10 reasons Wanky Balls cockup may not be lazy journalism

Last Saturday (7.08.10) the Independent printed – oh horror oh horror! – an error. Rather a funny error, though. For anyone who hasn’t had wanky balls on their lips today (sorry, that one nicked from The Twitchhiker), the clip claims that The Big Chill was formerly known as the Wanky Balls festival. Evidence in the final par below from the original spotter.

Independent clip with the error on

Spotted and clipped by musician Kat Arney, who knows the organisers of The Big CHill

The misinformation was lifted from Wikipedia – which Kat also clipped and published on her blog post.

It’s a classic fact-check funny that has also garnered many a witty comment wherever it was blogged. Bitter Wallet‘s commentators, for example, started openly bragging about their Wiki fiddling:

I once changed Roy Keane’s middle name from Maurice to Sarah, and it remained thus for a fortnight. I also changed the bit about him “often seen walking his dog, Triggs” subtly to “wanking”.

For ages Emily Bronte’s Wikipedia page kept reverting to a version which claimed she was buried with her pet monkey, Dave.

Etc etc. Warning: Depart now if you just want to enjoy the funny and skip my imminent rant.

But there were also many calls of ‘lazy journalism’ as well as the usual journalist haters who tend to lurk in comment sections. And, to be honest, they sucked all the fun out of the Wanky Ballsup, causing me to be a ranting subbing funsucker in return.

Of course, they could well be RIGHT. Someone lifted it from the Wikipedia page after all.


As a sub-editor who was assigned to fact check every tiny detail for about 20 years, and who no longer does this for a living because of the advent of the lovely World Wide Web, I also call ‘lazy commenting’. I can think of plenty of excuses other than laziness for the appearance of Wanky Balls.

Such as…

Subbing cuts
Anyone who follows newsprint’s woes will know that editorial staff have been slashed and those who remain are often swamped with the extra workload. Entire subs teams have been let go in some cases and national newspaper subbing outsourced to other countries.

Subs brain drain
Freelance rates for sub-editors have been static or falling for a few years, work has been drying up and good subs have been moving on so that they can pay their mortgage. Budget cuts = ever-shrinking subs desk = fewer (not less!) factcheckers.

Web-first publishing
In web-first environments, reporters may have to sub their own copy whereas traditionally the sub-editing team would have checked the facts. Proofing your own copy? Cue potential Wanky Ball errors.

Human error
(sh)It happens.

Sub with a grudge
I remember a whole subbing team banding together after being sacked to code naughties into the captions.

Bored sub
As above but with a sense of humour.

Untrained sub
This is so going to sound like an old fart but back in the day you had to learn your subbing chops through an accredited apprenticeship or training course. I can’t tell you the amount of subs I’ve met who say they’ve just shimmied over into subbing from writing. Hello? Media law? Understanding of a decent source? Not out of the realms of possibility that the chief shouted over to the rookie to ask if it he checked it and the rookie said yes to save embarrassment.

Untrained writer
Same same but likely to nick willy-nilly wanky balls off the internet, especially from that nice, handy, informative Wikipedia site. Good subs should be trained to spot such plagiarism; see my next excuse.

Luddite sub
With a grey head long stuck in print, he/she possibly has no idea that Wikipedia is a first port of call not a fact-checking end destination. It came up first in Google…

Deadline call
It looked suspect but just wasn’t worth holding up the presses for. Or more likely, the end sub saw it and thought there’s no way this got to me without being checked – it’s so OTT it must be true.

Of course, has anyone considered that it might actually be true, that Wanky Balls was an affectionate working title named by the wags behind it ? After all, many a silly or rude band name has been tried on for size by musicians before they picked the final winner.

So just to be sure I asked Kat Arney what her source was, and could it possibly be true on some level?

She replied:

I personally know Pete Lawrence, the founder of the Big Chill, and many people who’ve been involved in the festival since the very beginning. So I can categorically tell you it’s incorrect.

So I checked. Happy now? Although perhaps we should phone the organisers to be 100% sure and get it direct from the horse’s mouth.

You’ll have to do it, though; there’s a huge spider that just legged it under my sofa (I’m serious), and imma gonna have to jump to safety.

Now BIG SPIDER – that is a proper excuse for Wanky Balls.


