How the press saw miracles after a pint or two

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The Independent Online
THE TABLOID press has witnessed a miracle. On Friday morning in Southall, west London, a succession of "hard-boiled newsmen", as the Sun described them, from patriotic newspapers entered the local Hindus' Vishwa Temple and emerged, minutes later, as enthusiastic believers in a foreign religion.

It had all started the day before, when news reached editors that Hindu statues across the globe had started drinking offerings of milk. Vast crowds of devotees were pushing into temples - and not just in far away places of which readers knew little, but in Britain too, where, contrary to all those editorials about teaching Christianity in schools, many citizens still worshipped Shiva the destroyer and Ganesh, the elephant-headed god.

Reporters were despatched. But how should they cover such a phenomenon? Tabloid practice came to the rescue: just as the Sun had once illustrated a story about Paul Gascoigne having hair extensions by giving a journalist the same treatment, so the hacks were sent to Southall with spoons and semi-skimmed and instructions to feed the statues.

"I took my daily pinta and joined the queue of faithful [sic]," wrote Macer Hall in the Daily Star. Once inside the temple, "I gazed in awe," continued Hall with surprising reverence, "as the deity - a 12-inch marble statue of a bull - sipped at milk from my teaspoon.... As the spoon touched the idol's mouth, the liquid vanished."

David Wooding of the Sun was even more awestruck. "I knelt barefoot in front of a marble figure of Nandi, a bull ridden by Hindu god Shiva," he wrote. He "gawped in disbelief as it drank the whole lot in 10 seconds". He regained his poise: "I had seen, and believed, that something strange was happening. The only question is... WHAT?"

Today viewed events with the greater scepticism of a tabloid keen to move upmarket. David Munk recalled Nandi's reluctance to drink the milk until he pushed it up the bull's nose, then that "most of it, at least, trickled down Nandi's chest". The London Evening Standard's reporter also noted "the [temple assistant's] hand gently tipping mine as the milk disappeared", and a "gurgling down the sink by the statue". But then he tried again, unguided, and admitted: "Yes, it worked."

Unfortunately for the more enthusiastic papers, the milk miracle started to dry up shortly after their reporters left. The Southall statues stopped drinking at 1.30pm, according to the Daily Mail, which alone still had a reporter at the scene.

By the time these accounts appeared on Saturday morning (the Evening Standard aside), the miracle was becoming a "miracle". Partly responsible was the disbelief of most of the Indian press: the "so-called miracle" was an indication that "scientific temper has failed to take root", scorned the Pioneer; the Statesman saw the miracle as "erratic in its manifestation and rationally explained". Even the favourable Asian Age was only prepared to comment on the miracle's consequences - "the fires of faith have been relit in the Hindu community" - and not its authenticity.

But the Indian Express was the most trenchant, pointing out that "a huge quantity of the precious commodity [milk] was put to a use which might seem strange in a country where millions of children go hungry to bed each night".

Then it quoted Vasant Sathe, a former information minister: "In the age of computerisation, it is an insult to human intelligence if we say that the gods are drinking milk. It will make no difference between us and cockroaches." I don't suppose he reads the Sun.