It's just as well that journalists can't be struck off for malpractice - I would have been finished years ago

There must be doctors all over the country contemplating the recent scandals involving cancer-test errors, incompetent gynaecologists and deluded surgeons, and asking themselves: "Could I be next?" It must be like one of those mornings when you wake up with your head pounding, your tongue dry and you think to yourself: "What the hell did I do last night?" Imagine doing that, but for your entire career, involving thousands of individual clinical judgements. And how do you decide? Doctors, being human beings, are presumably allowed moments of fallibility. Is there a certain critical number of errors that suddenly tips you over from being human to being a dangerous menace?

I imagine that the daily work of being a GP is much like any other job, but with the added difference that you occasionally wonder: is this the one that will ruin my career and put me on the front page of the Daily Mail?

Like most of us, I've heard a number of scare stories about people whose cancer wasn't picked up by their GP until it was too late. But the opposite case is rarely put with equal force. I once had a GP who was quite the reverse, referring absolutely everything to the hospital. If I banged my knee playing squash, I'd spend half a day waiting to see a specialist, another few hours in the X-ray department and then an out-patient visit to discover that I was suffering from a sore knee and that the mode of treatment was to carry on as normal. Like many patients, what I needed to be told most of the time was to go away and stop being silly.

It was a waste of my time, but maybe it was also an example of shrewd self-diagnosis by the doctor. If you're no good, and you know it, then one of the best solutions is to shovel your patients towards more competent doctors.

But the recent controversies made me think that, if I had become a doctor, and if I had performed as a doctor as I have as a journalist and writer, then there would now be a crowd of hacks at the door demanding that I be struck off, that my pension be removed and that decades of patients be called in for counselling.

I've never done the sort of journalism that involved actually going and finding stories, so I never really had the capacity to harm people (unlike the university contemporary of mine whose claim to immortality is that he invented the story about Bernie Grant's local authority banning the term "manhole covers" as sexist). Most of my journalistic career consisted of sub-editing books pages and, during the couple of years I did that, I probably managed to make every sort of mistake you could imagine, from putting blatant misspellings in headlines (the equivalent of confusing the names of two different patients?) to leaving off the author's name (failing to send a test result?).

We were working under peculiar pressures because those were the days when computer technology had just been introduced to Fleet Street. The print unions had decreed that no journalist was allowed even to touch anything to do with the printing process. Given that these were traditional printers who had been reluctantly retrained in the wholly different skills of cutting and pasting bromides, the potential for mistakes was enormous.

I remember once trying to make a last-minute correction in a book review by Marina Warner. When I opened my newspaper on Sunday morning, I saw that the compositor had reattached all the paragraphs in a random order (the equivalent of leaving a scalpel inside a patient?).

Also, like many young, male reviewers, I thought that the way to make my name was to choose harmless people and subject them to the sort of critical onslaught that might have seemed excessive for Mein Kampf. For some reason, I once picked on George Martin, probably the most important record producer in pop history. In the course of my review, I claimed, entirely wrongly, that he hadn't even produced the last few Beatles albums (operating on a patient with a diseased kidney and removing the healthy one?). Only some arcane legal detail saved me from being dragged into court.

The moral of this tale, such as it is, is probably best applied to careers officers. They should ask every pupil not just what job they want to do, but also, much more importantly: Do you want a job where if you make terrible mistake it doesn't really matter? You do? Have you thought of becoming a literary journalist?

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, We made the people-smugglers rich