Media morals, public passions

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The Independent Culture
EVEN the most high-minded public servant will drop his trousers these days for an excitable dame. Just look at Newsnight (BBC2). On Tuesday, it was discussing the disgrace of Rupert Pennant-Rea. Not the actual disgrace. Wouldn't touch that tabloid bonk-of-England stuff with a bargepole, obviously. No, this was responsible news analysis of whether irresponsible news coverage of a minor disgrace had caused the major disgrace of a chap being hounded out of his job. To be frank, this isn't really Commander Snow's field: tanks in the sandpit, yes, but women on the warpath? Gadzooks! The Commander, though, is nothing if not a trooper; he delivered the script with only the mildest wobble to suggest that he was holding it at arm's length in a pooper-scooper: "Rejected love ... allowed the fury of the woman he scorned to force him to resign". It sounded like a Penny Dreadful. To prove it was worth much more than that, we cut to a graphic of a revolving tenner with Pennant-Rea's face where the Queen should be; on the reverse, instead of the Lady with the Lamp, there was Mary Ellen Synon: the Lady with the Flamethrower. Newsnight would probably say it was just showing both sides of the coin; viewers might have wondered whether it wasn't further devaluing an already debased currency.

Around the horseshoe table, the traditional studio format was being observed. Four pundits - roughly a pair per violent prejudice - are permitted to squabble for a specified period: the exact duration of that period is a closely guarded secret, but it is always three minutes shorter than the time required for the argument to get anywhere. Editor of the Spectator, Dominic Lawson and journalist Gaia Servadio ("the Continental perspective") comprised a spirited defence for Pennant-Rea; William Rees-Mogg and Peter Tatchell made more awkward bedfellows, flung together under the duvet of high principle. Things were going splendidly, that is to say they were starting to look very ugly indeed. Servadio delivers Latin passion in a lorry of broken English: "What weeked weapawn you `arve in thees serious face - thees lark of `umour, thees lark of intelligence," she berated Tatchell. "And," she concluded triumphantly: "I dodn't want to know wart you dod in your private chamber!" Tatchell dodn't know wart hit him.

Lawson pointed out that his magazine had turned down Synon's story as much as a year ago. Just at that very moment, you noticed that the Commander was a fraction more distrait than usual: alarming intelligence was coming through his earpiece. "Oh, on the telephone, I understand we have Mary Ellen Synon, the, er, former lover..."

The former lover had rung in not to repent, but to quarrel with Lawson. "I never wanted the story in the Spectator, Dominic, because your circulation is too small to help me." Help? The lady clearly needed it. Here she was, hell-bent on a solo performance of her personal tragedy, The Defaming of the Shrew. To put her out live like this, a producer up in the gallery had stuck his neck out; but it was Synon who got hanged. It certainly made for gripping viewing - a tacky mix of mortification and merriment. Coming in the middle of a debate on media intrusion into private grief, however, it didn't look that clever. The big question remained. Quis custodiet custodes? When news stands accused, who will monitor the monitors?

Channel 4 is trying to do just that with Whose News? A commendably ambitious season of programmes, it should, at the very least, dissuade a trusting public from the belief that Moses himself pops down from the Mount every day with the headlines in stone. Practical criticism is the best kind for this creeping malady. Reviewing Tuesday's news agenda on And Finally, director Ken Loach wondered why both BBC and ITN had led their bulletins with Pennant-Rea when a key story on education was buried down the list. Because, one newsman replied, that was what the public was interested in. A female panellist pointed out that she couldn't have been interested in the banker, because she didn't know who he was. This was getting near the bloody heart of the affair: the media had to invent Rupert Pennant- Rea in order that they could destroy him.

"We make a simple judgment," David Mannion told reporter Roger Graef during Dispatches. "Is it going to be of interest to the audience?" It told you plenty about the ITN news supremo that he thought this was a straightforward question. Graef's achievement was to show how a macram of media manipulators ensures it's an altogether knottier business.

Lavishly cast and splendidly located, The Choir (BBC1) is stupefyingly dull. There is nothing in it. Cue meaningful close-up of cathedral. Low on character and event, this adaptation of Joanna Trollope's novel (by husband Ian Curteis) is big on architecture. And music. Sweet singing in the choir is fair enough, but what of the tune which swells up to announce moments of suspense: Plunk! Bwhoom! (Think of Sibelius taking a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). A dark shape lurches out of the fugitive shadows - what harbinger of dread is this? Holy hassocks, if it isn't ... the Dean walking his black labrador, Benedict. Close-up of cathedral. Plunk! Bwhoom!

Played by James Fox, the Dean sees the cathedral crumbling before his very eyes, along with his acting career. Cheaper, surely, to save the career and make a run for it? But that purple frock is constricting, and besides there are more lines to be said with as straight a face as a chap can muster: "Would you think I was overdoing it if I told you that I believed the choir to be the soul of the cathedral?" Not at all, old boy; positively Pinteresque in the circumstances.

A lonely mother rings up the choir master: "You see, I do want his life to have a chance of the first rate. And if his voice is so good, even if it's only for his boyhood it will help him escape being mediocre." Desperate to stop any similar clunkers escaping, the choir master runs round to kiss her. They drink tea, while a moral dilemma brews - heavens, what to tell the boy? Meanwhile, back in the cathedral, the Dean is summoned to see something frightful in the roof. Peter Tatchell planning a surprise attack on the Bishop's apse? No, even worse. My God, it's not? Plunk! Bwhoom! "There are patches of damp." The Dean takes it like a man: "Get on to English Heritage immediately!" No need: The Choir is what is left of Anthony Trollope's great Barchester Chronicles when English Heritage has been through with a Hoover and the pot pourri.

Programme of the week was Seven Wonders of the World (BBC2), not least because the guest nearly eclipsed her chosen marvels. Born in 1908, Miriam Rothschild became a brilliant naturalist and world authority on the flea. Along the way, she found time to fight for the legalisation of homosexuality. Oh, and invented the seatbelt.

Among her seven top things were ear mites and the jump of the flea, although you could tell her heart really belonged to the Worm Halipegus. This is an insect which needs to explore and swallow its way through no less than four hosts before ending up where it belongs, under the tongue of a frog. Dr Rothschild suggested the worm's existence left Darwin looking a bit slow, and God rather witty. Her final choice was carotenoids - all the yellows in the world - but also the pigment without which we would not be able to see. Odd that you should be brought up against the majesty of things by a woman who has spent 80 years peering down a microscope. Then again, perhaps not.