Last week two news outlets quoted sections of an email by a Conservative MP to his party’s chair. They blanked with asterisks the middle letters of a five-letter word.

Here is the extract from an email by Karl McCartney, MP for Lincoln, as shown on a Sky News broadcast and quoted by the Daily Mail online. It was released the day before the Conservative Party was fined for breaking rules on electoral spending. CCHQ is the Conservative Campaign Headquarters.

We didn’t create this mess, the clever d***s at CCHQ did…

Asterisking is not new. It has been ridiculed since at least the middle of the 19th century. Charlotte Brontë made fun of it in her preface to her sister’s Wuthering Heights:

The practice of hinting by single letters those expletives with which profane and violent persons are wont to garnish their discourse, strikes me as a proceeding which, however well meant, is weak and futile.  I cannot tell what good it does — what feeling it spares — what horror it conceals.

Quite.

One of the weirdnesses of this is that there is no horror behind these asterisks. The phrase “clever dicks” is not obscene, vulgar or even a tiny bit rude. It is a bit of slang that wouldn’t offend the sensibilities of Mary Poppins. If it did, so would Dick van Dyke. And Dick Turpin, Mr Dick and every other Tom, Dick and Harry.

So why did Sky News and the Daily Mail online adopt a weak and futile policy to conceal a non-existent, unidentifiable horror?

A charitable answer, which I think is wrong, is that they wanted to protect the sensibilities of their readers.

More likely they saw it as a way of adding extra drama to their report. They wanted to heighten the emotional tone. Asterisking the quote peps it up. It gives the impression of an angrier, more foul-mouthed outburst.

There is a lot wrong with that. Charlotte Brontë’s objection still stands: it does no good. More importantly, it misreports the email. It instantly conveys the  impression that the MP’s language was vulgar, profane and out of control. Since it wasn’t, the coy asterisks are worse than pointless. They are inaccurate, and arguably a serious misrepresentation.