24 responses to “10 reasons Wanky Balls cockup may not be lazy journalism

  1. Whenever I hear that something awesomely cool on the Internet is a fake or whathaveyou I find I don’t really care. The truth or otherwise of the situation is irrelevant. It’s the funnies (or whatever emotion it evokes) that counts.

    Objective truth is important but only in its place. More often the story is the thing. That’s what the great hoaxers understand.

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  3. The claim was “lazy journalism”, not “lazy sub-editing”. Why was the journo in question harvesting information from Wikipedia in the first place? Or is that what journalism is – write a load of shit that may or may not be true and expect the sub-editor to pick out the errors? (That is, when you’re not copying and pasting press releases and calling them articles.)

  4. Sub-editors = journalists.

  5. Pingback: Subs’ Standards: A sub-editor’s defence of Wanky Balls | Journalism.co.uk Editors' Blog

  6. As Ed rightly says, this was lazy on the writer’s part. I’m concerned that journalists at newspapers like The Independent are using information from Wikipedia in such a fashion.

    It may seem innocuous, but it is lazy.

  7. Sorry, but the mistake is indefensible.

  8. Be fair, Ed – it’s quite possible that the error didn’t originate with the journalist. Could be that the copy provided wasn’t quite long enough to fill the space, so the sub chucked in an apparently relevant factoid to pad it out?

  9. As Katchoo said, sub-editors are journalists. Some of the other commenters failed to notice, or care, and talked about ‘journalists’ when specifically they meant ‘reporters’. Forget Wikipedia; that’s the sort of sloppy inaccuracy that leads to mistakes appearing in copy.

  10. No actually Tim, I know the photographer who took the image and the piece down the side – bar the last para obv – is his original caption, some div just stuck that bit on the bottom. Poor Leon he’s getting the blame and hes not even a journo, hes a snapper!!

  11. Desperately trying to defend the indefensible here, methinks. The charge is “lazy journalism”, not “general laziness”, so that strjkes out Nos 1, 2, 4, 8, 9 and 10. No 3 is irrelevant, since this error occurred in the print edition. If it was either Nos 5 or 6, that could be viewed as industrial sabotage, aka “wrecking” if you’re an old skool trade unionist or “gross professional misconduct” if you’re a boss.
    As for No 7: words fail me. You may be an “old fart” who believes subs can be trained in a classroom, but I’m an even older fart who “shimmied over into subbing from writing”. Too many journalism “schools” divide their trainees into reporters and subs: the latter are usually those they think won’t cut it as the former. Good subs are born, not made, and I would much rather put my faith in a “shimmier” who came into subbing because they found it suited them better than being a reporter than one who had never been a reporter at all. What media law has to do with this matter baffles me, but may just be a result of your desperation to come up with a list.
    Bottom line: The sub is the last line of defence between the reporter and the reader. No top 10 list of excuses cuts much ice when it’s obvious they haven’t done their job.

  12. @Ed
    I think some writers do expect subs to pick up their errors. To me, sub-editing is part of journalism – at least it was part of my journalism training.

    @Paul and others
    Yes, any mistake is indefensible but we do live in an imperfect world and I just wanted to highlight some of the things that go on on a subs’ desk. Subs, though some may disagree, are human too. 🙂

    Having seen people repeat and retweet the mistaken blame attributed to Leon, I tried to set the record straight. The offender deleted his tweet but too late for all the retweets – I think those who RT’d should also RT a retraction. Total ‘pot kettle black’ scenario.

    Thanks for commenting (though not for the personal jibes, why do people do that?!).

    Some of the pressures listed are serious and have serious effects on the quality of work carried out; others were meant more humorously. I did actually point out that the calls of ‘lazy journalism’ could be RIGHT.

    But I’m not sure where you are coming from on some of your points:

    “The charge is “lazy journalism”, not “general laziness”, so that strjkes out Nos 1, 2, 4, 8, 9 and 10.”

    In what way are those not related to journalism? Are you just defining journalism as reporting? Anyway, journalists are humans and can cockup due to reasons other than laziness – hence the defence above.

    Good subs are born not made.
    As much a sweeping generalisation that, as pt7.

    I must admit my generalisation there – and that I have met three subs who came from ‘Born to sub’ school. Two of them became subs at my suggestion. Still they needed training in the job, especially the legal aspects. They didn’t have a natural talent for spotting those risks. For training, perhaps I should have added ‘or understanding of the role’.

    So, sorry if I offended you there. But have met many more subs who cocked up far worse than Wanky Balls because they didn’t have any training or understanding of the job.

