LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
Sitting behind a huge glass screen in a darkened room, surrounded by plates of half-eaten sandwiches, warming beers and fetid colleagues, I have been staring for hours at you. I mean ``you'' collectively, you the readers. Yes, The Independent has fallen for the political and marketing fashion of the hour, the Focus Group. Over two nights, we watched sample groups of readers and non-readers pore over the paper, deride this page, cheer that one and answer questions such as: ``If The Independent was a person/car, what sort of person would it be?'' (John Cleese or Angus Deayton and a Saab, or VW Golf apparently.)

Mock at your peril: this sort of consenting voyeurism has helped give birth to New Labour and informs the thinking of everyone from magazine publishers to hair-conditioner manufacturers. As a result, I am pleased to announce, important improvements will follow shortly. The Independent is to change its name to "The Moderately Inoffensive"; the eagle will go, to be replaced by a cuddly pink puppy; and all our papers will come in future with valuable nutrients and added absorbent qualities.

We report on our business pages today about the possibility of unearned lucre accruing to the policy-holders of Scottish Amicable, as a result of the bid by Abbey National. Having missed out on every such windfall, I became excited: my only financial policy is to bank, invest and insure only with Scottish companies - and the more Scottish the better. This time, I was sure, I had to be a winner. Not so. After scrabbling in the the desk, I seem to be insured with its tougher-minded but lesser-known rival, Scottish Misanthropic.

Few issues have divided our readers quite as much recently as the Royal Yacht, which I am by and large against and quite a few of you are for. Letters fiery, thoughtful, sarcastic and witty have been flying around, and some of the best have been printed over the past few days. But none was as straight to the point and as startling as that from Peter Boffin, of the Isle of Wight, who makes the case for the new yacht to be publicly funded - and then continues: "I understand the cost is likely to be some pounds 60m or, roughly, pounds 1 per man, woman and child in the population. I enclose my cheque for pounds 2.00 as the contribution from my wife and myself." That's putting your money where your views are, and I have sent Mr Boffin's cheque to the Ministry of Defence, as requested. Perhaps this may be the faint stirrings of a new civic movement, voluntary taxation. For those who wish to follow suit, the address is: Secretary of State's Private Office, MoD, Main Building, Whitehall, London SW1A 2HB.

A cheerful lunch yesterday with Richard Branson, who is negotiating with Chris Evans for a radio show and is preparing a whole family of new products, from perfumes to jeans while planning his next attempt at round- the-world ballooning, yields the following story. We were gossiping about journalism and I wondered whether Branson, who began with a student magazine, had ever considered going into newspapers? As it happened, said Branson, on the day after The Independent had been launched, he had been approached by a friend and asked if he would consider buying it. He pondered, scrutinised it and replied that ... yes, he would. But he hadn't realised it was for sale. No, said his friend after a small pause - he meant would Branson consider buying a copy of The Independent.

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