LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
There has probably been no piece carried in The Independent under my editorship which will arouse as much anger as Richard D North's critical article yesterday on Ken Saro- Wiwa, the Nigerian dissident who was hanged a year ago. As I write, the phone calls and faxes have not started, but they will come.

Members of staff are upset about it, too. Not unnaturally: in the eyes of liberals, Saro-Wiwa is, along with Mandela and a few others, the nearest we have to a modern secular saint. He took on Shell - and this paper has been critical of multinationals. He was championed by Greenpeace - and we have favourably reported much that Greenpeace do. He was clearly a brave man who died for his beliefs - and that compels respect.

He is, in so many ways, our kind of hero. To all this, I have only one answer - if The Independent ceases to be a place where serious, counter- intuitive and critical journalism can be heard, then as a newspaper, it becomes a pointless waste of trees.

So how did that other thing happen? How did it come about, I mean, that we spent such a chunk of the week talking about Tony Blair's hair? It got so bad, you may recall, that he had to issue a joke press release claiming that he was going bald to try to stifle arguments about whether he had changed his hairstyle to woo female voters. Hurtful stuff.

That press release bore the fingerprints of Alastair Campbell, Blair's press officer, who was by turns outraged and helpless with laughter as the hair story took off. This week's story is, I suppose, the Labour equivalent of the story a few years ago about John Major tucking his shirt into his underpants - I can't remember where that came from.

It must, I suppose, be a sign of decadence that newspaper space, including in The Independent, is devoted to a leader's scalp; it's the sort of thing you could imagine being discussed round the Forum in the latter days of Imperial Roman decline. But is it the decadence of journalism or of politics?

After all, it is the politicians and their advisers who pore over focus group findings, importing the fascinations of American image-shapers, who discuss voice-training, the details of tie-knots and hairstyles, trying to produce faces and bodies, as well as policies, that will attract particular groups of target voters.

In short, they started this, not us. I don't think Tony Blair is smarmy or insincere at all; but the more outside image-makers tell him and Cherie how to behave and look, the more the electorate - who are, as Nigel Molesworth would have put it, no fule - will focus on outward tricks and the less on inner meaning. This comes, after all, in the week when Labour people have been hugging themselves with delight at the prospect of George Stephanopoulos arriving in town - a lesson for somebody?

At any rate, enough of this trivia. Not everything personal in a politician's life needs to be paraded in public. You never hear unnecessary public debate about Peter Mandelson's wig or John Prescott's nipple-ring, and quite right, too.

In the end, whatever female voters think, the hair business has probably won Blair a whole new tranche of support from trainee slapheads everywhere. Like Blair, I am only slightly thinning and couldn't care less. The hour or so spent upside down each day, vigorously rubbing Marmite and kerosene into my scalp is purely recreational.

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