We use ''hero'' loosely now. It has become a casual tag for skilled footballers and lout-comedians. The idea of political heroes, people determined to shape the world, ready to die or spend decades in prison for a cause, has become anachronistic. The tyrannies that forced ordinary people to become heroic are dead or in retreat. Those few left and internationally recognised - Havel and Solzhenitsyn spring to mind alongside Mandela - are people whose heroism emerged in battles now over. There are, no doubt, Chinese Solzhenitsyns to emerge, and perhaps environmentalist Havels. But across most of the world, these are gentler, tepid times.
Thank God. Some mourn the loss of the age of greatness: Fukuyama's once- modish book The End of History was gloomy about the dullness of a world stripped of tragedy and heroism. But the fact is, all sane people would readily swap political heroes for the disappearance of the events that made them. It is easy to say Mandela is a hero. It is harder, but equally true, to say that if the world has no need for Mandelas in the future, and heroes die out, that would be a wonderful thing.
Just one of those things: 10 days or so ago, I saw a report of the Commons debate on the Broadcasting Bill, which included the following words from Gerald Kaufman, Labour's former Shadow Foreign Secretary: ''The Independent is becoming a remarkably interesting and vibrant newspaper that deserves much support.'' What a nice man; what a thoroughly decent egg! On the same day, I had just approved the sending of a reporter and photographer to Malta to follow MPs who were off on a jolly ''freebie'' for which there seemed little or no justification. And then it turned out that ... yes, Gerald was on the Maltese trip. Inwardly I cringed. But it would have been wrong to tip him off. He suffered the full treatment: polite but persistent questions from our excellent Steve Boggan, whom he later accused of ''a tendency to lurk''. (It's a great skill, lurking, Gerald, for which Mr Boggan is held in high regard.) Mr K, a politician I admire, now informs us that he wishes to withdraw his previous praise. I leave readers to judge whether his pre-Maltese or post-Maltese views are sounder. But at least no one can say we curry favour with our friends.
And one of the great problems of journalism is the relationship with contacts - once you like them, you are likely to go soft on them. But if you don't like any of them, you become a rather sad creature. Sometimes the difference between being open and being naive is slight. I discovered this early on, when I was a young business reporter on the Scotsman and met a cheery businessman who lived on Skye. He had developed a way to make sailing boats out of paper, he explained. Caught up by his enthusiasm, designs and cuttings, I wrote a piece about him. Paper boats, indeed ... he turned out to be a fraud who skipped the country, with the law in pursuit. After that, whenever I seemed to be getting a touch cocky, my colleagues would begin, very quietly, to whistle ''The Skye Boat Song''.Reuse content