What the papers said

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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What a week it has been for Philistines! First we had Gerald Kaufman saying how much better the Royal Opera House would be if it were run by some Philistines who could add up. Then we had that annual gift to the cultural Philistines known as the Turner Prize ceremony, and finally the bonus of all those well-educated young ladies doing so badly on University Challenge, which gave all educational Philistines another opportunity to scoff.

The Royal Opera story seemed as interminable as Wagner, and with the same inevitability of tragedy. On Monday, the Times predicted: "Opera chiefs may bow out before MPs' bad review." Resignations, it told us, were predicted in advance of the "devastating" parliamentary report. On Wednesday, in the same paper, it was "Report shocks Opera House" and Mary Allen, the chief executive, was "hurt and dismayed". But by Thursday still nobody had resigned. Indeed, we read: "The Government yesterday granted a temporary reprieve to the embattled board of the Royal Opera House, which had been told to resign." What reprieve? For on Friday it was "Embattled opera chairman resigns" - and the board went with him, a fact celebrated in the Sun by the headline: "Out on their arias!" Most of the other broadsheets shook their heads in dismay at the Opera's plight. The Telegraph detailed its downfall in the form of programme notes for a three-act opera, ending with the words: "Exit board pursued by Gerald Kaufman". The Guardian, however, produced the best opening line: "For the Royal Opera House, the fat lady may be about to stop singing."

While the Fall of the House of Opera occupied a great deal of space in the press last week, it was not really a story to catch the public imagination. Opera is loved by many, and largely ignored by the rest. Unlike the Turner Prize, which is, according to the Telegraph: "one of the few things, apart from the Royal Family, that gets the public seriously worked up". The serious press, however, prefers to register its opinions more subtly. Try reading this extract from the Times without automatically falling into Brian Sewellish tones of disdain: "... the favourite, Cornelia Parker, whose work has involved gathering balls of fluff into a case and dangling silver cutlery from the White Cliffs of Dover". Or the Telegraph's description of an hour-long video by the winner: "26 police officers silently standing and sitting in rows. Every so often they twitch or move, so that you realise this is not a still photograph". Apparently, according to Nicholas Serota, in the Guardian, the artist concerned, Gillian Wearing, "is taking circumstances all of us have encountered and making them more vivid as a way of drawing attention to them and helping us understand them". Later in the same paper we learn that Wearing's Sacha and Mum "depicts a tense relationship, played by actors, in which a mother and daughter embrace and struggle with each other. But Wearing choreographs their movements and the film is projected backwards". Well, next time I see 26 policemen sitting still for an hour, or watch a mother alternately hugging and pushing her half-dressed daughter played backwards, perhaps I will understand it better.

The Turner pretentiousness is the Philistines' greatest ally. Though the New Hall University Challenge team came close when they scored a record low of 35 points against Nottingham last week. "Cambridge Dunces" bellowed the Mail. "Uniworstity Challenge" screamed the Daily Star. Many of the papers delighted in printing samples of the questions the students got wrong, with this one a particular favourite: "Which politician entered Parliament as a Tory before being returned as a Labour MP in 1926 and then joining the British Union of Fascists?" New Hall's answer, we are told, was Winston Churchill; the correct answer is Sir Oswald Mosley. But that's not quite how it happened. The New Hall team did not think that Churchill was a fascist; they buzzed halfway through the question, long before Jeremy Paxman got to the last bit. Only the Mirror was gentlemanly enough to mention that.

The big story of the week was undoubtedly beef. Early on, the stock had been simmering nicely with "Rampage of the beef bullies" in the Mail on Tuesday, which reported: "Fears are growing of a French-style mob rule gaining a grip on Britain after a militant show of strength by Welsh farmers." Those same farmers, however, regained our sympathy when the pot boiled over with the latest ban on beef with bones.

The Times clearly thinks the way to their readers' hearts is through their stomachs. "Chefs say ban is ridiculous and pointless tragedy", they wrote, pointing out that "beef cooked on the bone produces meat that is much better flavoured and more juicy". Oh, the pointless tragedy of a second-rate Sunday joint! But it got worse. On Friday, the leading chef Nico Ladenis, perhaps with tears in his eyes, was quoted as saying: "The bouillon oxtail with red wine and truffle reserve is off".

The Guardian supplied us with a graphic: "How beef affects the brain" beginning with a picture of a head, a plate of meat and a cow. Three pictures later, the prions had drilled the brain full of holes. The Telegraph was furious: "Nine months ago, no one would have believed there could be a worse Agriculture Minister than Douglas Hogg.

Today we have Mr Cunningham ... the manner and matter of yesterday's decision are a disgrace." Most of the papers found it difficult to understand why such an apparently minuscule risk should lead to a wholesale ban. The Telegraph claimed that we have a one in 600 million chance of dying by eating beef on the bone, compared with one in 10 million of being struck by lightning, one in 5,000 of being killed by 'flu, and one in 800,000 of drowning in your bath. The Sun said it was one in 1.2 billion of catching mad cow disease and only one in six million of being killed by a bee sting. The Independent pointed out that there was only one death from CJD for every 200,000 cows consumed.

Yes, but it's that one fatal cow that gives all the others a bad reputation. Rather like Goliath and the Philistines really. They were actually a rather cultured folk of their time, but one case of Mad Philistines Disease, and look how long it's taken them to recover.

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