Letter from the editor

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Alert! BSE in bones shock ... and what do the good people of Britain do? They pour out to the butchers and stock up on ribs, T-bone steaks, and so on. Why is this so pleasing? Partly, perhaps, because of the two- fingers-to-officialdom that it represents. Week by week, we get more and more information on possible health threats - on yesterday's front page, for example, we reported on gelatine. It is the job of government to tell us, and help us find our way through the maze of conflicting scientific evidence. Free and objective information, uncluttered by commercial interests, is a new human right.

But it isn't the role of government then to force us to change our behaviour. That kind of thinking is statist impertinence. In the case of beef, anyone who cares to buy a newspaper knows almost as much about the likely risks as any expert. Most of us are able to come to a personal decision about whether the enjoyment of certain steaks is outweighed by the anxiety about the horrible death coming if you get CJD. So why the bans? Presumably because ministers think that otherwise they, and not the consumer, might be held responsible for any deaths. But again, why? We don't ban cigarettes, motor-scooters or Japanese whisky.

Mind you, where I think the Government could help is with risk-assessment education. Most of us find it exceptionally hard to separate our vivid apprehension of a particular fate - being attacked by sharks, or dying of lung cancer - from the mathematical likelihood of it happening. Were we properly conscious of risks and odds, it would have more effect on our behaviour than any health education programme. On the other hand, it would also mean that far fewer of us would play the National Lottery.

Do newspapers matter? We have had two small victories to chalk on the fuselage this week, I think.

First, the decision of Lord Chadlington to resign as chairman of the Royal Opera House, an honourable and personal one, was only taken after the Department of Culture had absorbed the views of this, and several other newspapers, and decided that his position was difficult to sustain.

Second, the small change of heart on the subject of museum charges would certainly not have happened had we, and others (notably the London Evening Standard) not banged on angrily about it, publishing letters from artists and so on. But that issue, in particular, is not fully resolved. A national campaign to preserve and extend free gallery and museum access is urgently required.

Apologies corner. It was a ghastly mistake, made worse by the fact that it has happened once before. In an early edition of yesterday's paper, Thursday's letters were repeated. The mistake was spotted quickly and corrected, but that doesn't make it better for those of you who got the early edition. Last time round, someone rather charmingly wrote in pointing it out, and concluding: ``If you are short of material, please feel free to use this letter more than once.''

It's no joking matter, though. I owe you an explanation. The explanation is that the person editing the letters gave them the wrong computer catchline. They were then pulled on to the page, at which point our entire computer system crashed. Panic. By the time we looked at paper copies of the pages hurriedly sent to the print sites, it was too late. We have a system to stop it happening but two people messed up. They are very sorry. So am I.

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