Media Types: Paper gods with a licence to bore: The leader writer

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The Independent Online
HERE they are, every day, saving you the trouble of thinking for yourself. Expert commentators on everything from Africa to Aids, Bosnia to the Budget, Clinton to the Church of England. Name any subject you can think of and the leader writer will produce the mot juste, the considered assessment, the Voice of Reason.

Observation shows them to be overwhelmingly male, probably because women have more useful things to do than stand on paper soap boxes. Not for the leader writers the grubby business of hard news, or even the comparatively refined world of features; they are the still small voice of calm speaking through the earthquake, wind and fire.

They would be mightily offended if they were likened to rent-a-quote talking heads on television or members of the public being vox popped. They are learned - an Oxbridge background is virtually compulsory - omniscient, full of wise saws and modern instances (they adore an apt literary reference). Whatever the argument at dinner parties, they will eventually murmur: 'I really must put you all right on this.'

Well, something like that. In fact, when you think about it, it's a funny old way to earn a living, even allowing for the fact that journalism is no profession for grown-ups. Anonymous in a world of by-lines, with a permanent licence to pontificate, it's like being an upmarket pub bore.

Editorials invariably betray themselves in the opening words. Some examples, with attendant analysis:

Until yesterday, few people had heard of Zemgogul . . . This includes the leader writer, who only became aware of its existence at morning conference. Since then he has found out (a) where it is; (b) how to spell its president's name; (c) its GDP and (d) vaguely what is suddenly happening there. He will now tell Zemgogul exactly how it should conduct its affairs.

Once again, we return to the subject of . . . We've been rabbiting on about this for ever, but nobody takes a blind bit of notice. Nor will they.

Maastricht . . . Any leading article that begins with the name of this town, or includes it in the first sentence, has a reader-interest period measured in seconds. Similarly: Common Agricultural Policy/ERM/John Selwyn Gummer.

Even now, the Government can change course . . . Westminster obsesses the leader writer, who touchingly believes that Annie's Bar speaks of little else but that morning's editorials.

There is an irresistible temptation to take a sly look at . . . Beware. This is going to be an attempt at humour.

Children can be amazingly perceptive . . . The leader writer's nine-year-old daughter is a precocious brat.

As G K Chesterton once remarked . . . When all else fails, plagiarise. Chesterton is actually a bit downmarket; most leader writers will acknowledge no author inferior to Wilde.

Mr Paul Gascoigne (colloquially known as 'Gazza') . . . This one has been written under protest and the leader writer would die rather than admit familiarity with popular culture.

The Women's Institute is an undervalued force for much that is valuable in our national life . . . It's August.

But/On the other hand/However/ . . . This appears at the halfway point of many editorials, and is followed by arguments entirely the opposite from those in the first half, at the end of which the writer tears along the perforation and disappears up his own contradictions.

Tabloid papers also carry leaders from time to time. The following generally appear in headlines of a type size you would have thought reserved for the Second Coming (the exclamation marks are mandatory):

You can see right through this rip-off] The editor has just received the bill for double-glazing his house.

Hop off you Frogs] France is defending its national interests.

Forget it, Fritz] Germany ditto.

It's pasta belief] Italy ditto.

No way, Jose] Spain ditto.

Land of hope and glory] Britain ditto.