WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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Indy Lifestyle Online
This was a week of fading romances. Last Monday, the papers were infatuated with Louise Woodward, Tony Blair and the Spice Girls. By the end of the week they were not so sure.

The big story was Judge Zobel's pronouncement in Boston. "Experts say judge will not free Woodward" was the headline of a front page piece in the Times on Monday which told us: "Lawyers have dismissed as 'fanciful' reports in the British media that she could be set free within days." So much for experts. On Tuesday it was "FREE" in the Sun, "FREED" in the Mirror, and "MERCY" in the Mail, as the judge whom they had all vilified the previous week as "bizarre" and "Internut" suddenly became a Solomon of wisdom and compassion. The Independent's headline was a curious mixture of monosyllable and verbosity: "Out! Sensation as Woodward is freed by judge after courtroom thriller." If only the writers of that had colluded with the sports headline writers, the Independent could have scored the coup of the week, for on the same day, the back page headline was: "Woodward excites with imaginative declaration of intent" above a story about the selections made by new English rugby coach Clive Woodward. It should, of course, have read: "In! Sensation as Woodward picks five new caps."

All the papers faced the same problem in their coverage of the Louise Woodward case: how to balance the sense of joy on hearing of the reduction of the original harsh sentence with the fact that she had still been found guilty of manslaughter. The Daily Star had a joyous "Louise Home for Xmas" front page, but did stress on page four that "Louise HAD killed the tot by shaking him". The Sun stressed that she was still fighting to clear her name, which must be important to the "big-hearted Sun readers" who have raised pounds 33,000 for the appeal fund. So pages two and three in that paper were given over to more exultation, including "10 Facts on Hiller the Killer". Number three on the list was: "He is a dapper dresser who always wears bow ties." The Sun did, however, give a good and fair summary of the judge's pronouncement on pages four and five. The Mirror had the splendid page two headline, "Saved by Zobel" (which I believe first appeared in the Boston Globe), with the drama of her being freed from the "hell- hole" Boston jail. Then there were two more pages on how she thought she'd get 10 years, and another two pages on the judge's ruling - with the misquotation of "confusion, fright and bad judgement ... not rage and malice" given prominence. What he had actually written was: "confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice (in the legal sense)". On pages eight and nine, the headline read: "So strong and so brave" as we learnt just what conditions were like in that hell-hole. Apparently they didn't cater for vegetarians.

If anything changed the mood of the tabloids, it was the vulgar jubilation of the townsfolk of Elton. As William Langley wrote in the Daily Star: "The parents of Matthew Eappen lost a child. Is it any surprise that they were revolted by TV pictures showing people whooping, singing and guzzling champagne when their son's convicted killer walked free." The same writer also posed an interesting question about the veggiephobic jailhouse: How did Louise "get that hair-do in a supposedly hell-hole jail"?

If the press is now not quite sure what to think about Louise Woodward, it seems to feel forgiving, if not quite as loving as before, towards Tony Blair. The Sun called the little matter of Mr Ecclestone's million- pound donation "a ridiculous own goal", but generally felt it was okay for the Labour Party to take the man's money. "Nothing wrong with that. He gave even more to the Tories." That story broke on Tuesday, and on Friday big Bernie himself told all exclusively to the Mirror. And he also wrote to the Times to explain why he should be allowed to give money to whoever he chooses: "Anything less implies that I have done something wrong and is a gross, insulting and irrational restriction of my freedom." Most of the papers were a little bemused about the pounds 1m which Blair did not know had been given to him, but the Express, which supports tobacco sponsorship in sport, thought it all rather simple: "Blair has not been caught out," it said. "A further indication of this is Labour's decision, since the gift became public knowledge, to give back Bernie Ecclestone his pounds 1m. The fact that it no longer has the money is neither here nor there. It is the thought that counts." It was the thought of a bankrupt Labour party that counted for the Telegraph, however, in its "Labour too broke to repay pounds 1m" front page headline on Wednesday.

But what of the poor Spice Girls? Even the Times was concerned about "Spice without Svengali" as the tarty quintet sacked their manager. "The split was about power and who, ultimately, runs the Spice Girls," wrote Mike Pattenden in a long piece about pop artists and their managers. The Mail sensed that money might have come into it too, while the Sun knew it was jealousy and love. For the Daily Star, however, it was simply: "No More Mr Spice Guy".

Finally, the most inexplicable item of the week was the Mail's obsession with Tony Blair's haircut. On Wednesday, they dubbed him "Antonius Caesar" for his new hair-do, and the following day, there appeared a page-long feature on Blair's new Barnet, adorned with doctored photographs of what several other cabinet ministers would look like if they had a similar trim. Paul Harris then filled in a good deal of space describing the similarities between Caesar and Blair. (Caesar was a Roman who invaded Britain, and ... er, Blair wasn't.) The Prime Minister could, as we know, have got a better haircut in any good Boston jail. But you don't often see Suetonius quoted in the Mail.

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