Pearson Begins Quest to Collect the Best Copytaking Gaffes

Technology has caused many casualties in newsrooms – not least the banks of copytakers, who would take copy phoned in by roving reporters.

Essential as they were, copytakers are probably more fondly remembered for the howlers that appeared in print and kept tired hacks entertained over a post-shift beer or two.

With the introduction of email, laptops and mobile data connections there is now less chance of seeing such gems as 'the RAF Lookers Airshow' that appeared when a reporter's words were misheard or misunderstood down the phone line.

Now, Andrea Pearson – formerly a production journalist at the Sunday Herald and The Scottish Daily Express and now running PR agency – has embarked on a quest to record the best copytaking gaffes before they are forgotten.

Said Pearson: “Anyone that has ever worked in a newsroom will recognise that feeling you get when you look at the paper and spot some horror. We all laugh like idiots but secretly we are all thinking exactly the same thing – somebody’s going to get it in the neck today, thank Christ it is not me. It’s our own version of gallows humour.

“Although technology has brought many improvements into newspaper production there is a great fondness for that era in which such human effort was needed to get words from around the country to the breakfast table. There is something about the copytaker that epitomises that time. I hope we can gather some of these stories together before everyone who remembers them shuffles off into other professions or even retires.”

Among the examples already gathered are a story about Sergeant Andy Mason which became 'a sergeant and a mason', the grey seal cull of Orkney which became 'the Gracie Fields cull', and a sordid story of a Dundee man murdered in the French capital which was passed to the P&J newsdesk as 'a murder in the red light district of Harris'. 

There is also a snippet from The Inverness Courier, which carried a small personal advertisement in its livestock section for 'two beautiful Highland bollocks, one blond, one red'.

Pearson continued: “When I joined the Express in the mid-Nineties the then night editor, Kenny Campbell, solemnly warned me, along with some the other newbies, not to try to mimic the sub who was fired for spelling something out using the drop caps. No one in the magazine office had spotted it but several readers wrote in, revealing the words: ‘So you think it’s really good, yeah? You should try making the bloody thing up. It’s a real pain in the arse.’

“I found out only recently this was in fact Top Gear’s James May, years ago when he started out working as a sub on Autocar. I contacted Kenny Campbell again, now at the Metro in London, and was able to tell him where his own story had come from. The story itself had become famous long before James May had.

“Hopefully these copytaker stories will outlive us and continue to entertain. Even if we do have to keep patiently explaining to the students what a typewriter is.”

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