WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
IF THERE are three topics that can be guaranteed to get the Daily Telegraph to foam at the mouth, they must be Christianity, the Tory party and Irish terrorists. Its policies on all three are very clear: the first must not be marginalised; the second must not be criticised; and the third must not be spoken to. Last week, with Peter Mandelson threatening to shunt religion off to a small corner of his Dome, a gang of senior Tories savaging William Hague's anti-European stance, and Mo Mowlam visiting the Maze, the Telegraph was positively frothing.

On Monday, it set the tone with "Disney shows Mandelson the way for millennium", and "Mandelson sidesteps the Mouse trap", two articles which established hostility to the possible Disneyfication of our Dome, while also showing grudging admiration for Mandelson's ability not to be photographed holding a Mickey Mouse balloon. On Tuesday, Mandy himself wrote to the Telegraph to tell them that, contrary to their fears, the "impact of Christianity on Western civilisation will be central to the Millennium Experience". On Wednesday, the battle lines were drawn up: "Over the weekend, Mr Mandelson went on a pilgrimage to Disneyworld. The Disney organisation leads the world in the mass production of soft-headed family entertainment. It already offers its delights near Paris as well as in the United States. We do not need them repeated over here. It will be an extraordinary, absurd, almost blasphemous thing if Britain chooses to commemorate the 2,000th birthday of Jesus Christ with a nationalised version of Mickey Mouse, paid for from the profits of gambling."

The other papers were more interested in finding out what would be in the Dome rather than what might be left out. The Times even listened to Mandelson holding court at dinner while he was in the US: "Sounding much more like new Sartre than new Labour, Mr Mandelson said: 'The first theme is: who are we? That is a question that has teased me for many years, and has become acute since I took charge of the Millennium Dome. What is our nature? Our existence, our essence? What were we? What will we be? Why will we be it?' "

In the Guardian, Roy Hattersley wrote: "Last Wed- nesday [New Year's Eve] I was in bed by half- past-ten and asleep by eleven. But in two years' time I may not have the courage to behave in the same sensible way." That's probably because he's as desperate as everyone else to see what Mandy puts into his Dome. The Independent came up with one theory: "Mr Mandelson latched instantly on to one key long time tenet of Disney policy: never reveal the contents of new attractions until they open."

Keith Waterhouse in the Mail, however, had a different view: "We must stop calling it the Dome and learn to call it Mandelson World now that the Minister Without A Clue What To Put In It has been to Disneyworld and nicked all their best ideas." As Peter Mandelson himself was quoted as saying in the same paper: "There are only two organisations that can do this sort of thing and get it right - Disney and Britain."

When a dozen senior members of a party write to a newspaper on a contentious policy issue, one would expect a different dozen equally high-ranking ones to write the next day expounding the opposite view. Senior Tories, however, are rather thin on the ground these days, so when 12 of them wrote to the Independent to protest against William Hague's position on a single currency it was left to Norman Tebbit to write to the Telegraph, not so much to support his leader's European policy as to abuse the Independent: "Perhaps the most curious thing about the letter written by the Europhile Conservative former ministers is that it was addressed to the Independent ... that broadsheet for the avant garde trendies of the last generation". The Times said of the original letter: "Were it not signed by such hoarily familiar political household names, the content of the letter would hardly merit publication." That paper latched on to one name among the signatories as the man worth watching: "For Mr Patten, who learnt in Hong Kong not to associate with dyspeptic gerontocrats or to listen uncritically to the received wisdom of the Establishment, this is a poor way to reposition himself in the Tory mainstream."

On Monday - the day of the letter's publication - the Times wrote: "The Tory leadership did not react last night and will be reluctant to engage in public confrontation with the signatories." They must have been surprised next day to read in the Express: "Hague lets fly at Dirty Dozen ... William Hague last night rounded on the Tory old guard opposing his policy on Europe, branding them an out-of-touch minority." The best invective, however, came in a letter from Frederick Forsyth to the Independent in which he suggested it might not be wise to follow the advice of the men who took us so disastrously into the ERM: "When tipsters repeatedly propose three- legged donkeys, the smart punter refers to the form book."

The story that deservedly gained most space this week was Mo Mowlam's visit to the Maze Prison. The Telegraph branded her decision "to hold talks with some of Ulster's most notorious murderers" as "not just unprecedented; it is also bizarre, deeply offensive and naive in the extreme", and compared it with a Home Secretary having discussions on penal policy with the Yorkshire Ripper or Rosemary West. In the same paper, Paul Goodman said: "It is hard to think of a worse misjudgment since Appeasement." The Express warned: "Mowlam should not sentence our democracy to death" but Simon Heffer in the Mail described it as "stomach-turning but a risk worth taking". On the day before Dr Mowlam's visit, a tour of the Maze for journalists provided some good descriptive pieces of conditions in the jail, but it was the terrorists that made the strongest impression. "The immoral Maze", as the Independent described it, "more akin to a prisoner of war camp - with its chains of command - than it is to a jail housing common criminals." The best encapsulation of Mo Mowlam's extraordinary, courageous and desperate action, however, came in a cartoon by Steve Bell in the Guardian. It simply showed her sitting at a table with three balaclava'd terrorists, all of them rather uncomfortably holding tea cups and Ms Mowlam offering: "More tea, Mad Dog?"

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