WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS

ACCORDING to Friday's Mail, the local elections were "Blair's taste of defeat as Liberals sweep in". The Express saw it differently, with the headline, "Hague's troops take a small step forward". The Telegraph, too, was sure that "Tories see first sign of recovery". For the Sun, however, it was "Blair's double joy on mayor, councils", though the Guardian thought: "Labour falters in local polls".

The Independent led on "London votes for a mayor by three to one", but mentioned that "there were claims that the mandate for the move was not strong enough after a turnout of only around 35 per cent." The vote for a London mayor was hardly surprising. The local election electorate are the hardcore voters; of course, they voted in favour of voting. But what about the 65 per cent non-voters? In view of the confusion about who won the local elections - there were almost as many interpretations of the result as there were voters - I think we can confidently declare the Apathy candidate elected.

There were three main stories of the week, and the Government did not come out well in any of them. The Netanyahu-Arafat talks in London were a low-key affair, perhaps because nobody really expected much to come of them. The Telegraph saw "Gloom over Middle East talks", but thought it detected one encouraging aspect: "The most positive element ... is that the agenda is at last shifting to security. Israel's concern throughout has been that terrorists should not move into the territory it is prepared to vacate." The Times saw the lack of agreement in London only as the "End of Part One: Blair hands the Middle East baton back to Albright". In the Independent, however, Robert Fisk saw little hope: "Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat came to London yesterday, dragged the corpse of the Oslo Agreement out of its coffin and - with respective satisfaction and despair - threw it back into the ground." His view of the future was bleak: "The Blair theory, that 'it's important just to talk', also failed yesterday. All Messrs Netanyahu and Arafat wanted to do was blame the other for the darkness approaching the Middle East and make sure that the world took their side when the storm broke."

If the Middle East talks came to a standstill, the launch of the euro was, for Tony Blair, one step forward and two back. "Euro launch descends into farce" said the Telegraph on Monday. "No way to run a moules stall" said the Mail: "Two dogs fighting over a bone could scarcely have launched a single currency with less decorum." The Guardian let Blair off the hook by blaming the French: "Chirac's deal is tacky"; and the Times suggested that Blair had "emerged as something of a scapegoat for frustrated leaders of the smaller states who complained of a lack of preparation and failure to include them in negotiations".

The Telegraph was also unimpressed when Blair reported his euro-efforts to the House: "The PM demonstrated such confusion about Europe that he was unsure even how to pronounce the surname of Wim Duisenberg ... sometimes it was 'Doozenberg', sometimes it was 'Dweezenberg' and sometimes it floated somewhere in between." How many Telegraph journalists, I wonder, would even try to get their tonsils round a Dutch "ui" diphthong?

The Foreign Secretary also had a difficult week. Should he not have noticed that his staff were shovelling arms for all they were worth from his back garden into Sierra Leone? The Mail diagnosed "Something wrong at the Foreign Office". Having established that the Foreign Office and Department of International Affairs "had drawn up a blueprint" for Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's return to power, it asked: "Why should Mr Lloyd discuss a blueprint for Kabbah's reinstatement at a time when the president seemed to have little prospect of regaining power?" In the same paper, however, George Walden thought it all hypocrisy and "absurd to criticise our support of the good guys in a foreign war". He ended: "Whatever the truth, for God's sake let's not get ourselves into a position where we are so damned ethical that we are not even allowed to do good by stealth."

The Mail also noticed the paradox: "For months Mr Cook has been strutting the world stage as the self-satisfied personification of an ethical foreign policy, while ludicrously unaware of a procession of gun-runners, mercenaries and customs officers chasing each other round his own diplomatic back yard." In the Express, Ben Pimlott asked: "It there room for ethics in foreign affairs?" and put his finger on the main weakness in Robin Cook's defence of ignorance: "It is Mr Cook's job to indicate the kind of issue he wants to have brought to his attention."

The Independent asked: "Does Robin Cook know what goes on in his own department?" and implied that he really ought to have known "that officials had connived with a British firm of 'military consultants', Sandline Ltd, supplying arms and mercenaries to support a coup in Sierra Leone."

The two tallest tales of the week both appeared in the Express, one a prediction of doom, the other a claim of peace in our time. The doom awaiting us will hit, we are told, on 5 May 2000 when the Earth, Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will all line up in the sky and, according to "experts", the "gravitational pull will be so intense that it will wreak destruction on earth". Volcanoes and tidal waves a mile high - you know the sort of thing. The "experts" quoted seem to come down to one man, Dr Julian Salt, though others quoted in the same piece pointed out that the extra gravitational pull would be infinitesimal. That was the not-so-bad-news; the not-so-good-news came in Fay Weldon's Express column on Wednesday when she asked whether the new Viagra anti-impotence pill will lead to the end of armed conflict. "No more macho struggles to be biggest and best; no more nuclear warheads to prove a political point (how crudely phallic the Cruise missiles of Greenham always seemed. Without the need for the techno-eroticism of war, peace will break out." But then Ms Weldon shattered the illusion she had created by quoting her hairstylist, Auriole: "'Are men mad? It's not going to make any difference to anything. Women don't want them going on and on. Women want to get to sleep.'"

Finally, the headline of the week comes from a Reuters report from Dar Es Salaam: "Tanzanian capital without water after floods".

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