Letter from the Editor

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The Independent Online
The best propaganda can be a single word. Who was it who thought up ``surfing'' the Internet? This enticing simile has probably wasted more human hours than were expended on the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China and, of course, to lesser effect.

With the suggestion of exhilarating power, control and speed, the word surfing has lured hundreds of thousands of impressionable folk into an endlessly unsatisfying and torpid virtual purgatory, where nothing happens fast and nothing is what you hoped for.

Surfing is precisely what doesn't happen to you (all right, me) on the Net. What happens is that you clamber in ungainly fashion on to your keyboard, wobble optimistically and promptly fall off again into a blurred cold wash of cyberscurf, surrounded by bobbing advertising wrappers and wasted, swallowed hours. Surfing? Pah.

As a colleague put it to me this week, the Net is like the ultimate disappointing Christmas present; layers and layers of gaudily presented and enticing wrapping paper in which nestles, at the end, a pair of socks. I feel just the same about the GQ-type magazines. They look so bright, so enticing ... and yet, in the end, there's almost nothing there. All crunch, no bite.

All of which was sparked off by two events: joining the Net at home, and a piece by Miles Kington yesterday, which began with the thought that the words ``Princess Diana'' will keep people reading. The Net is, as we reported earlier, basically kept alive by people tapping in ``sex'' and ``porn'', as well as ``Diana'' and a relatively small number of other hot-button words. For there are others. Alan Coren produced a book with a swastika on the front called ``Golfing for Cats'' on the basis that someone had told him the only things that sold were Nazis, cats and golf.

For newspapers, all this remains true. Those brightly coloured bits that go around the masthead of most papers (though not currently us) are basically very simple come-ons. They say: sex, booze, films, cheap, sex, violence ... and so on. We do something not dissimilar in our little panel below the masthead. The evidence is that these little come-ons work, sending subliminal messages even to people who think they only buy a newspaper to discover the latest stage of negotiations between the Austrian finance ministry and the Armenian Refugee Alliance.

But at least with a broadsheet you only have to turn a page to discover whether there is substance as well as packaging, and you don't have to wait to connect. That's one advantage. Another was well put by one of the founders of this paper, who once pointed out that if we only used computers and someone came along offering to cram the important information and controversy into an easily portable, readable and foldable form (eg, a newspaper) they would be hailed as a brilliant technological innovator.

Enough smug editor - ed. Some hideous journalistic mistakes are repeated seasonally, and seem worse each time. You don't want or need to know about the picture library calling up the image, which wasn't seen on screen, and accordingly checked, and all those other plausible excuses ... but yes, the old Nye Bevan/Ernest Bevin howler appeared on page 11 of yesterday's Eye. Both Labour heroes were great men but they were, I can confirm, different great men, and remain so, however many youthful sub-editors on national newspapers try tidily to conflate them. Sorry.

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