WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A COUPLE of weeks ago, we were all going to be wiped out by an asteroid. Then, a moment later, the asteroid changed its mind and decided to miss us after all. Last week it happened again, only this time it was Saddam's agents who were going to sneak up behind us and spray us with anthrax from a duty-free perfume bottle.

The Sun started the story rolling with a full front-page "world exclusive" on Tuesday, "Saddam's anthrax in our duty frees". At the heart of the

story was a memo to Customs officers: "Iraq may launch chemical and biological attacks using material disguised as harmless fluids. Could officers therefore be alert for any items which might contain harmful substances." The calm tone of that message - very much an "I say chaps, do keep a lookout; jolly dangerous stuff, anthrax" sort of warning - prompted an asteroid-sized reaction in the Sun. Pages two and three were covered with "Scent of revenge" explaining how the "deadly germ could be in perfume, booze, cosmetics or lighters" and pages four and five told us of the "One sniff, dead in four days" power of the "minuscule murderer".Then, to rub the message home, a leading article reminded us that "Saddam could kill the world" and argued for a pre-emptive strike on Iraq. "Before long, the boil on the world's backside must be lanced. Before its poison spreads too far."

The other papers picked up quickly on the story. "Saddam plotting to poison our duty frees with anthrax" said the Mirror, which wasn't what the original warning had said at all. There had only been a suggestion that anthrax might be smuggled in using innocent-looking duty-free bottles.

The Telegraph went for "Ports alert for Saddam anthrax in duty-frees" and said that "the information was passed on by intelligence officers from a source inside the Baghdad regime". The Guardian gave the story the least coverage, with a brief front-page report - "Saddam anthrax plot warning" - which quoted a Home Office minister saying: "There is no specific threat as far as we can gather to Britain. I don't think this is a greater threat than many of the others than have been made." The Express, meanwhile, treated its readers to "British ports put on anthrax terror alert" on page one, and "Deadly threat in duty free bottle" on pages four and five.

On Wednesday, however, the deadly spores seemed to have blown over. The Telegraph, just in case the story kept running, filled in with "Tories held top-secret 'anthrax' exercise", reporting on lessons VIPs were given in 1995 on how to put on anti-anthrax rubber suits. The Mail told us how "Blair and royals take part in germ warfare rehearsal", but for the most part the anthrax threat had already gone the same way as the asteroid. "Ministers sound retreat on anthrax warning", said the Guardian, as Jack Straw told the Commons that there was "no specific threat" to Britain nor any evidence that anyone had tried to smuggle anthrax into the country. And next to that, just to reassure us further, they put a panel of information on how anthrax kills you.

The whole affair was best summed up in the heading of a Daily Mail comment column: "Don't panic, it's an anthrax alert!"

The duty-free anthrax story chased the real news of the week off many front pages. What were we to make of Boris Yeltsin's decision to sack his entire cabinet? "Did Boris mean to clear out his DRINKS cabinet?" asked the Mirror, which started its report: "Boozy Boris Yeltsin stunned the world yesterday by sacking his entire government without warning". The news was adorned with a piece by a psychotherapist, Alan Brooke, whose informed opinion was that: "These are the actions of a desperate man. Someone who is paranoid ... It is not a rational decision ... he has been working too hard ... he is obviously not making sane decisions." That diagnosis, however, seemed to start from the assumption that the decision was irrational and conclude from that that boozy Boris is barking. The Sun said that he "sacked his entire cabinet to foil a coup" and stressed how much Yeltsin admired Tony Blair. "Yeltsin's hunting Russian Blairski" was its summary of the situation.

The Telegraph admitted a grudging respect: "His sacking of Mr Chernomyrdin, a loyal but dull politician, may have been brutal, but it was cleverly justified by the victim's obvious lack of fresh ideas for imparting a decisive impetus to reform." The Telegraph's summary: "a bravura performance".

The Guardian was more concerned. "Yeltsin ignites Russia crisis" it reported, describing the new Russian prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko as "an obscure former shipping engineer" who is now "a heartbeat away from control of a former superpower's nuclear arsenal". The Times said "Yeltsin leaps into the abyss" adding that "these sackings can only make Russia even more weak and dangerous". The leader writers of that paper saw it as "good theatre but poor politics". The most reassuring analysis came in the Financial Times: "The attachment of Sergei Kiriyenko ... to the reformist camp around Boris Nemtsov bodes well for greater transparency in government than characterised the era of Victor Chernomyrdin." With Russian shares edging upwards, single- digit inflation expected soon and "broad-based supports for the basic tenets of macro-economic stability" the FT seems not to disapprove of "this spirited presidential axe-wielding".

But let us forget, for a moment, Russia's unattended nuclear arsenals and Saddam's anthrax, for this was the week when a British prime minister spoke French. "Blair bons mots prove a palpable hit" said the Guardian. "Apart from one 'alors', he spoke with a clarity and directness he seems to find difficult at home." The Times said "French given a revealing lesson in le Blairisme". But it was Fritz Spiegl in a letter to the Telegraph who put le Blairisme into its proper context. Quoting the Collins-Robert French dictionary, he cited: "blairer, verb intransitive, je ne peux pas blairer, he gives me the creeps, I can't stand or bear him."

Finally, the most intriguing item came in a Reuters report of a survey of New Yorkers' sexual habits: "When broken down by sexual orientation, gay men were the most likely group to be looking for a serious relationship." Well, if you were broken down by sexual orientation, wouldn't you be looking for a serious relationship too?

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