Leading article: The Royal Mail's glorious failure

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The Independent Online

Heroes come in all jobs and guises. But one unmistakable hero for our times is Roger Annies, the postman from south Wales who has been subjected to a disciplinary hearing by the Royal Mail for having the effrontery to inform the householders on his round how they could reduce the amount of junk mail he was forced to push through their letter boxes.

He composed his own circular - complete with tear-off slip - which they could return to the local delivery office demanding an end to the advertising material the Royal Mail calls "door-to-door" items. To do so would reduce the flood of unsolicited fliers which his employers are planning to increase. It would also reduce paper usage and help to save the environment. Some 70 of his householders filled in the slip and Mr Annies was promptly charged with "misconduct" by his employers and suspended from his job. In one way, it's not hard to see why.

The Royal Mail delivers a quarter of all the UK's unaddressed mail. In 2005 it shoved three billion bits of junk mail through the nation's letter boxes. In a year when the number of first-class letters fell by more than 5 per cent, it needs to make good the revenue lost. Junk mail, it argues, keeps British stamp prices among the lowest in Europe. And if the Royal Mail didn't do it, it argues shiftily, someone else would.

In making such an example of Mr Annies, however, the Royal Mail has been hoist by its own petard. What could have remained a little local difficulty has escalated into a glorious national cause. In fact, the Royal Mail already allows people to say no to junk mail. It just doesn't advertise the fact, and omits to mention it on the company website. Worse still, it has been making out, quite erroneously, that those who register for the opt-out risk not receiving public health warnings such as how to deal with an outbreak of bird flu or Home Office advice on terrorist threats.

That kind of implicit blackmail has now been exposed. Royal Mail will now have to be honest and simply tell customers who wish to avoid junk post what they need to do. They could send out a blanket mailing to inform the nation. It is one piece of unsolicited post no one would object to receiving.