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The Independent Online
First of all, to selected readers, an apology - some 20,000 of you, mostly in London, did not get last Saturday's paper until nearly lunchtime, if at all. This was not because we were too idle to write it, or were out at a Christmas party. It was because an aluminium label fell off inside a very high-voltage cable in our Watford printing plant, causing an electrical explosion. It was a very big bang indeed, and it took many hours to get the presses running again. Sorry.

One of the less commented-upon aspects of this week's drama at Westminster is the way journalists are edging into the foreground of the political plot. Our lunches and conversations with MPs are themselves becoming stories. One might ask why ministers so readily take the risk of eating and drinking with hacks. The answer is not, on the whole, greed; in fact, most ministers are discouragingly abstemious, picking without relish at boiled fish, swirling their water-glasses, rejecting the pudding menu.

'Twas not always thus. I vividly remember having lunch with a senior Labour MP at a Pimlico restaurant where they served wine in two-litre bottles, charging customers on the basis of how much of it had gone by the end of the meal. My guest merely noted that it was ``a decent sort of bottle'' and consumed the lot. What was really shocking, however, was that it had no visible effect.

But these days, the real motivation for these lunches is an exchange of essential information - and it doesn't all flow one way. The average minister is so stuck in his or her department that lunches with journalists become vital, curiosity-quenching oases of gossip and speculation in long, dry office days. One can be bitchier and franker if one's party rivals are absent. One learns things from a political reporter - how X has fouled up, what the PM is thought to think of Y - that civil servants don't discuss. And then sometimes, of course, it goes wrong - mostly when the political atmosphere is intensely overheated. It certainly is now. Let no-one try to convince you that relations between senior Conservatives are really much better than they seem. For me, the mood was well caught by an influential if junior pro-European. We were standing at the edge of a party, talking about the week. ``The real problem," I said mildly, ``is surely that the Prime Minister...'' He cut me off, interjecting, ``is stupid and cowardly, yes, I know - not a great combination, is it?''

I've had lots of complaints both from the shooting lobby, 2,000 or so of whom had marched through central London to protest about the removal of their guns, and from anti-shooters who protested about my decision to allow the pro-shooters to advertise in the newspaper. The shooters, whose letters were suspiciously similar in wording, wanted to know why we hadn't reported their demonstration. The answer is not bias, but that there are scores of demos in London on almost any weekend; unless huge, they are generally unreported anywhere. Complainants on the other side argued that our anti-gun editorial line was compromised by taking the adverts. But there is a free speech question here - if advertisements are legal and not pornographic, then they shouldn't be censored, least of all by journalists. I disagree with the gun lobby - I also think it has an absolute right to put its case directly to the public.