WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
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THREE stories dominated the news last week: the world's fourth most populous country fell apart; a tale of international intrigue that had started like something from the pen of Graham Greene disintegrated into a Whitehall farce; and a brief announcement in the Forthcoming Marriages column of the Times caused the press of the entire nation to take leave of its senses.

A former Marks & Spencer trainee announced that he was going to marry a pleasant-looking girl who is a "game-show hostess" (the Independent), a "TV girl from a council estate" (Daily Star), a "former topless model" (the Express) or a "game-show hostess and former topless model" (the always so well-balanced Telegraph).

The Sun even printed a copy of the notice in the Times on its front page above an "Exclusive" banner. Well, perhaps those diligent gossip-mongers at the Sun really are the only people who read the Forthcoming Marriages column in the Times, but why did every other paper in the land think that Major minor's engagement was major news? Perhaps the answer was provided by the Mail, whose coverage was headed by an announcement in large print: "The former Prime Minister and Mrs Major are pleased to announce the engagement of their son, James, to a topless model". Only the Mirror, however, stooped to reveal, on Friday, "The Real Emma Noble" contrasting a photograph of her taken in 1988 with one taken this year as evidence of "the re-making of Emma", and details of how her breasts had been enlarged from "a modest 34A to 34C. Apparently, the implant went in under the arms, so you cannot see the scars. Curiously, the previous day's Mirror had said that the Noble mammaries had changed from 34B to 34D, but what's one cup-size when you're in love?

Back on the real news, Robin Cook had another bad arms-to-Africa week, though not as bad as Sir John Kerr, "the mandarin who had a day to forget" as the Telegraph called him. Friday's leading article in that paper began: "Sir John Kerr, the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, has added a new layer of confusion to the Sierra Leone arms affair. In his appearance before the Select Committee ... he impugned the credibility of both the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and the minister of state with responsibility for Africa, Tony Lloyd. Within hours, however, he thought better of this and prepared a fresh statement that brought his recollections in line with those of his political masters." The principal blame, however, was not laid elsewhere: "The Foreign Office has been out of joint ever since Mr Cook took charge a year ago, but it is now moving towards institutionalised chaos. A little house-clearing would not go amiss, starting with the ministers at the top."

The Daily Mail referred to the "Mandarin who couldn't make up his mind", while the Independent quoted LibDem spokesman Menzies Campbell: "These events are now taking on an Alice in Wonderland dimension. The conduct of the Foreign Office is curiouser and curiouser", but none of the papers really got close to the truth about who was not paying attention when someone did or did not tell them about what they were meant to know about the implementation of our ethical foreign policy in Sierra Leone. On Wednesday, the Times asked: "But did [Robin Cook] and Mr Lloyd know nothing until then about the liaison between the Kabbah government, Sandline and the High Commissioner? As Mr Cook enlarged on the diligence with which he reads, ticks or approves everything in his red box, Mr Lloyd sat behind him looking as miserable as a frog in the desert."

If, at the end of it all, the Foreign Secretary is exonerated and his minions at the Foreign Office exposed as the villains of the piece, then it could, as a letter in the Guardian on Monday suggested, be "the first Cook coup of spring".

Robin Cook's best moment of the week came as the momentous events in Indonesia impinged on his own little ethical dilemma. "Cook puts blame on Tories" said the Express. "We sold the water cannon to quell rioters." The disintegration of a country of 200 million people posed a problem for most newspapers who had ignored it for far too long, but most rose well to the challenge. The Express had a two-page spread, "Suharto: Dynasty of corruption that has fleeced a nation of pounds 20 billion", that painted a picture of repression, exploitation and greed, mitigated by a certain austerity in the Suharto family lifestyle.

All the papers tried to diagnose just what had happened to turn peaceful student protests into riots which led to indiscriminate killing by the police, while the Guardian took the first tentative steps towards asking: "What happens next?" The main hope, as it sees it, is for an alliance between politicians and the army to agree to displace the aged leader. "Suharto is almost certainly on his way out, but that is less important than who and what comes in his place".

The Independent carried on its front page a chilling eye-witness account by Richard Lloyd Parry of the mob-rule on the streets of Jakarta, with a prospect of worse to come: "A disproportionate number of the reported dead have been Chinese, and if racist sentiment catches hold among the Muslim majority then a truly dreadful situation looms." With an account, by Rupert Cornwell, of the rise and fall of the economic fortunes of Indonesia under Suharto, and a brief "Britain still selling arms to Indonesia" item beneath it, this all added up to a lucid account of the problems and terrors of a far-away country of which, until this week, most of us knew little. And there was a sharp sting in the tail of the Independent's coverage, too. As its leading article said: "The West backed Suharto far too wholeheartedly for far too long and failed to dislodge him quickly and effectively ... Let us hope that the next steps in foreign policy are uncomplicated by the pretensions of the ethical doctrine."

Finally, a piece of good news: As several papers noted, high doses of the anti-impotence drug Viagra have been shown, in some cases, to lead to a side-effect called "blue vision", and may even result in permanent damage to the retina. (Or as the Express put it: "sex drug may harm your eyes".) To think that all these years we've been getting it wrong about what makes you go blind.

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