You may have noticed that the Pope didn't win this year's Nobel peace prize; it went to a courageous Iranian woman lawyer. Yet, only two days before the Oslo committee's announcement, the [i]Times[/i] carried the headline, "Pope's stand on Iraq could win first Nobel prize for Vatican." Hey ho! Another prediction bites the dust, in a newspaper that once put itself forward as a journal of record. Journalism is becoming more and more like astrology. On news or feature pages, column after column is devoted to forecasts, runes and omens. The marketing departments will surely soon start to move away from their now outdated obsession with readers' age–profiles or class–profiles, and get into star–gazing. (I realise, of course, that here I'm falling into the forecasting trap myself; no journalist is immune.) I look forward, glumly, to the first newspaper that advertises itself as 'just right' for Virgos (me) or Libras (my wife).

One merit of prediction is that you can move smoothly from forecast to analysis, downgrading or omitting the actual event entirely. This is what the wise astrologer has always done, distracting attention from whether the forecast was right or wrong. Millenarian sects have learnt from this. When the world fails to end on the promised date, you slide rapidly into debate about when the next fatal day will dawn. Newspapers now do this all the time. To read them is like walking through fog.

Sunday newspapers are the great arena for journalism–as–astrology. I once made a very useful discovery. I stopped taking Sunday newspapers at home. I got them delivered to the office instead. I took my armful out with me for Monday lunch. Already most of the news–predictions had wilted. By one o'clock on Monday, large slabs of the Sundays didn't need to be read.

Tell–tale words to look out for in headlines are 'set to' or 'due to' or 'expected'. Business journalism is especially prone to this kind of forecasting mode. "Coffee chains' turnover set to double," the [i]Independent on Sunday[/i] announced, after the Coffee Republic cafés revealed the trouble they were in. Note, also, in many headlines, the give–away use of verbs like 'can' or 'may', and the importance of scattering a pepper–pot of quote–marks over headlines. In the same issue, the Independent on Sunday warned its readers : "Sex assault drama may have to be shelved"; "TV presenter 'groped' by Schwarzenegger may sue"; and "HRT can increase risk of asthma".

Further along the newsagent's shelf, the [i]Sunday Times[/i] reported — if reported if the right word : "Al–Qaeda 'planning attack on Queen' at African summit." The [i]Sunday Telegraph[/i] produced a highly ingenious formulation : "Hint of hope as Baghdad pupils return to school." All astrologers cherish words like 'hope' or 'fear'; and the [i]Observer[/i] put in its own twopenn'orth : "Police fear losing control of gun–crazy Britain." (That grinding, gear–slipping noise you heard was the sound of social questions being begged.)

Daily newspapers, conscious that many of their readers take their hard news in easy radio or television snippets, increasingly follow in the Sundays' footsteps. Facts are sacred, but the crystal ball is more glamorous. "High heels raise hopes for gammy knees," the [i]Guardian[/i] revealed (less hope for arthritic, non–cross–dressing males, I suppose). It also led its 'International' pages with the awesome threat: "Every third person will be a slum dweller within 30 years, UN agency warns." I hope that we'll all remember to check this prediction in the year 2033. By contrast, the [i]Daily Telegraph[/i]'s promise that "Gaudi's masterpiece [the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona] will be finished in 2023 — 17 years early" almost felt like a piece of good news that was just around the corner.

Way back in the early years of the 20th century, Arnold Bennett, who knew all about journalism, remarked that "journalists say a thing that they know isn't true in the hope that if they keep on saying it long enough it will be true." This is harsh but fair. On the other hand, much of the rampant prediction–mania in early 21st century newspapers is due to the dreadful need to fill all those empty pages.

Would a newspaper that just printed what's happened seem insufferably dull by comparison with all the pier–end Petulengros and Gypsy Rose Lees now on offer? I'd still like to think it would be worth a go. But what are the odds? Tesco founder Jack Cohen's philosophy was "Pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap." Crystal balls come cheap.