Check your fax

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The Independent Online
This column was nearly cancelled today. Space was needed to run a sensational piece which arrived yesterday afternoon. We had been waiting by the fax for a backbench Tory MP to file her thoughts on restoring historic Essex houses. She had warned us it would be a personal saga. And it was. "Nine naughty nights in LA" was set to take the sleepy August news world by storm. Then someone noticed that this fax originated in the offices of a small San Francisco scandal magazine. When we phoned, a puzzled and sleepy Tertius A Bormann answered. So here I am.

The Evening Standard, of course, went one better this week and actually printed an article by the son of the Tory Home Secretary (the first line goes: "I was three and a half during the Winter of Discontent") under the authorship of Mr Bryan Gould, former campaigns organiser for the Labour Party. Speaking from Jonah Lomu University in New Zealand, Mr Gould was incensed that anyone should confuse his criticism of Mr Blair with someone else's. After all, the 19-year-old neophyte was laying into Mr Blair for his lack of an ideology, while the venerable, experienced Gould was arguing that a far more ideological approach should be taken up by the Labour leader. As you can see - totally different.

John Prescott scented conspiracy. Funny, wasn't it, that this should just happen to involve the Home Secretary, a Tory newspaper and coincide with a campaign by the Tory party chairman? First the Zinoviev letter, now the Auckland fax.

You can see what John is getting at. It is one thing to blame the fax machine for creating the confusion. But it is quite another to imagine the subsequent phone conversationbetween Mr Gould and a senior Standard executive.

"Unusual piece, Bryan."

"Oh, do you think so?"

"Yes, very imaginative."

"Er, thanks, I suppose it is."

If only he had asked the Standard man what on earth he was talking about. Can you believe it? I can.

Such mistakes long predate the fax. Henry VIII contracted a marriage with a German princess on the basis of the wrong portrait. In error, he was shown Holbein's rendering of the young daughter of the then Home Secretary. In reality, Anne Of Cleves looked exactly like Bryan Gould.

Which lends credence to the Guardian's characteristically generous suggestion that this could have happened to anybody. By which they mean, of course, that it could easily happen at the Guardian. After all, accidents will happen.

But will they? Professor of Psychology Norman F Dixon, in his book Our Own Worst Enemy, examines the idea that disasters, catastrophes and accidents are random events. He concludes that "accidents are rarely accidental", and detects a number of common features.

The first is a tendency to set the conscious experience over the intuitive. They were expecting a fax about Tony Blair - they received one. Who cares if it's a bit odd? The second is "neural sloth" - relegation to far parts of the brain of habitual behaviour. Fred picks up the faxes, Jenny types them into the system, Agnes devises a headline. Each validates the other, without thought.

Finally comes the bending of awkward information to fit the presumptions of the receiver. So, Mr Gould's odd article seems to be written by a teenager? No problem! Let's give it the byline "Bryan Gould imagines himself as a first-time voter". Next week, Pamela Anderson thinks herself into the role of Health Secretary.

Professor Dixon also notes a key feature of military incompetence: it occurs more often in the absence of an enemy. TheStandard, with its monopoly of evening sales in London, hasnothing to keep it on its toes.

This newspaper, by contrast, has lots of competition, which is why you are unlikely to find John Lyttle campaigning about Victorian stained-glass windows while James Fenton shops for nipple-rings. All the best - Bernard Ingham.