The media column - Peter Wilby wonders why some writers are treated like rabid dogs

If writers who are anywhere to the left of Tony Blair get into the mainstream papers at all, they ar

My old friend Darcus Howe, I have no doubt, is capable of looking after himself, and is surely doing so elsewhere in this issue. So I shall not leap to defend him from the critical comments he attracted after his shouting match on Radio 4 with the American comedian Joan Rivers. On the contrary, I would say that Paul Vallely, in his very hostile profile in the Independent, had Darcus about right: he doesn't just have a chip on his shoulder, as Rivers charged, "it's an entire tropical rainforest". He is, as Vallely wrote, irrational, prejudiced, confrontational, inconsistent and egotistic.

Vallely also called Howe's world-view "anachronistic", and I suppose that is one description for a belief in workers' solidarity across racial and national boundaries. But in his New Statesman columns and TV programmes, Howe accurately predicted riots in the old Lancashire cotton towns, terrorist attacks from British-born Asians, and the growing tension between black and brown youths that has erupted in Birmingham in recent days.

What interests me is whether Vallely would have written in quite such a dismissive and sanctimonious fashion about a right-wing, white commentator. After all, the British press is full of writers who are irrational, prejudiced, anachronistic, etc, and who usually bear whole oak trees on their shoulders about how the England of their childhood has disappeared. I am thinking of Simon Heffer, Richard Littlejohn, Jeremy Clarkson, Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens, to name just a few. The papers fight to pay these columnists six-figure salaries. On the NS, you get six figures only if you include the pence.

When I was editor, one ethnic minority reader told me she found it "offensive" that Howe had been chosen to "represent" her community. I explained that he wasn't supposed to represent anybody except himself.

He thought and wrote as a man who had come here from Trinidad in 1960, had been in the thick of race relations battles for 40 years and, until recently, lived near the Brixton front line. His column was rooted in the day-to-day experiences of certain sections of the established black community, rather than in the more cerebral constructions of many other race relations commentators. He had what we in the trade call "a voice". It was one I thought worth hearing, partly because it is so rarely heard elsewhere.

The mainstream press has a clever way with opinions of which it disapproves, which generally means anything much to the left of Tony Blair. The writers are dismissed as predictable, humourless, chippy and paranoid, as though such adjectives could not be applied equally to Heffer or Phillips. If they are allowed in the papers at all, they are treated as though they are rabid dogs, with some such label as "an alternative voice" or "a controversial personal view" signalling that they are not to be taken seriously. In other words, they are marginalised. Like Howe and another NS columnist, John Pilger, they may be allowed an occasional TV or radio programme, or even a whole series. But that's just show business.

Why are Sunday newspapers so bad at reporting the previous day's news? The Birmingham riot began before dusk on Saturday. Though it was too late for the Sundays' early editions, which go to remote parts, it left ample time for the editions that cover most of England. Yet in the copies I received (within the M25) only the Independent on Sunday had a front-page story. The Sunday Mirror carried one column on page 7, the Sunday Times a piece towards the bottom of page 2, and the Observer nothing at all. Most mysteriously, the Sunday Telegraph, though it reported "two dead" against everybody else's one, buried the story on page 10.

Many people stagger out of bed quite late on Sundays, having seen, heard and read no news for 18 hours or so. Here was a rare opportunity to surprise them with something fresh, important and dramatic. To be sure, it can be hard to confirm that a significant riot has taken place - given that street disorder is common on Saturday nights - but the Sundays also underplayed the Pakistan earthquake two weeks earlier, and news of that was in before editors reached their desks.

The reason for the negligence is that Sunday papers don't want to drop or downgrade stories they have been planning all week. Daily papers like news; Sunday papers hate it. Picture spreads have been crafted, editor's favourites accommodated, headlines polished. The red-tops may have buy-ups that cost thousands, the posh papers stories that reporters have nurtured for days. "Iraqis support attacks on British troops", "Cabinet revolt over parent power" and "Strictly Come Dancing exclusive" (to take three front-page headlines on 23 October) may not seem very exciting or surprising to you and me. But some folk will have worked hard for these titbits. The last thing they want is a riot or earthquake on Saturday afternoon.