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BALLOT PAPERS sent out for Labour's National Executive Committee election are numbered to correspond with membership details. New Labour's press office refused to discuss with Pandora how a secret ballot is maintained. "We have confidence in the process. Nobody has any problem with it," said Steve Bates, the Party's broadcasting officer. He referred us to Unity Security Balloting, the body overseeing the NEC election, but they, too, refused comment and suggested we ring Bates again. "Nothing untoward is happening," he sputtered when we rang back. "I am at the end of my tether here." He assured us that the mechanics of maintaining ballot secrecy would be revealed - after the election. So Party voters will just have to take it on faith that their votes are not going to end up in yet another Millbank database.

ONE PERSON who definitely will not be attending Michael Jackson's 40th birthday party at the Equinox in Leicester Square this weekend is, of course, Michael Jackson. "We're under no illusion about that," said Robin Meltzer, one of the party's organisers. This is the eighth year in a row that Jacko's glittering party has been held without any sign of the wacko. "This is all about showing solidarity with a man who is continually bashed in the press. If we didn't organise it, the fans would go to Hyde Park and organise themselves," said Meltzer. "We give them a safe environment for them to celebrate." Doesn't sound like much of a party, does it?

THE DEVOTED customers of the Ivy and Caprice restaurants might have gone into mourning if they'd read some of yesterday's papers, with the news of the sale of Caprice Holdings by owners Jeremy King and Christopher Corbyn to Luke Johnson's Belgo chain. In fact, rather than taking pounds 13.2m and heading for the hills, King and Corbyn are staying firmly in control of the day-to-day operations at both restaurants, as well as gearing up for their October relaunch of J Sheekey. King and Corbyn have always refused to discuss their business and customers with the press, but they were telling regulars yesterday, "We're doing business as usual. We are determined to show, with this deal, that it's possible to capitalise without compromise."

JUST WHEN you thought the quality of British television could not sink any lower, Sky and Anglia Television have put their heads together and come down with Guilty! This new daytime talk show, starting in October, promises to bring "confessional TV back to basics". (Pandora hadn't noticed it climbing the high slopes of intellectual complexity recently.) Hosted by Sunday Mirror columnist Carole Malone, who plays the "judge", the set will be a modern courtroom where "your man-hungry best friend, your sloth- like spouse or your sister's unruly behaviour" will be tried before a "jury audience". This could make Richard and Judy look like a visit with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

AFTER ALL the controversy about retouching photographs, Pandora was amused to see the picture of Mick Hucknall in Wednesday's Daily Mail that appeared under the headline "Simply White!" Walking on a beach surrounded by bronzed bodies, the Simply Red singer looks as if he's just had several layers of skin removed in an acid bath. Or was that photo simply rejigged a tone or two? A glance at the same photo in The Sun suggests this might be the case.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN was surrounded by an adoring group of female fans at Tuesday evening's opening party for Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. His presence definitely raised the adrenalin level at the bash, particularly among London's hacks and PR flacks who were relieved to see that we could still attract the Hollywood A-list to our premieres. The film has a very laddish football feel, and so did the party, thanks to Vinnie Jones, one of its stars, and a pack of his Premiership pals. Pandora was curious about Dustin's footie credentials and asked the star of Tootsie and Rain Man if he followed the British game. "Yes," he claimed. What was his favourite club? "Same

as Sting's."