Be grateful we're still a newspaper

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The Independent Online
AS THIS is the 2,000th issue of this newspaper, the management has decided to institute certain design changes in the layout. This is what you are being told. It's our birthday, so we are changing everything round to celebrate. That's what they have told me, anyway. It's our birthday, so we want you to write a right-hand page article from now on, instead of a left- hand page article.

This came as a bombshell to me, of course. I have been writing articles designed to go on the left-hand side of a newspaper spread for as long as I can remember. I won't go into the technical details of how it is so different from writing on the right; suffice to say that it's more difficult to write mock-Shakespearean verse over here, and that it is almost impossible to bring in a reference to Norman Lamont without seeming snide.

Anyway, after a series of emergency meetings (between me and my accountant, actually), a compromise was reached. I would do everything the paper asked me, but I would turn myself into a small company which would be able to take money directly from the Independent and pay it to my accountant as a salaried director.

'Hold on,' I said. 'Don't you mean to me as a salaried director?'

My accountant smiled mysteriously and recommended I trust him.

'Incidentally,' he said, packing his papers and preparing to move on to the BBC, where he is apparently being kept busy suggesting new financial arrangements for some of the governors, 'you know this business about the Independent having its 2,000th issue?'

'Yes.'

'And changing everything round?'

'Yes?'

'Well, it's not true.'

'What's not true? They're not changing things round, then?'

'Oh yes, time for all change. But it's not because of the 2,000th issue. Newspapers never do anything for sentimental reasons. They do things out of panic, fear, loathing, profit, yes, but not sentiment.'

'Well, if they're not doing it for sentimental reasons, why then?'

'It's because of Norman Lamont, actually.'

'] ?'

'I know, extraordinary, isn't it? But apparently the Independent management was extremely worried that in the Budget he might levy VAT on newspapers and books and so on. That would ruin most newspapers, of course. So they made contingency plans.'

'What sort of contingency plans?'

'To turn the Independent into something else.'

'To what?'

'Well, if there was going to be VAT on newspapers, it stood to reason the Independent would be better off being something not subject to VAT. Such as an educational trust.'

'The Independent was going to become an educational trust???'

'With a daily newsletter, yes. Called, by coincidence, the Independent.'

'So readers would have to be members before they could buy it?'

'Theoretically, yes. In fact, they would pay membership entrance fee as they bought the paper. Rather like a businessman in a strange town being given instant temporary membership of a nightclub.'

'I wouldn't know about that.'

'No. Nor would I'

'And that's why all these changes . . . ?'

'Yes. When H M Customs and Excise tried to levy VAT on the Independent, the paper would say, 'Ah, but we had a radical change two days after the Budget and we are no longer a newspaper; we are an educational trust newsletter'.'

'And Lamont didn't put VAT on papers?'

'No.'

'But they're going ahead with the changes anyway?'

'Yes.'

'Well, of all the . . . I wonder who came up with that particular crackbrained scheme?'

'Someone you know quite well,' said my accountant stiffly, 'and who has to get to the BBC double-quick - don't want Hussey in one of his moods, do we?'

'You?' I said. 'It's all down to you? That I now have to write on the right-hand side instead of . . . ?'

'Don't worry,' he said. 'I know this is all going to cause you a lot of aggro. But I've been giving some thought as to how we can make a bit of money out of the mental distress which these changes will cause you, and so I have drawn up a contingency plan to turn you into another company, with your wife incorporated into it as a registered nurse.'

'Nurse]' I said.

'And we'll be able to swing a lot of medical insurance on it - but look, don't worry about the details - I'll give you a ring later on this afternoon . . . .'

I haven't heard a word from him since. They must be keeping him pretty busy at the BBC.

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