horrendous crimes. Decisions about whether to use courtesy titles are often an important expression of a newspaper’s philosophy.

The controversy has a long history in journalism. According to Paul Rutherford, professor of history at the University of Toronto, early Canadian newspapers were acutely sensitive to the use of titles such as “Lord” and “Lady”; these honorifics “grew out of a sense not just of decorum but deference.” But politicians were rarely accorded such respect. In the late 19th century, which was the high-water mark of party journalism, newspapers referred simply to “George Brown” or “John A. MacDonald.” Rutherford chuckles over the fact the Toronto Globe “often referred to MacDonald simply as ‘The Old Corruptionist’ — which is hardly an honorific.”

But in the last century, as the media increasingly embraced an ideal of objectivity, the use of courtesy titles for figures in the news became commonplace. There were exceptions, of course, and these grew bewilderingly complex. Magazines, which often prized an author’s individual voice, shied away from such formal constructions. Arts pages and book reviews rarely used them. Celebrities, criminals and sports figures almost never enjoyed courtesy titles.

“There were just so many inconsistencies that we were forced to reconsider the issue,” says Peter Buckley, the former general news editor at the Canadian Press. In the mid-1980s, CP became the first Western news agency to expunge courtesy titles from its stories. “It was a painful experience for many people,” says Buckley, particularly when it came to writing obituaries for respected and well-loved individuals.

Throughout the 1990s, other North American media outlets quietly began to drop courtesy titles from their stories. Two years ago, the Associated Press dispensed with the practice. Very few newspapers, apart from The Globe and Mail and The New York Times, grant them universally. A common compromise adopted by newspapers such as the National Post and The Independent of London is to grant courtesy titles to individuals charged with a crime, but to strip them of their titles after they have been convicted. Thus, the names of Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo appear without honorifics in the Post, while in the Globe one can still find constructions such as “Ms. Homolka testified that Mr. Bernardo strangled the girls with a ligature,” which appeared in a Globe story several years after Bernardo’s conviction.

But some media analysts are critical of such compromises. According to John Miller, the director of newspaper journalism at the Ryerson School of Journalism, “the purpose of setting a style is to make it consistent through a paper. If you begin to make more and more exceptions, the results are inevitably complicated and inequitable. What happens when someone who has been convicted of a crime has his sentence overturned?”

Even Post columnist Robert Fulford wishes honorifics would simply be done away with. “I say eliminate Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss. They clog the prose and make it ungainly. This may be the only principle on which I agree with the Toronto Star.”

But the Post’s Owen insists there is a good reason why courtesy titles should not be eliminated: “Some degree of courtesy and decorum is valuable in public life, especially for a newspaper that goes in for a certain measure of controversy. And referring to a last name doesn’t function as normal speech — it’s the kind of thing one hears in boys’ schools.”

Whatever one thinks of the practice, it’s clear it can lead to awkward situations. On at least a few occasions, The New York Times has referred to punk rockers Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols as “Mr. Vicious” and “Mr. Rotten.” (It is a myth, however, that they have ever seriously referred to pop singer Meat Loaf as “Mr. Loaf.”)

Probably the best argument for extending courtesy titles to even the most barbaric individuals was given by Bill Borders, a senior editor at The New York Times. “It’s a matter of our civility,” he told a reporter, “not theirs.”