We apologise for our errors, which were due to a faulty crystal ball


On 6 October 1988, when I was the Independent's education editor, I wrote: "Predictions are dangerous, but then nobody reads old newspaper cuttings, so I will risk one: local education authorities will be extinct by 1998."

This was tempting fate too much. I should have known that, out of the Independent's (then) 400,000 smart-alec readers, at least one would think to keep the article and send it in the dying days of 1998 to the present education editor, Judith Judd. Was Mr Wilby, he asked, "still in business" and, if so, what had he to say for himself? To which I can only reply that, in the past ten years, LEAs have been so changed and their powers so reduced that they might as well be extinct.

At least I cast my prediction far into the future. Sion Simon - a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and associate editor of Another Magazine - was much bolder when he wrote a profile of Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, for the Independent on Sunday last month. With Straw's decision on the Pinochet extradition due within days, he pronounced: "Jack Straw would no more extradite General Pinochet to Spain than he would lie about his age - 52 - in order to be the oldest swinger on a Club 18-30 holiday. . . There will barely ever have been a doubt in his mind that, one way or another, the old dictator would have to be sent home."

Well, as my late mother used to say, there's only a right and a wrong, and it's a poor fool that can't get either. Simon, however, compounded the foolhardiness of his prediction by being extravagantly dismissive of anybody who might disagree: "To believe even a fraction of the current 'Straw on horns of sharp dilemma' hype is to fail to understand the first thing about either the Home Secretary or the new Labour government of which he is emblematic." Since Simon is new Labour through and through - he worked at Millbank in opposition - I can only conclude, as I had long suspected, that new Labour does not fully understand itself.

Now I have no axe to grind against Sion Simon, who is an engaging writer and, for all I know (I have never met him), an engaging young man. I am aware that the New Statesman's own Washington correspondent, Andrew Stephen, has confidently predicted that Bill Clinton will leave the White House on the appointed date in January 2001. (So far, alone among the British corps in the US, he has been proved right every time, but I still hold my breath.) I am aware, too, that journalistic prediction and its perils are nothing new. Older readers will remember, from the 1950s, a Daily Express sports columnist called Dennis Hackett who would promise to eat his hat (all men then possessed a hat) if, say, England won a forthcoming Ashes Test. Copies of the Express were frequently adorned by pictures of Hackett duly eating a cake, baked in the shape of a hat.

But I am certain that journalists make predictions more often and more boldly than they used to. Newspapers, indeed, are now so packed with predictions that the news columns are about as reliable as the horoscopes. Sports pages never cease to foretell that this or that player will move clubs, political columns that this or that minister is due for dismissal or demotion, business pages that this or that company is set for a dive. The Budget induces an annual frenzy of almost entirely inaccurate prediction.

Two influences are at work. First, competition between newspapers is more intense than ever. The dissolution of traditional class boundaries has forced political parties to look for support outside their established constituencies; something similar has happened to newspapers. Once, the Daily Telegraph was content with retired colonels as its readers, the Times with civil servants and lawyers, the Guardian with teachers. None of them made much effort to woo the others' customers; now, they all want what are loosely described as young urban professionals. Second, the speed at which news reaches people has increased exponentially. Not everybody, it is true, is constantly tuned into CNN, wired up to the Internet or within sight of Ceefax. But those who are so linked quickly pass on important developments to colleagues and friends.

All this compels newspapers to stay ahead. Nothing, according to ancient Fleet Street wisdom, dates as quickly as yesterday's newspaper; the trouble now is that even today's newspaper seems dated. Newsnight, on the day a story breaks, will give it the kind of treatment that the Sunday Times or the Observer would have done 20 years ago. Events are instantly replayed, analysed, dissected, debated. Indeed, events are themselves determined by media reaction, as we saw with the Mandelson resignation, which occurred after the minister had slept for a night on a bad press - and even that, in the opinion of some commentators, amounted to culpable delay.

Newspapers must always seem fresh, and that is what forces them, the past being almost instantly exhausted, to explore the future. Are readers better served? I think not. Many readers make no distinction between speculation and established fact (because the papers themselves do not distinguish clearly) and believe that new laws have come into operation when they are just a gleam in a minister's eye. For all the growth of newsprint - most papers are twice as big as they were 30 years ago - it is often impossible to find, say, a verbatim account of what a politician actually said beneath the foliage of comment and interpretation and prediction of what somebody else may say, think or do as a result. Further, the hows and whys, for all the analysis, remain strangely hidden. How many people, even now, could give a coherent account of how Mandelson came to resign? Could a 30th-century historian hope to reconstruct the sequence of events from contemporary reports? Newspapers were once described as the first rough draft of history. They are now, I fear, a rather unconvincing draft of Old Moore's Almanac.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium