WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ARMAGEDDON posed a challenge to the papers last week. How should they treat the prospect of an asteroid colliding with Earth and destroying all life on the planet? Three strategies emerged: treat it as a "we're- all-gonna-die" disaster movie script; reassure everyone by playing down the risk; or treat it as a bit of harmless scientific speculation because it's not going to happen for 30 years.

The Express went for the disaster movie with its headline "Odds are that monster in space means we're doomed" and gave us all "Two years to save mankind". The text beneath the large print, however, mentioned that the odds against the doomsday scenario were 1000 to 1, which really meant that the headline should have read: "Odds are that monster in space means we're not doomed". The leading article in the same paper thought it was all a wizard wheeze by scientists: "The astronomers who have discovered this threat recommend many more observations and much more research - or in scientific language, a constant stream of grants."

The other papers were less cynical about the science, though in some cases no less willing to give their readers a good scare. "Apocalypse could be just 30 years away" said the Times. The artist's impression of the disaster was suitably scary, with a massive, knobbly asteroid in the foreground on collision course with a puny earth in the distance. If it hits us, the report said, it will be "catastrophic on a global scale" but "not necessarily severe enough to wipe out the human race". As the leading article said: "That's all right then", but concluded that with the thing probably missing us by 30,000 miles "the end of the world is not yet nigh".

The Telegraph's graphic showed a reassuringly bigger Earth and a slightly less knobbly asteroid. "Most people would not be killed by the impact itself," we were told, "but by the knock-on effects." Unlikely though it may be that the thing will bash into us, it could hardly be as unlikely as the Telegraph's bad luck in publishing an accidental trailer to the story on Thursday, when their "Connected" supplement had a feature about asteroids hitting the Earth, linked to two forthcoming films, Deep Impact and Armageddon. The front page of Connected read: "WARNING: On February 28 at 9.50pm, an asteroid capable of wiping out Manchester passed less than three miles from Earth travelling at 75 times the speed of sound. Will the next one be a direct hit?" Today Manchester, tomorrow the world.

As most of the papers said, however, it's probably not dangerous. We can always explode a nuclear bomb next to the asteroid to frighten it away, or knock bits off it from a space station on the moon. No problem.

The Independent carried the most rational account of the danger: "For a few hours yesterday, it looked as though that 30-year mortgage might not have been such a smart buy after all." Those few hours, however, were when most of the papers seemed to file their stories, before the scientists had recalculated the likely orbit of the asteroid and decided it was going to miss us. The Mail, at a bit of a loss when it came to predicting the end of the world on 26 October 2028, fell back on a reliable formula and told us "10 things that happened on October 26th". So, as the asteroid smashes us all to oblivion, Mail readers can take consolation in the thought that it'll be 63 years to the day since the Beatles received their MBEs.

The Financial Times stressed the threat to "industrial civilization" while the Sport, equally characteristically, managed to put everything into its own perspective. With no mucking about, they announced: "Life on earth will be wiped out by a huge asteroid heading straight for us" ... and put the story on page 10.

Compared with the end of life as we know it, John Prescott's problems seem insignificant, but they did take up a good deal of news space last week. On Monday, the main theme - in the Telegraph at least - was "Prescott faces donation enquiry" concerning an alleged undeclared donation of pounds 27,750 he had received from the Joseph Rowntree Trust. On Tuesday, however, the tale shifted, as the Times reported it, to: "Prescott tells of vendetta against him", together with an account of the Times's interviews with a couple of seedy-sounding types who had "admitted breaking the law in an attempt to prove that his son was involved in 'dodgy' property deals." On Wednesday it was: "Anti-Prescott campaigners go to police" with one of them described as "a computer enthusiast in his forties who describes himself as a 'researcher' ". This is by no means the first time that "computer enthusiast" has been used as a term of abuse, but it may mark a change in usage for "researcher" to carry such connotations.

As the political squabbles in Hull were elevated to a national stage, puns flowed. "Heaven and Hull" said the Times, as it described how "In many areas of urban deprivation, becoming a councillor is one of the few available routes out of poverty." "We need the Hull truth", said the Express. By the end of the week the Rowntree donation was forgotten.

Fortunately, there were a few cheerful stories last week to distract us from asteroid hell and bickering Hull. For the first time since the glorious escapade of the Tamworth Two, pork was back on the menu with a story in the Independent about Butch - one of the escapees - being immortalised in a carving on a pinnacle that will grace the 13th-century Lady Chapel at Hereford Cathedral. As the report began: "It is a fine line between being famous and being a pork chop."

The Times also had a pig story: an account of a three-year, pounds 200,000 research project into porcine intelligence. Bristol psychologists are going to tell a small pig where food is, then see whether a large pig has the sense to follow it, and finally discover whether the little piggy will learn the art of deception or go wee wee wee all the way home.

Finally, prize for the best headline of the week goes to the Times for: "Hedgehog man who shot at JCB is jailed". Hedgehog man turned out not to be a new superhero, who could save the world from asteroids by curling himself up into a ball and shooting his quills at them from 30,000 miles - he was just a chap who shot at a JCB driver to protect hedgehogs threatened by a housing development.

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