he Government, according to Lord Lamont, will be embar- rassed by the revelation that the Pope has intervened on behalf of Augusto Pinochet.

Embarrassed? If I was Jack Straw, I would be doubled up with laughter. On this occasion, the manner in which the information came out is more interesting than its substance, that the Vatican has made representations to Britain about the court proceedings to extradite the general to Spain. Most commentators, guided by Lord Lamont, have taken this to mean that the Pope, who paid a cordial visit to Chile while General Pinochet was in power, does not want his old pal to face the indignity of standing trial.

But with Baroness Symons, the Foreign Office minister who confirmed the intervention in a written answer to Lord Lamont, refusing to comment further, and the Vatican performing the equivalent of turning on its answering- machine, some observers have given John Paul II the benefit of the doubt. They are being unnecessarily generous. A pontiff who has recently condemned human rights abuses is going to find himself in a little difficulty when it comes to overlooking the murder of at least 2,000 people and the torture of many more. So how better to help a devout Catholic such as the general than to let it be known that the Vatican has intervened, while leaving it to a fully paid-up member of the Pinochet fan club to give chapter and verse?

"The Government should listen to the voice of the Pope as a Christian leader," Lord Lamont told anyone who was prepared to listen. "He understands the value of human life. But as someone who lived under a Communist dictatorship ... [he] would understand the reason for saving a country from a Marxist dictatorship." You would think, at this point, that Lord Lamont would face a barrage of questions from an incredulous press. What Marxist dictatorship? Where is the evidence that the deposed president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was planning to stage a coup? Such is the deference hacks habitually display towards ex-ministers, however, that this fantastic speculation goes unchallenged. So it is worth recalling that Allende formed a coalition government in Chile in 1970 after receiving 36 per cent of the vote in the presidential election. In March 1973, only months before he was overthrown, Allende's share of the vote in congressional elections was 43 per cent. In other words, his popularity at the ballot box was increasing, which is why his opponents resorted to violence.

It is hardly surprising if the Pope does not want to be seen lending his name to an unsavoury band of relicts and reactionaries. For even if the former dictator is eventually sent home to enjoy his retirement in Chile, his arrest has performed the valuable function of revealing the existence of a self-appointed elite that considers its members beyond the law. In the past, they were safe in making this assumption, which is why they characterise the general's arrest in such apocalyptic terms. What they see emerging is a new moral order, and they will go to almost any lengths to resist it.

These include purporting to discover moral equivalence where it does not exist - the discredited "Allende was as bad as Pinochet" argument - and a willingness to distort language which is positively Orwellian. Here is a final example from the Pontiff's representative on earth, Lord Lamont, last week: "I suspect that the representations have been made at the highest level, recognising the general's great contribution to protect freedom in the Cold War." With such a gift for sophistry, Lord Lamont's talents are wasted in the House of Lords. John Paul II is in poor health. Anyone feel like starting a campaign for Pope Norman?

"SHE'S BACK and she's angry", the Daily Telegraph announced, trailing its serialisation of Germaine Greer's new book, The Whole Woman. I don't yet know what she is angry about but I wonder whether it has anything to do with fending off incessant questions about feminism. I am used to variations of "is it dead?" and "does it have any relevance to younger women?". (No and yes, repeated ad nauseam.) I have even gritted my teeth and explained that I don't know any feminists who are planning to desecrate the grave of Ted Hughes. Now I've been sent a questionnaire by a PhD student who wants to know whether I consider my sexual relations with men "mostly feminist" or "mostly not feminist". I get the point, really I do. But I'm tempted to reply that I never have sex unless it's simultaneously passionate, feminist, socialist and republican.