WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

William Hartston Reviews The Year's Press

To Condense the year's press into a single column is an impossible task but, thanks to the existence of computerised databases, we may at least attempt it through finding the topics that most interested the newspapers throughout 1997. Our own database provides a good cross-section of the national press - dailies, Sundays, tabloids and broadsheets. The analysis that follows is based on a purely statistical count of the number of articles printed throughout the year that contained each of a list of selected words.

We begin with the names of the year. Table One compares the number of occurrences of certain names in the press in 1997 with the previous year.

As expected, the names of Tony, Cherie and Diana all showed considerable increases on the previous year, with the last of those more than doubling. In the face of this competition, Camilla did well to register a 43.2 per cent increase, but all of these are put completely in the shade by Dodi (up 11,944 per cent since 1996) and Ffion (up 24,700 percent). At that rate of improvement, they may be expected soon to overtake John, who remains a steady performer with 106,497 appearances in 1997, a not inconsiderable improvement on his 94,635 of the year before.

We move on to surnames (see Table Two).

Here the picture is intriguing. While Prescott has registered a strong increase, his rate of acceleration is well below that of Mandelson, who has come from half of Portillo's total to well in front of him. At this rate of progress, he would overtake Prescott before the middle of 1998.

Portillo himself has done well to maintain his 1996 figure, though of his 1,713 appearances this year only 575 occurred after the beginning of June. Redwood has also done well to keep his name in the pages of the press, though his improvement is clearly well below that of Hague. Interestingly, there are about 11 Hagues to every Ffion.

With the approach of the year 2000, literacy seems to be slightly on the increase - at least as far as the spelling of "millennium" is concerned. Three years ago, the misspelling rate for this word stood at a depressing 13 per cent. Two years ago, it had dropped to around 11 per cent but, as Table Three shows, despite an increase in raw numbers of misspelt mille(n)nia, they comprised only 6.5 per cent of the total in 1996, and 5.3 per cent in 1997. While there was an overall increase of 64.4 percent in references to the millennium (whether spelt correctly or not), the misspelt millen(n)ia failed to keep up at the same rate.

The next award is for cliche of the year. There are three nominees: "incandescent with rage" - a phrase that has occurred several times in close proximity to the name of John Major, "defining moment" - of which we have been subjected to a multitude, and "hit the ground running" which was something both John Major and Tony Blair promised to do when the election was called. Table Four indicates the relative performances of these cliches:

Despite the fact that the year has seen no fewer than 392 defining moments, the huge increase in people hitting the ground running earns that phrase the award.

Our final table comprises items of popular culture and other things that did not fit neatly into the categories already considered.

On the subject of health, it is interesting to note the considerable falls in both BSE and CJD. With the human form of the disease falling less rapidly than the bovine version, it looks possible that CJD will be the greater worry at some time in the future.

On a more pleasant tone, it is encouraging to note that divorce, which became something of a national obsession in 1996, is now fading from popularity. Indeed in 1996 there were nearly five times as many divorces as honeymoons, while this year the ratio is down to less than one in three.

The Spice Girls did well to register almost a tenfold increase, but their rate of improvement is left in the shade by the Teletubbies, up an amazing 53,450 per cent.

The one stable point in our culture, however, appears to be the Lottery. Interest in sleaze and the Dome may come and go, but the press coverage of the lottery is rock solid.

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