WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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THERE can scarcely be any sight more chilling than that of a newspaper preparing for war. "The Allies will be ready to blitz Iraq in seven days" said the Sun on Thursday. The report quoted the words of US Defence Secretary William Cohen to his troops in the Gulf: "You are the steel in the sword of freedom. You are the tip of the sword." The Express had: "Troops massed for Iraq blitz" and quoted George Robertson, Britain's defence secretary, as saying: "What Saddam is doing is unacceptable." In the same paper, John Major, who, we are reminded, "led Britain into the last Gulf War", wrote to support the use of force: "Just two alternatives exist. One is to give in - and let Saddam go on developing his weapons with disastrous consequences for the future. The other is to confront him now." The piece was headlined: "This time we must bring him down", which does, at least, make the objective clear. In the Mail, the means to that end were more specifically identified: "The primary target will be the Republican Guard ... which sustains his evil regime within his country." Another piece in the same paper said that "only by climbing down and opening its weapons sites to UN inspection could the Baghdad regime avoid a bloodbath".

The Guardian, ever optimistic that war can be avoided, reported "Iraq gives ground on weapons" while at the same time devoting a page to an analysis of "Saddam's deadly armoury", with pictures of Anthrax, Botulinum toxin, Clostridium perfringens and Rotavirus as seen under the microscope and details of how each can kill you. The Times told us of Saddam's "big stockpile of Agent 15 nerve gas" and the Telegraph wrote of "Super-weapons hidden in tissue of lies".

In the midst of all this bellicose sabre-rattling, one article stood out from all the others. In Thursday's Independent, Robert Fisk, who can describe the real horror of war better than anyone else writing today, attacked the facile politics that have led us to the brink of military adventure yet again. His piece ended like this: "For war is not primarily about victory or defeat. It is about death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit. And if we really are going to participate in this obscenity again, is it not possible to do so with the humility of men who know what we are doing?"

One man's spirits were certainly dampened by an unexpected attack last week. "You have to feel sorry for John Prescott," said the Independent, though the report suggested anything but sorrow for the minister who had a bucket of water thrown over him when he was "at one of the trendiest pop events of the year, trying to be very new Labour and pretend he was having a good time". According to the Telegraph, the "anarchist in a mini- skirt" from the group Chumbawamba who drenched the Deputy Prime Minister said it was "a metaphor for the underdog pissing on the steps of Downing Street". The Sun, however, quoted Danbert Nobacon (who changed his name from Nigel Hunter, selecting the surname "Nobacon" because he was a vegetarian) as saying: "We hoped Tony Blair would be there so we could spit in his champagne," but they do not explain what would have been the metaphorical significance of that act. Anyway Danbert's mum, Shirley, told the Sun: "He's no yobbo, he's very intellectual" - or "He's no chumpa, says mumba" as the headline put it.

While all the papers carried pictures of Mr Prescott looking very much as though he wished he'd put his Fleetwood Mac on in time, the Express also had a photo that was clearly taken just before the water was thrown, with the minister defensively flinging out a dry arm and apparently knocking over a bottle of wine. With Prescott's eyes staring almost directly out of the picture, the photographer must have been standing right next to the intellectual with the bucket of water. Lucky chap. Danbert's mum was more forthcoming to the Express too, telling the paper that their family holidays were always in Cornwall or Devon - "The lads always loved Ilfracombe".

One shoal of stories left an even worse taste in the mouth than champagne that has been spat in. With the publication of a new book of lurid speculation concerning the death of Princess Diana, the exploitation of her sad life reached a new low. The Times, with long pieces such as "Diana: the missing minutes" and "Was Diana pregnant?", even serialised the wretched thing, while many of the other papers, eager not to fall behind, pursued their own Diana agendas. The Mirror gave five pages to its interview with Mohamed Fayed and his rambling conspiracy theories over the death of his son and the princess. The Mail ran a front-page "Could Diana have lived?" story raising doubts over whether she received the best possible medical treatment after the accident. The same paper also gave a good deal of space to "Sorting fact from fantasy in the strange tale of Dodi and the baby", while also pronouncing "The slurs that taint Diana" in the new book to be "without foundation". The Mail just called them "These cruel Diana lies", but it was the Express that summarised the whole coverage best in its headline: "Why can't they let Diana rest in peace?" That was on a page five story, continued at length from page one, and thus answering its own question: they can't leave her in peace because such tasteless gossip still sells newspapers. As indeed do headlines such as this week's best from the Sport: "Pickled police girl ate my leg" though the story beneath was a somewhat disappointing tale of a policewoman who had been eating pickled onions before biting someone.

The other death that made the front pages last week was that of Enoch Powell "Hero and villain" as the Sun aptly described him. The Guardian preferred the epithet "maverick politician" and almost every paper had their own favourite Powell quotations. Yet they seem to lose much of their power in print. I had the good fortune to see Powell in action when I happened to be in the House of Commons on the day of a major debate on the Falklands crisis. His clipped tones, elegantly constructed sentences and the powerful logic behind everything he said were spell-binding, particularly the conviction with which he uttered his conclusion: "We must go to war." As the Guardian quoted Baroness Thatcher as saying: "There will never be another Enoch." Trite but true. Whatever would his fine mind have made of the current mess in Iraq?

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