WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

William Hartston Reviews The Week's Press
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In a week that saw a good deal of looking both backwards and forwards, the outstanding prediction of 1998 was already made on the first day of the year. For Miles Kington, in a set of supposedly spoof predictions in the Independent began his forecast for January with the words: "Name of cannabis-dealing cabinet minister's son printed in Scottish newspapers". It came true the next day.

"Scots papers name drugs case minister" said the Times in its front-page headline, with minor variations in all the other serious papers. This was the third movement of something they had all built into a symphony. It had begun with an allegro ma non troppo: cabinet minister's son on drugs charge. That had developed into an our-lips-are-sealed andante maestoso, but when the Scots told their readers it all exploded into a scherzo furioso. After their enforced restraint and responsibility, this was the last Straw.

The non-coverage of the story, however, had been an intriguing exercise in how far a newspaper can go in not quite identifying somebody. They all said "a government minister"; they all said "he"; they all said the boy was 17. How many male government ministers have sons of 17? This story had already turned into a national dinner-party game among the chatterers, with clues aplenty dropped by the papers. I suspect that if the saga had continued we would have learnt that he has greying hair and wears glasses, too. Although when John Stalker, in the Sun, said: "He is part of a supremely powerful group who claim to represent family values as well as shaping drugs policy and law enforcement," one could perhaps guess that the answer was not a million miles from the Home Office.

The thing that slowed us down was that ubiquitous report that the name was easy to find on the World Wide Web. "Six million users of the Internet in Britain can have access to the minister's name in seconds," said the Times. "... available to anyone on the planet with a personal computer, a modem and access to a telephone line," said the Express. Well I spent 15 minutes searching for "drugs", "minister" and "son", and another five looking for "Jack Straw", "drugs" and "son" and I couldn't find anything. It turned out that I should have been looking among the news groups, not the web pages. The newspapers really should be more precise in telling their readers where to find the information they are not allowed to tell them.

This was indeed a week in which most of the news was built of Straw. With little enough happening in the world, it was a time to look back at 1997 and forward to 1998 as an excuse for filling the pages. The Mail, as usual, gave acres of space for "Britain's top astrologer" Jonathan Cainer to tell us what 1998 has in store. Apparently the world has "a vital date with destiny" this year. "Never before has any of us lived through a cosmic climate quite like the one we are about to encounter." This is the same Jonathan Cainer who forecast a fulfilling 1997 for people born under Cancer: "Before this year is much more than half over," he wrote, "you'll know beyond doubt that you are on the way to a life you have always wanted and desired." No mention of death in a car crash in Paris then?

The Express rather gallantly apologised in its Opinion column for its 1997 forecast: "Last year at this time and in this column we suggested - no, all right, predicted - that, among other things `the Royal Family should be able to enjoy 1997 more than it did 1996'. Alas, things did not turn out like that." This time they have contented themselves with predicting that Fergie will utter "the occasional unwise word" and "Richard Branson will have problems with a balloon".

The Independent, rather than offering predictions, gave a list of suggestions for New Year resolutions to be made by prominent people. These included: "I will stop being horrible to the cat" (Cherie Blair) and "I will not shout at people" (the Rev Ian Paisley). The Mirror, even more harshly, offered a list of 97 things that `98 would be better off without - including Peter Andre, teenage nannies, processed cheese in a squeezy tube, and the expression "it's all gone pear-shaped".

The look-back-at-1997 articles were predictably muted. Christopher Hulse, obituaries editor of the Telegraph, asked: "Why did so many celebrities die?" and pointed out that "more famous people are dying now than, say, 60 years ago". He went on to provide the obvious answer that: "There simply are more famous people around in the world these days." Silly question, really.

"1997 now slips into the past, into history, and we will not see it again," said Mary Kenny fatuously in the Express. The same paper did, however, hit upon the novel idea of summarising the year in the form of a Snakes & Ladders board. Land on square 22 and you read: "The Teletubbies fame spreads nearly as far as their waist line" and you shoot up a ladder to square 37. But if you reach square 51, it's "Ken Clarke and John Redwood get into bed together. The bed collapses" and it's down a snake all the way back to square 6.

Social ladder-climbers would have been more interested in the honours list. "Education ... is today given unprecedented prominence in the Prime Minister's first full honours list," proclaimed the Guardian. "Industry scoops the honours," said the business page of the same paper. "Diana's Honours" said both the Express and the Mail. "Arise Sir Elton and enjoy the joke," said the Independent. That's the great thing about the honours list. Look hard enough and you can find whatever you're looking for in it.

Awards of the week: for paranoia, the Telegraph wins by a mile for its report on the spy satellite which "will allow anyone with a credit card to peek into a neighbour's garden". Suggested uses included checking if the neighbour's extension breaches planning regulations, and seeing whose car is in your drive when you're away on a business trip. As the report more soberly explained, however, the satellite cannot pick up anything smaller than 10ft across, so your neighbour and spouse's lover are safe. The award for evasion goes to all the papers that reported the proclamation of ex-King Michael of Romania that his daughter Margareta will succeed him. But they all dodged the tricky issue of what to call her when she succeeds to the ex-throne.

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