LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
Here is a minor dilemma of the kind that faces all newspapers. On Thursday evening, we ``knew'' the result of the Wirral by-election. Opinion polling can be wrong, but for the Conservatives to have held the seat, the polls would have had to have been wildly, extraordinarily, massively wrong. All the ordinary evidence, culled from weeks of reporting, canvassing and analysing, would have had to have been equally out. We also knew that our early pre-result editions would be read by people who had heard figures on radio or television.

So the dilemma was this: did we run a story saying ``Labour wins Wirral'', which was true (but not yet); or one saying ``Labour hopes to win Wirral'', which would have been safe, but would have looked unbearably wet and ignorant the next morning? After heated discussion, we went for ``New Labour motors home'', above a picture of the cheery candidate and his wife in the back of their car. Clear enough. But what if the polls were wrong, went the cry. Well, said the sub-editor, we could always say it meant, ``New Labour motors home ... to London to work out what went wrong in the Wirral by-election.'' This ranks as the least convincing journalistic alibi heard in the office this year.

Why do all newspapers, including this one, have a slightly flattened, smudgy look? Knowing people tell me it's the ``bundler'', the print site machine which parcels papers up. This week I went to our Watford print site to see The Independent thunder through the presses. I was struck by the glossy, pin-sharp freshness of the colour and words when they first emerged, slightly damp and warm, smelling, to an editor's nose, better than new bread. So what happens? The bundler, a harmless looking creature, is not the culprit. It is simply that the papers are stacked in lorries for hours, and the weight presses down on the colour and print. They look flattened because they have been. I just thought you'd like to know.

One of the odder, but more enjoyable meetings of the week was breakfast with the Serbian opposition leaders who have swamped the streets of Belgrade with pro-democracy demonstrations for many weeks. The bearded and charismatic Vuk Draskovic, a man straight from Dostoevsky, told droll tales about the effects of dictatorship on his fellow countrymen. One was a deep-seated fear of people in power and a corresponding caution about voting. Recently, Draskovic had visited a rich supporter and found his house filled with portraits of himself. The man was flattering, generous and scathing about the Serb regime. But he wound up the meeting by warning: ``I will not vote for you. I vote for Milosevic.'' When Vuk asked why, the businessman nervously but firmly replied: ``I will not vote for you - until you are elected.''

Lunch at a television company included a short discussion about cloning and medicine. Another guest was Ken Livingstone, who worked as a theatre assistant in a London hospital in the Sixties. He told a chilling story. Apparently, back then, a high proportion of people who had open heart surgery mysteriously died during the operation. Eventually, an American doctor queried whether it was entirely sensible to use the eight to 10 pints of blood needed for the operation straight from the fridge. The global medical equivalent of a stunned silence followed. Across the world, patients had simply been chilled to death. Once hospitals started warming the blood, the death rate fell dramatically. Never let it be said that this column fails to find something to brighten your Saturday morning.

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