Letter from the editor

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THIS newspaper is often asked to back causes and sponsor events. Most of the time we are under no illusion: we are wanted because our name can lend lustre to a pretty dismal occasion. We were delighted, though, to lend our support to two events in the past few days: the alternative Asia-Europe summit of human rights organisations designed to embarrass the gathering of Asian and European leaders in London; and Student Choices, the conference on higher education and the crisis facing students and institutions as they grapple with the fee system.

Together they summed up The Independent at its best: irreverent; pointed; challenging; sending-up self-importance and highlighting those issues that really matter, such as freedom of expression and access to education.

In the case of the alternative summit, while the leaders posed for pictures and were wined and dined by Tony Blair, we were backing the democracy movements in their countries. At the education conference, I stressed our commitment to higher education - witness our exclusive coverage of the annual UCAS listings of still vacant places on courses. I also listened as Baroness Blackstone, the education minister, gave the keynote address. Despite record numbers entering higher education, said the minister, "not all young people have the same choice. Although 54 per cent of young people from professional backgrounds and managerial homes go on to higher education, only 17 per cent of those from semi-skilled and unskilled backgrounds do so. We cannot tolerate such disparity."

Of course, but as I listened to her, I could not help thinking that the Government has a lot to answer for. Lady Blackstone said her department was monitoring the fall in applications from mature students, which she attributed to an improving labour market, a decline in people without qualifications and a rise in part-time courses which are not included in UCAS figures. I am not so sure: applications from mature students are down a massive quarter on last year. Surely, tuition fees are mainly to blame?

ON Tuesday evening, as I journeyed home, I allowed myself a satisfied smile. The following day's paper was full of excellent things: Jeremy Laurance exposing the tobacco companies as having conned smokers with claims about the safety of "low tar" cigarettes; more on Bill Clinton's alleged affairs and Alastair Campbell's discomfort over his boss's cosying with Rupert Murdoch; a great read on the tragic life of Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor and a new column confronting issues affecting the ethnic minorities from Randeep Ramesh. Pats on the back all round.

On Wednesday morning, I came in to find we had more readers' complaints than I have ever experienced. Letters, e-mails, phone calls - they made their anger plain. Our sin? We had repeated Tuesday's cryptic crossword in Wednesday's paper. An error easily made in these days of hi-tech production - but an error nevertheless. We tried to placate callers by faxing them the puzzle they missed and promising to run two crosswords in Thursday's paper, but for some this was not good enough. One caller was hysterical - to a degree that made me realise we really had deprived him of a daily friend or fix. The next time I leave the office content with our lot, I will make one last check on the crossword. I promise.

WHAT we could have said, but didn't, when people rang to complain about the lack of new clues for one down and two across, was "April Fool!" We played two jokes on readers this year: we "revealed" that a Cabinet committee was proposing replacing hereditary peers with ordinary people, chosen at random, like jury service; and we "disclosed" the latest innovation to hit rugby, a ball that flashes when kicked through the uprights. I felt a twinge of guilt in case readers fell for them and made sure we had done enough to indicate they were a spoof. When the night desk said reporters from The Times and Daily Mail had been on, saying they had been asked to follow up our very good story about the House of Lords my heart leapt. Got 'em!