WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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Indy Lifestyle Online
LAST Wednesday, the Straits Times in Singapore published an article that included an offer for readers to have breakfast and an aerobics session with an orangutan in Singapore Zoo. Not noticing that it was 1 April, more than 150 people rang the zoo to book themselves in. Realising that there is a market for it, the zoo is now considering arranging the event. That is the trouble with April fool jokes: even if they aren't true, they might quickly become so.

On the same day the Independent published a front-page spoof about Cabinet plans for a replacement of hereditary peers with "People's Lords" chosen randomly from the electoral roll. Also on the front page, however, was a picture of a statue of Peter Mandelson being carried through London. The statue was part of a publicity stunt, which itself presumably had an element of April foolishness about it. One man's April fool became another newspaper's front page news.

The "Lottery peers" story hit the mark. The following day, the Independent reported that both the Times and the Daily Mail were panicked into ringing their Westminster correspondents at midnight to ask why they didn't have the story. Their embarrassment, however, was nothing compared with the pinkness of the Financial Times when it fell headlong into an April fool. As the Mirror reported it: "The posh Financial Times was humiliated yesterday after falling for an April 1 spoof and reporting that Greenwich Mean Time was to be renamed Guinness Mean Time. Completely fooled, the famous 'pink' paper added that the Speaking Clock's pips would be replaced by 'pint drips' counting the seconds to the end of the year."

The Financial Times published a sniffy correction saying that the Guinness Mean Time story was "apparently intended as part of an April 1 spoof". Now that the Guinness marketing men have come up with the idea, though, it would be no surprise to read that they are already deep in discussion with the relevant authorities.

The best April fool jokes are models of convincing implausibility. The nearest to that ideal this year was the Guardian's report of a government plan to make the Opposition more helpful: "The Minister Without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, is understood to be implementing a system of vetting speeches made by members of the Shadow Cabinet before they are delivered ... The move follows a succession of incidents ... in which the Opposition's attitude was considered 'unhelpful' by the Prime Minister and his office." And with masterful understatement, we were told: "Some leading Tories are believed to oppose the scheme."

We heard last week that when Bill Clinton was told of the collapse of Paula Jones's case against him, his initial reaction was to ask whether this was an April fool. I know how he felt, because many of the stories last week hovered tantalisingly close to the borders of credibility. The Telegraph reported that a book of short stories by Colonel Gaddafi called "Escape to Hell" is being published in English for the first time. The Times had a story of a $500,000 (pounds 301,114) brooch encrusted with 78 diamonds that flashes every time your heart beats. The details about the MIT-designed sensor embedded in its platinum base that registers heartbeats and sends out radio signals were just the sort of pseudo-scientific stuff that the best April fool stories are made of. Only this one was true.

The biggest challenge was faced by the Sport. What can you do for an April fool when your average daily fare consists of Hitler-danced-with- Elvis-in-a-London-bus-on-the-moon sort of tosh? On 1 April their front- page story was "Free Sex on NHS" (continued on page five as "Don't worry sir, we'll have you up in no time") which was, if slightly exaggerated, at least based on truth. Their April fool spoof was a splendid, filthiest- picture-you've-ever-seen, printed as a blank canvas with detailed instructions on how to cut it out and wipe it with a cold, used teabag to reveal the picture.

Back on the serious press, the Telegraph carried a story under the headline, "Fore! Golfers are liable for shots that cause injury". It reported a decision of the Appeal Court that golfers are liable for damages even if they shout "Fore!" I think that wasn't an April fool, but cannot be sure. Another report in the same paper, "Judge calls for courts to ban Latin phrases", looked just the sort of thing the Telegraph would do for 1 April, but since a similar story appeared in the Times, I assume it is true.

The Mail, rather feebly, went for the old April fool of the red herring coming back to British shores (unless, of course, the red herring really has come back to British shores, in which case they secured a memorable exclusive). The Express was no more subtle with its tale, complete with a photograph, of successfully breeding an English oak with a palm tree to produce acorns the size of coconuts. The tree was named trachycarpus x primusaprilii.

The Mirror had an April fool "exclusive" about the Millennium Dome being used to host the American Football Super Bowl in 2002. But it also had a story about "Chocolate-Crazy Jessie Coveney" ("she's size 10, with lovely skin") who eats 20 bars of chocolate a day without putting on weight.

The one story I was sure was an April fool hoax as soon as I saw it was the Sun's: "She must be freed says Blair", claiming that both Tony Blair and William Hague had given their support to the campaign to free someone named Deirdre from jail. I'm afraid I don't watch Coronation Street, so I cannot form an opinion on the matter, but a Telegraph leading article was critical of Mr Blair's involvement: "We fear that the Prime Minister has made a grave error by intervening in the Deirdre Rachid case." They point out that Mrs Rachid was properly convicted. "Should Messrs Blair and Hague have any substantive evidence, they should forthwith submit it to the police, rather than further impugning the impartiality of British justice."

So it was true. Blair and Hague are supporting a campaign to free a fictional character from a non-existent jail. Or perhaps that was just their little April fool, which has now become reality.

Finally, the headline of the week was found above a story in the Sun about Scary Spice Mel B splitting with her Icelandic lover Fjolnir Thorgeirsson. With blissful confusion between Iceland and Norway, it read, "Mel splits with fjord escort". Or perhaps it was only an April Fjolnir.

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