That Was The Week: What The Papers Said

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When I buy my children a balloon, I always stress to them the importance of holding tightly on to the string. Apparently this is not a good idea when your balloon is the size of Richard Branson's, but you would have thought that a businessman of his expertise would have found some other way to stop the wretched thing blowing away. The Telegraph explained in some detail how thermal currents had increased wind speeds from two knots to 10. Then: "When a 14-knot gust hit the balloon, one of the 16 Kevlar mooring ropes, each with a one-ton breaking strain and attached to electric winches, snapped with a crack." Then another three snapped, and while the team were running away the other 12 went.

The day before this happened, the Times had explained how it would all be so different from last time. "Changes to the multi-million-pound capsule should ensure that there is no similar mishap." And just in case of problems, the crew "have been undergoing skydiving training in Morrocco in case they need to make a hurried exit from the capsule". That, of course, assumed that they had managed to get into it in the first place. While most papers carried the story under sad headlines such as "Branson's hopes blown away" (the Telegraph) or "Branson's bad balloon day" (the Guardian) or "Branson left stranded as the balloon goes up" (the Express), the Independent caught the real farce of the occasion with "who let go of the string?". Its report also came with a nice touch of schadenfreude: "To add insult to injury, the canopy got further than Branson's team did in its previous attempt."

The Daily Sport, incidentally, carried a report that it was sending its own "ace reporter and crack airman" Simon "Biggles" Dean to retrieve the Branson balloon. A photo showed Mr Dean in his own balloon brandishing the giant needle with which he hoped to deflate Branson's runaway. The funniest comment, however, was Matt's cartoon in the Telegraph which simply showed three wise men following a star, and looking a little bemused at the bearded chap running in the opposite direction chasing a balloon marked "Virgin".

There was a great deal of hot air both spoken about and spoken in Kyoto last week. Was this just another pointless international conference, or the last chance to save the planet? For the Express, it was "Clinton on rack over pollution", with the American President "accused of sacrificing future generations for the sake of profits by resisting cuts in greenhouses gases". In the Guardian, however: "An historic deal to cut the industrial world's emissions of greenhouse gases was rescued at the last possible moment ... by the personal intervention of President Bill Clinton." The Express pointed out that scientists disagree not only about the consequences of global warming, but even whether it was happening at all, while the Times added a layer of confusion with a provocative piece by Wilfred Beckerman suggesting that global warming would lead to increased food production in developing countries and might not be a bad thing.

The best account of the doom-laden conference atmosphere - "Global Warming? Pah! Just give me some clean socks" - came from Richard Lloyd Parry writing in the Independent on Thursday. "The awful possibility, which spread through the meeting rooms and negotiating huddles, was that instead of ending as scheduled last night the conference was going to continue until today, or even tomorrow. Global warming, rising oceans, malaria epidemics and skin cancer suddenly paled into insignificance. Nothing, nothing could be worse than another day of this."

Compared with the arrival of Sinn Fein in Downing Street, however, global warming holds few fears. With hopes for future peace weighed against the past atrocities of the IRA, the Daily Telegraph was in no doubt which side of the scales fell more heavily. Their leader called it "a day of shame" and "one of the low points of modern British history". Castigating the Prime Minister for "his handshake with the men of violence", it ended: "Mr Blair will have to answer to the nation and to the victims of terrorism for this ill-advised and shameful act".

To emphasise the point, the Telegraph devoted a full page to listing, in the style of a war memorial, the names of all 1,790 people believed to have been killed by the Provisional IRA since 1969. The Mail was almost equally condemnatory: "The long road to Downing Street was littered with corpses. Adams and his acolytes arrived with one briefcase and 35 years in jail between them." The front-page piece was headed "the blood brothers", though the tone was more balanced in its Comment column: "Maybe - just maybe - Mr Blair's gamble will come off. It could be that those distasteful scenes yesterday were necessary to achieve the peace for which we all yearn ... but it is hard to contemplate the triumphalism of Adams and his friends without a grim sense of foreboding." The Sun called it the "sickening price of peace", the Express said "this is an insult", with Peter Hitchens claiming that "Gerry and the Sickmakers" were "the only people who got into Downing Street without being checked for guns and bombs".

The Guardian called it "a risk worth taking", but the Times clearly felt that the meeting was a mistake. "What is certain is that [Blair's] invitation allowed Mr Adams the chance to project an image to the world which does democracy no service ... It is a pity that a government so skilled in presentation should have allowed democracy's doorstep to be so ill used." The Independent, however, seemed willing to draw a line under the past, seeing the meeting as "two men, a quiet room, and a chance to start again".

With those two great bogeymen - global warming and Gerry Adams - on our doorstep, we can be excused for not getting worked up about a ban on lamb on the bone. The Sun summed up the general mood very well in its headline: "Baa humbug".

To end on some good news: it was heartening to read in the Express of parents in Leeds demanding an apology from a teacher who told his pupils that there is no such thing as Santa Claus. Apparently, the kids know that is untrue because Santa answers letters from all over the world, he always eats the mince pies left out for him, and his reindeer leave teethmarks in the carrots and footprints in the drive.

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