    Desperation to come up with a list
    I can’t deny that there was an urge to round it up to 10. :p

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  14. @RussSwan You don’t allow comments on your site – why?

    Anyhoo, I guess I’ll respond here: you’re having a laugh, surely. Bloggers are lazy not to republish Kat’s clipping rather than go get a copy of Saturday’s copy of the Independent and photograph their own clip? I don’t know where you live but it’s really not that easy to get hold of Saturday’s paper on a Tuesday at midnight. Plus, you do realise that the image used above both credits and links directly to Kat’s site?

    To me, the lazy thing would be if I just passed it off as my own picture – very easy. Or if I wrote a story based on reading it on the Bitter Wallets site where I first came across it, rather than tracing it back to the source and crediting Kat.

    But, well done dear, you linkbaited me.

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  17. As someone who had a grossly in accurate and fairly nasty piece published about themselves in relation to a criminal trial I was glad the newspaper in question also got my name wrong. Rofl. Shame it had photos but we can’t get it all our own way…

    And just for the lulz, I’ve subverted many inter-wiki links, they look plausible in the edit revision but if you click on them you would immediately laugh out loud at where you ended up. They have all been there for many years and not a single one has been corrected.

  18. BTW before anyone says “libel” or similar, sometimes it makes more sense to just let things die 😉

    It was very eye opening as to just how wrong news can be though.

    People should treat newspapers like wikipedia.

  19. I’ve also discovered if you throw in a bunch of phony but not easy to verify references to support outrageous edits in Wikipedia, they generally take quite a long time (weeks to months) to be corrected.

    And if anyone says I’m evil for doing it, yes maybe. But most of the edits are either outrageous propaganda that no sane person would take seriously or simply subtle comedy that would make anyone with a sense of humour laugh.

    I’ve been saying for years people should treat newspapers like Wikipedia, so it was very amusing to discover not only should they treat them like Wikipedia, they even copy it.

  20. Am I allowed to give tips for wiki-fiddling here? 😀

    [comment deleted]

  21. @Michael You drove me to delete the last tip. Being a sub-editor I’m pro-accuracy you see. 🙂

    I’m not against wiki-fiddling for the occasional bit of ‘wanky balls’ type fun – it’s sub-editor or writer beware always on Wikipedia. But I don’t see the point of being genuinely misleading and I’m not sure what pleasure you’d get from it except possibly a feeling of being subversive? Anyway, each to his or her own, hence the deletion.

    I’ve also wiki-fiddled once as research for my degree. I changed the Wikipedia slogan from ‘The encyclopedia anyone can edit’ to the rather more posh ‘…one can edit’. I wanted to test how long would it take for my innocuous edit to be corrected? Answer: five hours.

    Other students made outrageous claims on obscure pages which took days to revert. It was a valuable lesson in not trusting Wikipedia as a source but as a first point of call.

  22. Michael Mouse

    Your fiddle barely counts as wiki-fiddling (though I’m glad it helped with your degree): “Whilst” you changed the absolute meaning the interpreted meaning would no doubt come across the same, albeit with the proviso one needs a plumb in their mouth to be worthy of editing!

    Totally agree on Wikipedia still being useful as a port of call, people just need to check the citations/references. I’m of half a mind as to universities issuing declarations against them (Wikipedia), because it strikes me as a student with an independent mind would ignore such an instruction and do the sensible thing anyhow.

    On the other hand, I didn’t go to university and since so many do nowadays, there must be a large portion who would in fact just copy Wikipedia (including “one” suspects the independent hack) . Oh and I watched Brass Eye.

    As for what pleasure is to be gained? Subtle comedy is the pleasure of making others laugh, if they catch the meaning. The propaganda is intended to make people think. As far as I’m concerned the points I’m making are true, the over-the-top nature is because people respond to “headlines” (and the way views are delivered), not facts or logic, unless you’re a sub-editor maybe 😀 Most people don’t question certain things about the status-quo enough. Since my propaganda is inevitably of a right-wing nature and most of my political views are left, perhaps I feel the need to promote them that much more?

    The link subversion is also with the intent to make for comedy, simply to make people laugh. It’s very obvious when clicking on them you’ve been misdirected, but not at all obvious when reading the edit revision.

    Maybe I should have been a journalist, I’d love to name which newspaper(s) for but there’s always the worry you work for them and I wouldn’t want to offend 😀

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