COPYTAKERS were like lovers. If you found a good one you tried to keep her. You'd long for her to answer your phone call, for her voice to be the one purring soothingly into your ear. You'd pine for her when she was away. And after you'd been together for another quick, satisfying session you'd leave her with the sort of phrase Bogart might have whispered to Bacall: "Thanks. Now please make sure the lads at the sports desk get a look at what you've got. Bye then."

 

A sportswriting colleague of mine on another paper is a charming old devil when he's on the phone to "copy". It's rare enough to come across anyone filing their football reports to a paper the old-fashioned way these days; we're all slaves to the laptop now. But I sit beside this fine fellow at Ibrox and Parkhead and every other Saturday I have a ringside seat to hear a reporter practising a forgotten art. He calls up his office and pours out the aural equivalent of flowers and chocolate. "How are you today? Really? Oh that's good/terrible. Been busy this afternoon? This one won't take long. Ready to go? Sure now?" etc etc.

 

This is the skilled wooing of a veteran, a man who knows that a harmonious relationship with a good copytaker will dissolve the stress from a job while fraught dealings with a bad one means anxiety, timewasting, repetition, frustration, mistakes, and an angrily slammed phone and swearing when it's all over.

Besides, all seasoned reporters know their fate is in the copytaker's hands. She (in my experience they were nearly always females) can mishear some perfect, carefully-crafted phrase and type in something else entirely. This is a silent, unseen assassination because the poor hack has no way of knowing that his dictation has been slightly corrupted. If the mistakes make it into the paper it won't be the copytaker who is teased about it for days, weeks, or even years. It won't be the sub-editor who failed to spot the error who gets it in the neck for being a clutz. It'll be the reporter whose name is on the story. Yours truly.

There was the time a Saturday evening sports paper, put together at 200mph to be sold on the streets about an hour after the football was finished, had been given a match report explaining how "Dalglish beat three defenders and then shot high over the bar". Unfortunately readers were left with an altogether different image as the copytaker replaced the "o" with an "a" in the printed version.

I still have a yellowing, nearly 20-year-old clipping from the day my first paper, The Inverness Courier, carried a small personal advertisement in its livestock section for "2 beautiful Highland bollocks, 1 blond, 1 red, ideal attraction around Hotels and Parks". That might have been a simple typing error but I prefer the idea of the ad being phoned in and an inexperienced and/or inattentive copytaker putting it through as perfectly acceptable.

I was lucky. I'll confess to sometimes hanging up when the "wrong" copytaker answered the call, in the hope that one of the better ones would pick up the phone if I immediately dialled again. But usually me and copytakers got on just fine. Whenever either of us made a mistake, and plenty of them got through over the years, it was never significant enough to haunt me.

Well, maybe once. There shouldn't have been any need for a copytaker on the night of October 7, 2000, but I should have seen the danger signs. I was covering San Marino versus Scotland in a Euro 2002 qualifying match and Scotland were cocking things up again, which meant "crisis" stories and a lot more work and hassle for those of us out there.

San Marino's football ground is basically a patch of hillside in northern Italy. It was a Saturday night game so the printing presses were being held until my match report was in for the first edition. There was no electricity in the press box. And no press box. But I did have a functioning laptop with enough juice in the battery to see me through a match report on Scotland's blundering, hapless attempts to cope with a team of waiters, teachers and office staff.

Or so I thought, the stupid git that I was. It was around the 70th minute, just as Scotland finally scored their opening goal, that my laptop packed in. No "low battery" warning. No flashing red light. Just instant, total closedown and 80 per cent of a wonderful, award-winning match report lost forever. I've had better moments.

There was only time for a copytaker to bail me out. And so she did, taking down my improvised, making-it-up-as-I-went-along attempt to salvage a match report without fuss and seeing me over the finishing line just in time for deadline. I included line about being in a small, leafy stadium which had hardly "known great drama". All in all, I was quite pleased with myself.

On arriving back home in Scotland the next day I picked up the paper and read a 1000-word report which said: "The San Marino ground, lined by huge hedges and hardly a venue which has known great grammar..."

Fair do's. Listening to my panicky words tumble through the phone line, that was probably a Freudian slip by the copytaker.
There wasn't a single word dictated in my favourite copytaking anecdote. Football hacks had a terrible time making contact with home from the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina. It was an almighty effort just to get a phone connection back to their offices. The wait could take an hour or more (no mobiles in those days, so they had to wait wherever the phone was). When the connection was eventually established it was as precious as gold.


Alastair Macdonald was the Aberdeen P&J's man in The Pampas. Alastair, one of the great gentlemen of the press corps, was ready to file his story to a copytaker. He had made his call, waited and waited and waited, and then finally heard the click of his connection as he was put through to the P&J's switchboard in the distant Granite City.
After a relieved sigh he settled himself to finally speak and said: "Hello, Alastair Macdonald..."The receptionist said: "Oh I'm sorry. Alastair's in Argentina."
And she hung up.

 

Michael Grant, Football Writer, The Times