LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
Everyone knows about the silly season, don't they? It's that time of year when everyone is on holiday, nothing happens, so we fluff up stories that can't quite be described as news, and - well, shall we just say - inflate things a little.

I've always thought the silly season is a bit of a misnomer. It never really arrives, and it's rarely very silly. The year I worked in America, my then bureau chief departed for his month-long holiday in the Adirondacks on 1 August assuring me that nothing, absolutely nothing ever happened that would bring people back to Washington DC in the humid mid-summer heat. I could go swimming, see the kids, pop into the office to make a few calls, but there wouldn't be anything to worry me. The next day Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; I found myself writing half the paper; and my bureau chief paddled back over the lake, climbed in his car and headed back to DC. Somehow something always seems to happen.

And so it's been this week. The Editor goes off on holiday, assuring me that everything's quiet, and the next minute we find ourselves grappling with two of the most fundamental human questions. First we are compelled to ask when society should allow a woman to end half of a twin pregnancy; then we find ourselves pondering what it might mean if we are not, after all, alone in the universe.

So far as seasons go, I'm sure you can make a case for saying that there is something faintly silly about finding a hint of life on Mars - although I am convinced, from our readers' huge fascination for the whole subject of cosmology, that the question twangs a deep chord in our consciousness. The implications for our sense of human selves of an alternative evolution somewhere else in the universe are enormous.

And there is nothing even approximately silly about trying to judge one woman's decision to abort one of her embryonic twins. Inevitably this topic has provoked a deluge of letters, many of which emotively voice the personal experience of twins or mothers who have struggled with these problems themselves. There is a sense in which newspapers are at their best when they provide a place where real people reflect on the most potent events in their emotional lives - which is what's been happening on this page over the past few days. However, a subject like this also creates certain special discomforts for a newspaper. If the doctor was wrong to expose woman X to a risk of broken confidentiality, were we right to report it so thoroughly, and commentate so vigorously? It is at least ambiguous: the public debate is a great blessing, but it wouldn't have happened if the doctor had not been indiscreet.

What else was silly this week? Clare Short's attack on Tony Blair? Nothing very silly about that. In fact, you can usually tell that a political party is huffing and puffing when its spin doctors try to dismiss a story as mere "silly season" agitation, as they did in this case. Nonsense. Clare Short attacked Tony Blair's New Labour programme policies. She attacked him. And she was articulating the opinions of many Labour activists. This story will run and run - until Mr Blair cuts her dead.

My favourite question of the week, though, is who you would choose as the top five British women of the century. I sort of assumed that men would be less eligible to comment on the matter. I, like many readers, was amazed to discover that the Post Office's selection panel hadn't even considered Barbara Hepworth. But then, it's a bit like playing Your Five Favourite Albums, Five Best Novels - you know, the sort of thing you do in the silly season, when you're on holiday ...

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