Equally uncertain was the verdict of the Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges on the Neil Hamilton affair. The Guardian, which Hamilton had tried unsuccessfully to sue, was still in gloating mood and headlined its story: "Nine votes to nil - he took the cash." The words were taken (loosely) from a facing quote by Robert Sheldon, a member of the Committee, who said: "The decision neither to add nor subtract to Sir Gordon's findings means we have accepted his words that there is compelling evidence he took cash from Mohamed Al Fayed. And that was agreed by nine votes to nil." This was not how the other papers saw it.
"Hamilton inquiry fails to reach verdict on key issue," said the Telegraph, which also quoted an unnamed member of the committee as describing the result as "a discreditable shambles". The Mail described it as a "travesty" and said that "nothing has been properly resolved". The Times headed their report: "Verdict casts doubt on disciplinary system" and said that "there can be no absolute proof that such payments were or were not made". The committee had been "split over the charge that mattered most". That was presumably not the same 9-0 split that we read about in the Guardian. It was left to Simon Hoggart in - surprisingly enough - the Guardian to explain precisely what the committee had agreed: "Faced with the question of whether, apart from all his other wrongdoings, he had actually taken cash in brown envelopes, the Committee's conclusions were - and I paraphrase - 1) Search us, squire, 2) How would we know, eh? and 3) You're asking the wrong blokes, you are.
The Louise Woodward story ran all week, as we waited for Judge Zobel's ruling. The British press has, unsurprisingly, generally taken the side of the defendant, and, in the absence of any hard news to report, been busy vilifying American justice in general and the judge in particular. On Tuesday, the Mirror's front page was adorned with a picture of the Statue of Liberty, and the words: "If this statue means anything to America, Louise Woodward will today be given back her LIBERTY". The same paper described Zobel on Tuesday as "a maverick judge who refuses to watch TV", and the following day clearly saw his "bizarre decision" to post his ruling on the Internet as confirming his oddness. The Sun used the headline "Internut", said "Judge is a disgrace" and pointed out that "Louise may have to wait up to three days more in jail before being brought to court and told in person." The judge had "caused fury ... with his bizarre idea, believed to have been inspired by his computer crazy son." Apparently, a degree in technology qualifies you for the description "computer crazy". The Guardian, however, saw the decision as "an acknowledgement of the intense international interest in the case and a practical effort to make his ruling accessible to as many people as possible."
All the papers gave the Internet address on which the ruling will be posted, which may explain why the site was overloaded the next day. If you don't want the American legal system to crash, for heaven's sake don't try to call up: http: //www.lawyersweekly.com/ tomorrow morning.
In all the fervour surrounding the case, the verdict, and the appeal procedure, only Peter Hitchens in the Express was brave enough to make a simple point that others had chosen to overlook: "None of us knows if she harmed Matthew Eappen."
This story was not, however, the week's best example of xenophobia. When it comes to being suspicious of foreigners, the Frogs beat the Yanks every time as an object of contempt in some sections of the press, so it was no surprise to see the French lorry drivers' strike rousing passions. "France reveals the EU route to anarchy," said Steven Norris in the Mail, while the Express revelled in "Blair threat over truck blockade". Apparently, in a "frosty 15-minute phone call" Tony Blair gave Lionel Jospin 72 hours to end the blockade or the "Anglo-French summit would be ruined."
The Sun gave a typically robust account of British heroism in the face of French thuggery. Under the headline "Trucked 'em", we read that "Brits defy 18st strike yob to beat blockades by the French." Three "hero British truckers" drove their lorry through a gap in a blockade manned by a "hulking 18st thug". The report did not say how much the lorry, or our three heroes, weighed.
Whatever else happened, it was undeniably a good week for press freedom. The Times headline summed it up: "Editor cleared of encouraging readers to kill", and the Telegraph quoted one editor who described the case as "a serious challenge to journalistic independence and free speech." It was all a question of whether, two years ago, the Angling Times had been inciting its readers to kill cormorants. They had published a picture of a masked man, in camouflage clothing, holding a gun with his finger on the trigger; in the foreground were four dead cormorants. "Our campaign against cormorants continues" said the present editor of Angling Times.Reuse content