LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
BBC Radio Four's Today programme is one of those strongholds of British journalism that makes the news as well as reading it out. This week alone, we had the story of how Royal Navy nuclear submarine commanders are instructed to listen out for it as a way of determining whether British civilisation still exists, before opening their sealed orders on retaliation, and the story of Anna Ford being rebuked over her interview with Kenneth Clarke. Is this another example of the media's self-obsession? I don't think so: in a political system where influence has migrated in part to broadcasters and commentators, the Today programme has become a small part of the system itself, like a minor palace or established faith, and is therefore fair game. It is sui generis, and would be destroyed by proper competition; it has become a place where politics happens, as clearly so as the Commons chamber. No one should be surprised or outraged that parties try to bully it.

A few years ago, I was offered a few days' holiday fill-in stint presenting the programme and, ever since, have listened to its presenters with some respect. One sat with a huge pile of scripts, hurriedly written after waking at 4am, while a voice constantly rabbited in one's ear: ''OK, we're dropping the Sri Lankan, so move straight to item 14, then back to seven ... the Northampton midwife's been delayed, and you've 10 seconds till the weather....'' All the while, one had to affect vocal nonchalance, cracking gentle jokes with the co-presenter and pretending to know what was going on.

It wasn't easy, a bit like ice-skating while declaiming poetry, and I was, I fear, deeply unconvincing. The real presenters were kind, with the exception of Brian Redhead, who took a dim view of whippersnappers muscling in.

Just before I went on air with him for the first time, and was watching for the red light, he leaned over and poked his spectacles down his nose. ''Thought you had a job on a newspaper?'' he asked. I nervously assented. ''Hmm. Then what d'you think you're doing sitting here?'' he replied, adding instantly, ''Right, we're on.''

The Independent's tenth anniversary is approaching, leading to many maudlin conversations about those strange days in 1986 when we were desperately producing dummy papers and waiting for day one. I don't suppose many of us thought the paper would make it, but it was exhilarating all the same, like an unexpected holiday from the serious business of life.

That early lightheartedness was blown away by the turbulent decade that followed, but I've been back to look at the early issues and honestly think that, despite our ups and downs, we've kept faith with the paper first produced by Andreas Whittam Smith, Matthew Symonds and Stephen Glover.

Some readers have told me recently they think we should be more serious and heavier, ''like in the old days''. In fact, we carry more analysis and heavy commentary than we used to. And the early Indie, somehow mis- remembered as solemn, was at least as abrasive as the paper is now. Perhaps it's that some of the readers have aged faster than their paper.

Meanwhile, despite the Murdoch price war and the financial pressures that imposes, I can announce that we are bringing in new readers. For instance, Jonathan King, the broadcaster, was coming back on Concorde from New York yesterday, when he noticed a wiry, grey-haired businessman being offered, and rejecting, various newspapers before settling down with The Independent. And who was this convert to decent journalism? It was Rupert Murdoch.

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