WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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How different newspapers are when they have something to get their teeth into. When the week began they were all scratching around to find something to keep the Liberal Democrats off the front page. The Telegraph showed what it thought of the Lib Dems by leading on "Back me or sack me, says Hague"; the Times preferred "Fertility hope for boys who survive cancer"; the Mirror, relying on continuing interest in the train crash, unearthed "Driver: I warned line was not safe"; and even the Guardian led on "MI5 fights benefit cheats". The Express went back to another successful theme with "In Memory - Diana stamps delayed by Earl Spencer", a story of the commemorative issue of stamps being delayed because Diana's family thought it was too soon after her death. The inside pages of most papers were full of splendid pictures of the Oxford and Cambridge boats sinking in the Amazon, and the Mail produced a fine comment from the President of the Cambridge Boat Club, who said: "The organisers really should have flown someone out from England with experience of the Boat Race, so they could explain how we are threatened by the wash from other boats on the water." Quite right. What do these foreign johnnies know about running a boat race? Funny how the Brazilians didn't sink, though.

Tuesday was human interest day with "Brave Josie's bid to identify killer" in the Mail. The Express led on the story of the mother of a drug victim who ordered his friends to file past his hospital bed: "Learn from my dying son." In the Telegraph "Blair fails to halt cabinet pay revolt" nuzzled against "I'm leaving home, says Currie". The Times went for "Hague plans bigger say for rank-and-file".

The Lib Dems got on to a few front pages with "Mandelson attacks Ashdown" stories, but there was rather more general interest in telling young Hague what he had to do. "Leading the Tories," huffed Paul Johnson in the Mail, "is not about hob-nobbing with carnival types in Notting Hill Gate." And that baseball cap will have to go. Lady Thatcher, however, was reported to be less concerned about caps and carnivals than the propriety of a Tory leader sharing a bed with his Ffiancee at the conference.

Then on Wednesday it all changed. At last, there was a story worthy of the mettle of the British press, and this one had everything. Human interest, crime, brutality and untrustworthy foreign johnnies too. "Cook protests at Saudi flogging for nurse", reported the Guardian. "Don't let them behead Debbie" pleaded the Express. "Nurse sentenced to 500 lashes" said the Telegraph. "British nurse sentenced to 500 lashes" said the Times, making the point more emphatically. "Can Blair let this happen?" asked the Mail.

A rush began to find people who had suffered Islamic justice. What do they beat you with? How much does it hurt? "Lashes are not meant to inflict pain," explained an Islamic apologist in the Express. "They are basically meant to humiliate." Yet we also learned that "in the past victims have been forced to travel to the West for medical treatment, such has been the severity of their wounds." That's fine then; the agony is only a side- effect. The Mail told us that those who administer the beatings "receive special training to ensure they cause the maximum pain without actually killing their victims".

Despite all the pages of coverage of this story, however, we still know little about two important matters. First, did they do it? And second, how on earth do they arrive at the figure of 500? Is there a holy scale of punishments that specifies such matters? Ten lashes for a minor misdemeanour, 25 for a felony, up to 500 for a fatal stabbing. Only the Independent moved beyond the immediate questions of lashes, executions and fair trials by posing the real issue: "King Fahd's dilemma: Islamic justice versus Western values."

All this left the Express in a mood for villainous superlatives. On page 10 we could read "How Edwina is now the vilest lady in Britain", and 11 pages later, "Could this be the most heartless man in Britain?", referring to a poor chap who was not concerned about what happened to his late wife's remains. Perhaps the Express could arrange for him and Ms Currie to battle out the British all-comers title in the final.

The Mail on Wednesday produced the most numerically misleading headline of the week with: "Obesity `could kill one in five adults' " - which makes it sound as though fatness could wipe out 20 per cent of the adult population. The real story? Obesity can be fatal; and 20 per cent of adults are obese. But it's rather unlikely to kill all of them.

While on the subject of curious expressions, we must award the Surprising Conjunction of the Week prize to a line that appeared in the Express in a story about party plans at the forthcoming Tory conference. "Lord Parkinson will be replacing Jeffrey Archer as host. But the entertaining will not be as lavish." "But"? Surely they mean "therefore"?

On Thursday, Edwina and other villains were forgotten as Frank Gilford became the favoured hate-object of the press. For once the tabloids and broadsheets were united in distaste at the negotiations that had been going on over "blood money" in the Saudi nurse case. "Give me pounds 750,000 or they die" said the Mirror. "The brother names his price - pounds 750,000" said the Guardian.

On Friday, though, there was already another monster to scare us with. "Pure evil and free" was how the Mirror told of the release from prison, after serving his sentence, of a paedophile killer. Islamic justice is too harsh; British justice too soft, it seems.

Finally, the story all the papers missed. In a party political broadcast on all channels on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said, "Education is this government's No. 1 priority." Especially, he said, reading and writing. Moving on to the health service, he went on to say, "Since coming into office, pounds 100m has been switched into patient care." Do his priorities, I wonder, include education about dangling participles? One hundred million pounds did not come into office.

I think I know how this one slipped through. Probably, when they were all looking at Mr Blair's final rehearsal, eagle-eyed Robin Cook spotted the error. "I say!" he says to Peter Mandelson, "Tony's dangling his participle." Mandy, embarrassed to have let things get so far, turns to John Prescott for advice: "John, as deputy leader, do you think we should inform the Prime Minister that his participle is dangling?" Prescott thinks for a moment then replies: "Best say nowt."

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