Sex makes headlines, while global calamities get scant mention, worries Henry Porter
ALLOW ME to trouble you with some statistics that appeared this week. I apologise in advance. They do not deal with the number of White House women who knelt before the President; the blows to the face delivered by Geoffrey Boycott of his former lover, Margaret Moore; the days Robin Cook departed from the Queen's side in India to spend time with Gaynor Regan; nor even the number of times the television chef Steven Saunders was accused of running his hand up a waitress's dress.

You know about these stories in detail. They are the news. Or the news that you read about, and they are given spurious respectability by the claim that they tell us how the relations between men and women are changing.

One other figure that's worth remembering from this week is the area of the Amazon rain forest destroyed in the 1994-95 burning season - the latest figures we have. It is 11,196 square miles. It's not a very sexy figure I admit but add that to the 22,393 square miles consumed by the lumber trade, and we are looking at the destruction of a place the size of Ireland. No wonder the Brazilians waited to release these figures until after the Tokyo Earth Summit, and when the American people were thinking of other things

Here's another statistic from the inside pages of last week's paper: 2,000 square miles of polar ice cap may be about to break off and float away from the Antarctic. The ice caps at both ends of the earth are melting and the effects are likely to be so enormous that marine biologists and climatologists cannot accurately predict what will happen, but it is not impossible that melting ice from the Arctic will cause a mass of cold water to flow southwards and knock the Gulf Stream off course, doing frightful things to our clement climate.

When we're having such fun watching the grandest lawyers of America earnestly discuss semen stains and blow jobs, it does perhaps seem straight-laced and plodding to mention that there is real and important news out there. If the climate doesn't do it for you, what about Algeria where the end of Ramadan this week was marked by the demonic butchering of 34 more people? Or Turkey, a nation which promotes itself as "European" in all but geographical definition, but whose human rights record belongs to the Third World. Last week the Turkish government admitted the existence of officially sanctioned murder squads There are still 14,000 Turks, mostly Kurds, whose murder and disappearence have not been explained.

These stories barely made an appearance in the British broadsheet press, other than as items in the "news-in-brief" columns, one of which accorded precisely seven lines to the news from Brazil. Another survey of the Amazon last week reported that the forest is becoming so dry that the whole lot might go up in a great cloud of smoke, like South East Asia. That piece of information was in the International Herald Tribune, which had every excuse for abandoning its usual beat, but stuck to it faithfully.

In Britain the broadsheets went wild about Clinton, Cook and Boycott. On Wednesday, for instance, the Daily Telegraph ran all three stories on its front page, plus a report about the naval officer with singing underpants who was fined pounds 2,000 for engaging in sexually explicit conversation with a Wren. There was little room for anything else, which says a lot about the way the media now - although larger and more diverse than ever before - condenses the agenda. In the case of the Clinton story, it narrows to what might have happened to a few women with primped-out hair and catfish lips.

The demands of modern newspaper design mean these stones sprawl through papers, overwhelming the other news - which can be too testing or upsetting. Our attention is narrowed and our understanding of what is going on is reduced. It is the process called dumbing down, which we imagine is limited to America. I have news for you: it is here and some of the grandest newspapers in the land rolled over long ago. In 1998 we've dumbed down so much that we lap up wild speculation about the lady in the President's work room, and ignore massacres in Algeria, never mind the climate.

With so much gaiety to hand and so many blushes to enjoy, I do appreciate how very pompous this seems. But that is the point. These are scandals that do not scandalise, but simply entertain, rolling on through the week with twists and turns, accusations and counter accusations, until the the individuals involved are either sacrificed or limp from the stage exhausted. A media obsession becomes a bet, and at the end of this week the odds were on Clinton's survival, and on Cook's and Boycott's eventual demise.

The audience is inclined to blame the media for the a la carte menu of sex and scandal, but individual members have little trouble in swallowing what has been put in front of them. That is because we're convinced that we are intelligently engaged in the events of the world - in what were once called "current affairs" - until the routine snigger became just too tiresome. We insist that we haven't changed, that it is the tone of public life that's changed.

The particular hypocrisy of the last ten days has been the notion that we are witnessing the long-desired equalisation of men in power and the women they abuse. Looking through any of the broadsheet newspapers last Wednesday, when Clinton, Cook and Boycott were all experiencing maximum discomfort, a theme seemed to be developing. One way or another, these three men were being made to pay for classic male crimes that may be summarised as follows: adulterously using a wo- man's body without emotional engagement; or, alternatively, leaving a wife for a younger woman, or using intimidation and physical violence.

As each of the three men appears to be guilty to greater or lesser degrees, we sit back and watch the fun, content that what is happening is both good and just. Woman are at last able to discuss their treatment at the hands of men, to publicise it, and to appear in court to expose the brutality of a partner. For the first time in history, there seems to be a squaring of gross inequalities between the sexes. Of course, this has not yet become a general movement throughout the liberal democracies, because it still chiefly involves the exposure of well-known men for common faults and vices. They are the vanguard who are pilloried as examples of the new age of equality. Thus we have Earl Spencer in a South African divorce court, fighting his wife and his mistress, who found she had more in common with her predecessor than with her bullying lover.

Who can argue with this turn of events? Surely it is long overdue, especially in cases where women have been beaten up by their lovers, or abused by a boss that who turns nasty, when he tires of the charms of an employee he has desired. I can think of one powerful individual resident in this country who has harrassed and threatened scores of women. Many will know his name but I cannot use it here because he has never had to answer in court for the fear and hurt he's caused. There Is plenty wrong with that, and it is to be hoped that one day he'll face the wrath of a jury. In the United States, where they are more advanced in these matters than we are, this particular individual would already have faced multiple court actions for millions of dollars, on the lines of the case brought so publicly by Paula Jones.

But that should not make us feel any easier about the events of the last ten days, nor about the way we have been absorbed by the spectacle of these men squirming. We may argue that a crude form of justice is at work, and that they are reaping their rewards; but if you think about the level of hysteria their stories have caused, you may conclude that it is no more than mind-dulling entertainment - well below the level of The First Wives Club. What we had was oral sex on prime time. We thought it was a giggle.

Meanwhile, forests burn, ice melts; in North Africa, men steal down from the mountains at night to slit the throats of babies in front of their mothers.

We should get off our knees - all of us - and pay some attention.