Thud and blunder in the news rooms

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The Independent Online
POOR Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been much mocked because he re-opened a steelworks on Friday that had closed 15 years ago. Attempting to be cheerful about the economy of north-east England, he told listeners to BBC Radio Newcastle: "Actually at Consett you have now got one of the best steelworks in Europe. It doesn't employ as many people as it used to because it's so modern." Mr Clarke made another reference to Consett and its successful steelworks, before his interviewer gently corrected him. The steelworks in question was at Redcar, 40 miles away. The night sky over Consett has not shone red with the furnace glare since 1980, and the thousands who worked there are now dead, unemployed or earning money at something else.

The generous view is that everyone makes mistakes, and that the media gets far too excited about slips of the tongue made by politicians. This is sometimes good fun for the press, but has not helped genuine political dialogue and debate. Politicians these days rarely speak off the cuff. They cling to their brief like a comfort blanket, their tongues anchored to the party line by the possibility of the words boob and blunder in next day's papers.

The less generous view is that Mr Clarke's mistake betrays a general ignorance - common to this Government - of the recent social history of Britain. The Consett closure was an early cause clbre of the Thatcher administration, and nobody north of Doncaster would have confused it with Redcar. The only reason the rest of the country has heard of Consett since is because of the factory, located in the town's Medomsley Road, that makes Phileas Fogg snacks. This may explain the Chancellor's mistake. The power of advertising and an appetite for crisps have engraved the word Consett on his heart, as Calais was engraved on Queen Mary's.