WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

William Hartston Reviews The Week's Press
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Now at last I know the difference between tabloid and broadsheet newspapers: it's all a question of whether they are more interested in Paula Yates or Alan Clark.

The sad story of Hughie Green's "lovechild" filled most of the first five pages of the Mirror on Monday. "Hughie did bed me says Paula's mother" screamed the front-page headline. Paula was quoted as saying "I hated Hughie Green", and her mother said "If I'd known Hughie was my Paula's dad I would have told her 20 years ago". The Mail was more reserved with "Yes I had an affair" in big print, followed by "But I still can't accept that Green fathered Paula". On Tuesday, however, the headline had grown to "If I'd known Hughie was Paula's father I'd have had an abortion", which is perhaps not the most tactful thing to tell one's illegitimate daughter.

Yet from the moment of the announcement of the DNA test results more than a week ago, any further coverage is no more than an intrusion on private grief. Curiously, it was the Mail that came closest to the real anguish in a piece on Monday by Christian Wolmar, who also learnt - in his case at the age of 16 - that his father was not who he had been led to believe. "There is almost no pain greater than finding out that you are not what you thought you were," he wrote. A touch melodramatic, but it is difficult to read his piece without feeling that Paula and mother are best left alone to come to terms with their turmoil.

Yet the Mail could not let go and on Wednesday produced a nasty piece by Lynda Lee-Potter saying that "Hughie Green may have been unlikeable, but he was also 10 times brighter than the pathetic, oily, two-faced Jess". The award for the most spiteful piece of all, however, goes to Celia Brayfield in the Times, who began: "I remember having a conversation with Paula Yates in a pub in Chelsea round about the time she met Bob Geldof. She was working as a cleaner for one of my friends ..."

The quality press, meanwhile, was having fun as Alan Clark took his old friend Max Hastings to court for publishing a spoof of his diaries in the Evening Standard. The Guardian began one report "In a debate that is in danger of descending into an esoteric discussion on the value of parody ...", though from the rest of it, one might consider such a move to be an ascent, not descent: "Mr Prescott [representing the Standard] then went on to list Mr Clark's own diary entries on Janet Fookes (vast arse), Malcolm Rifkind (a weasel), Ken Clarke (pudgy puff-ball) and Douglas Hurd (arsehole)." The Times and the Telegraph offered their readers samples of both the genuine and spoof diaries to show what an accurate parody Peter Bradshaw had composed. The defence, the Times told us, claimed that the "preposterous" content was a clear indication of spoof. Try this: "I travelled down by train, and a plump young lady came into my compartment at Waterloo. She was not wearing a bra, and her delightful globes bounced prominently." Preposterous certainly, but that's from the real Diaries.

The Independent captured the preposterous nature of the whole case, covering it as "Alan Clark's Secret Court Diary ... as imagined by the Evening Standard's Peter Bradshaw who is, in turn, parodied by our own Kathy Marks."

The matter at issue seems to be how large an editor has to print a writer's name in order for even his dimmest readers to realise who wrote something. The Telegraph quoted Max Hastings as saying, "I would be astonished if, during the course of any given day, some readers did not get the wrong end of the stick with regard to all sorts of articles which are, in fact, explicitly clear."

However bad a week it was for Paula Yates and Alan Clark, it was worse for Santa Claus. The Times on Monday published on its front page the story of a boy who was slapped in the face by a Santa when he tried to pull his beard off. Apparently the boy had already seen Santa in another shop and thought this one must be a fake. The Santa said that he was only trying to hold his beard on when he hit the child by mistake. In a leading article, however, the paper said that "the Slapping Santa of Rochdale" should be "reprimanded by Ofsled".

On Thursday, the Telegraph had stories of two clergymen who had apologised after telling children that Santa Claus was like the Tooth Fairy and did not really exist. It's funny how clergymen seem free to tell us that God does not exist, or that the Resurrection never took place, but they get into real trouble when they say there is no Santa Claus.

The Independent on Tuesday gave a health check on Santa Claus. Apparently, for a man aged about 1,717 he is in remarkably good shape, but his waistline suggests that he may be vulnerable to heart disease and diabetes. Peter Baker, who wrote the report, also recommended that in view of his proximity to children he ought to get a flu vaccination. On Friday, however, the Guardian exploded the whole myth with a story that seems to circulate on the Internet every Christmas. Still, it is worth repeating. It takes the form of an analysis of Santa's task of delivering all those presents. Since there are some 300,000 species of organism not yet classified, flying reindeers cannot be ruled out, it says, but the speed they would have to travel at, while lugging some 321,300 tons of presents (allowing two pounds per child) would make them vapourise in .00426 of a second. The conclusion is that Santa might have existed once, but he is dead now.

At least he did not die of CJD from eating infected reindeer meat. That would have been almost as bad as the best scare headline of the week, spotted in the Mirror: "Emu farmer is killed by mad cow disease". That story was unrelated to one in the Times: "Humans give boost to ostrich love life". Apparently Israeli researchers have found that reproduction of ostriches can be enhanced if they are allowed to perform in the presence of human handlers to whom they are attracted.

If anything in the above gives the impression that the Tooth Fairy does not exist, I apologise sincerely. This column was not written by Alan Clark.

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