What The Papers Said

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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I WONDER if Saddam Hussein has finalised his plans for celebrating the Millennium. To judge by the descriptions of those palaces of his that we've decided not to bomb yet, he could be just the sort of megalomaniac Peter Mandelson needs to advise him on what to put in the Dome.

The nature of Kofi Annan's agreement with Saddam Hussein was the running story of the week. On Monday, the Times announced: "UN Chief makes deal with Saddam" quoting Annan's words: "It's positive for Iraq and for the world". But the editorial comment was far less positive. "Without pinpoint bombing and/or constant checking by UN inspectors," Michael Evans warned, "Iraq could produce chemical and biological weapons in weeks, a long-range missile in a year and a nuclear weapon in five years." On Tuesday, the story was: "West to keep threat of bombing" and the considered opinion came down clearly on the side of Saddam as victor in the recent squabble. "They will be speaking his name around every Bedouin campfire and in every smart Saudi Mercedes with respect and admiration," an unnamed Iraqi businessman was quoted as saying. "It's a very sad day indeed when the Americans are wrongfooted by such a monster."

On the same day, however, a leading article in the Times struggled to represent the agreement as a victory for the good guys: "Kofi Annan clearly if implicitly endorsed the American and British preparations for military action against Iraq." The same leader went on to assert that in the event of Saddam resuming his obstructive ways: "Mr Clinton must be in a position to assert unequivocally that retribution would then be automatic, immediate and devastating."

The Guardian, always the least belligerent of our papers on this matter, announced with relief: "Back from the brink", and quoted Annan's words in Paris: "President Saddam and the Iraqi government accept that we can visit all eight palaces. Tomorrow." It was, in the Guardian's opinion, "A deal that can satisfy ... significant achievement ... prevented a war whose consequences were dangerously unpredictable." Soon, however, word leaked out that if we went to see his palaces tomorrow, we might not be allowed in the day after. And as the week wore on, the consequences of the Annan- Saddam agreement began to look more and more dangerously unpredictable too. On Wednesday it was: "Saddam orders removal of UN weapon chief" in the Express, and on Thursday we saw "Iraqis begin to unpick UN deal" in the Telegraph and "Iraqis reject repeat site inspections" in the Times. Perhaps the most succinct summary of the current stand-off was the headline in the Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot quoted in the Times: "Until the next crisis". At least one man, however, may be disappointed by the outcome: President Gaddafi of Libya was quoted in the Times as saying: "I would have preferred to see Iraq destroyed and all Iraqis butchered and be saints rather than let them search [Saddam's] bedrooms."

The other great story of the week was the unveiling of Mandy's Dome, a topic on which the Sport and the art critic of the Telegraph were, for once, united - though the Sport expressed its opinion more succinctly: "We've only one thing to say to Tony Blair after his rallying call to support the 'daring, boldness and striving for excellence' of the Millennium Dome: BOLLOCKS. And baby BOLLOCKS to the Baby Dome as well ... if Tony Blair really believes that Greenwich is the most exciting place to be on December 31 1999, it must make the rest of us a bunch of sad bastards."

In the Telegraph Richard Dorment wrote: "My jaw dropped in disbelief ... when I heard the Prime Minister describe the contents of the Millennium Dome as 'bold, beautiful and inspiring'." Comparing the structure with such permanent monuments as the Getty Centre in Chicago or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which were built on comparable budgets, Dorment finds the Dome "hopelessly meretricious". He would far rather have seen the money spent on ensuring free entry to all our museums and galleries for the next hundred years and urges all readers to take an oath: "I solemnly swear not to waste my time and money traipsing through that ridiculous tent in Greenwich."

For all the descriptions and graphics depicting what will be in the tent, nothing really gave me any clear impression of what the Greenwich experience will be like. The pictures, particularly of the Dreamscape sector, resemble nothing more that Hieronymous Bosch's visions of Hell. Since, as the Guardian pointed out on Thursday, they may not be able to call it "Dreamscape" anyway, because that is the copyright of a company that organises raves, perhaps Mandelson should consider changing the name to Hellscape. Or Waste- of-Space-scape.

The Guardian thought it looked "more like sets from Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds TV show or the Teletubbies than expressions of British design thinking at its radical and brilliant best." That paper also had one of the best domophobic quotes, from the playwright David Hare: "I don't give a bugger what they put in it."

It was Paul Johnson in the Mail, however, who put his finger on the basic design fault: "The Dome was a dubious concept from the start, for it essentially consisted of constructing an enormous empty building before deciding what to put in it. This went against all the principles of architecture, since Imhotep invented it in the third millennium BC."

The Mirror is convinced that the Dome is a good thing: "At one stage, the Mirror seemed to stand alone in greeting it as a visionary, brilliant way to mark the new millennium." Er, sorry to have to tell you this chaps, but as far as I can see, nobody is standing there with you and Mandy yet.

With those two great demons of our time, Mandelson and Saddam, dominating the news, there was one story in the Telegraph on Thursday that made me feel strong pangs of envy. Six Germans, it reported, have been declared joint winners of a sleep-over competition after spending more than six weeks in bed at a shopping mall near Berlin. Six weeks? That's a whole Iraqi crisis they missed. If there's another contest starting sometime in December 1999, I shall be strongly tempted to join in.

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