My greatest mistake: Roger Alton, editor of 'The Observer

The masthead said "BRILLIANT" in large, bold letters right above "Queen Mother Dies"
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The Independent Online

My mistakes are manifold in journalism, in the fact that my whole record is one of stupefying incompetence. It started when I was at Oxford university and worked on the student newspaper. During the vacation, I came across a rather good story – someone had been sent down for taking drugs. So I looked into it some more and found that shoals of people had been sent down for taking drugs during the vacation. I suggested that we should do this as a second lead on the paper, but the editor at the time very sensibly thought that we should lead with my story.

It was such a great lead that it got the paper banned. Everyone protested but we were happy as we didn't have to do any work and could flog all our stories about the Duke of this and the Duchess of that to the Daily Mail and make lots of money. So we were all quite cheery about it.

But I have had a fantastic ability to miss stories. You know, you chuck away stories and then see them on the 10 o'clock news and think, "Jesus, how do I get out of that?" So you shift the blame on to someone, or say it was a foul-up by the Press Association and try to cover your tracks as best you can!

I remember when we got the scoop linking Peter Mandelson to the passport applications – a proper piece of journalistic hard work that has since won various scoop-of-the-year awards. It should have been our lead, but I wasn't sure quite how good the story was at the time and ran it as a basement on page 1, leading with Bush's inauguration as President. The next morning, I walked in to get the papers only to find that The Mail on Sunday had lead with the Mandelson story. Then, when old Mandy resigned on the following Wednesday, I certainly thought, "That was a killer basement."

When I was at The Guardian, I was always vilified for being tasteless and for generally letting the side down. One example springs immediately to mind, during my time here at The Observer. An American whom I respected greatly suggested that I take up this completely batty campaign idea, pre-millennium, to rename Heathrow airport "Blairport" – which wasn't a success. That was not a great piece of campaigning journalism...

Then, before the Queen Mother died, our magazine was running the 100 greatest ideas of the past 100 years. The masthead had just one word – "BRILLIANT" – in black on red and yellow. Then, of course, the Queen Mum died on the Saturday, so we had to pull the whole thing back and do a headline saying: "Queen Mother Dies". However, for technical reasons, I couldn't alter the masthead – which was the rather unfortunate "BRILLIANT" in large, bold letters right above "Queen Mother Dies". Thankfully, it only got out to our readers overseas, who probably all cancelled their papers in droves.

But my biggest mistake of all is probably that of being a terrible old right-winger trying to look after one of Britain's premier liberal papers.

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