Has there ever have been a more bamboozling time to edit an even vaguely serious newspaper than Thursday 14 December 2006, the day on which the process of government was reduced to a frantic closing-down sale? Everything had to go, and the intriguing thing, for those of us with nothing better to do than compare front pages, was the question of who bought what, if anything, from the bargain bin of governmental humiliation: the police interview in Downing Street; the publication of Carne Ross's previously suppressed testimony that Mr Blair well knew that Saddam was no threat to British interests; or the shameful abandonment of the fraud investigation into BAE's Saudi arms deal?
The only easy bit, so far as news judgement goes, is that of the four potential splashes, the only one that wasn't remotely damaging to Mr Blair himself was none of the above, but the story so crudely used as an attempted cover for them all - Lord Stevens' report into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. So it came as small surprise when The Times plumped for that one. In these dismal dog days of Mr Blair's career, it warms the heart to find the old Thunderer doing what it can to spare his embarrassment - in this case, by concentrating on a story every detail of which had been leaked in advance, relegating the rather more sensational stories about corruption previous to single paragraphs on the front page ("Business," was the sober cross -reference to the BAE story, "page 56").
This was, as I say, a day to test the judgement of any editor. Even so, let me reiterate the hope that when Mr Blair finally gets round to his Lavender List, the Times editor Robert Thomson is richly rewarded for a level of devotion far beyond the call of even Murdochian duty.
ONE JOURNALIST with a magnificent aversion to ingratiating himself with the mighty was Frank Johnson, who saw being as rude as possible to proprietors, their wives and senior executives as a moral obligation, and whose death from cancer last week brings to an end the noble tradition of auto-didactic East End copy-runners going on to become great newspaper bylines.
Far from regarding himself as a sonorous opinion-former, he saw his role as that of a journalistic version of Archie Rice in The Entertainer - a music- hall turn to tell a few gags, get off the stage, owing nuffink to nobody and with his integrity intact. This was clearly an unusually well-loved man, whose deathbed at the Chelsea & Westminster hospital was thronged by admirers and protégés after the fashion, according to one visitor, of Cardinal Richelieu. He was a fantastic writer and a rather remarkable man, and, for once, it seems the simple truth to observe that we will not see his like in this business again.
WITH THE announcement of the licence-fee settlement postponed but expected fairly soon, how timely of BBC2 to reclaim the Reithian mantle with a new reality show entitled The Verdict. What more high-minded method of exploring the jury system could there be than collecting 12 slebs to debate the outcome of a fictitious trial for rape? No one would dispute the presence of Jacqueline Gold from Ann Summers, or even of the noble Lord Archer, albeit that his spell in jug would preclude him from doing a Henry Fonda in real life. However, I am confused by the selection of Stan Collymore, who was dropped by Radio Five Live as a football summariser (much the best they've ever had) after revelations of dogging. Perhaps it's just me, but it does seem odd that an organisation can ban a chap from explaining why the Portsmouth back four was caught a little square, but hire him to cast significant new light on the justice system.
TODAY'S EXTRACT from Hold the Back Page! by Harry Harris concerns that leading Times journalist, Alastair Campbell. Harry's opus (Know the Score Books, £16.99) is described in the back-page blurb as "a collection of often hilarious memoirs", but, if anything, as we are about to discover, this errs on the side of false modesty. What follows is slightly abridged, purely for reasons of space: "I worked with Alastair on the Mirror ... and, as a Burnley supporter, he naturally took a great deal of interest in what I might be up to ... Far from the maniacal control freak that many of the media love to paint him as, I found him a charming guy and a highly accomplished journalist. I do have to say that it did surprise me when he ended up the Prime Minister's right-hand man." Sadly, that's all the hilarity we have room for.
MEANWHILE, David Witt writes from Malmesbury regarding last week's instalment. "Is the 'completely unpretentious' Michael Parkinson, in Harry Harris's book, the same completely unpretentious Michael Parkinson who was apoplectic when his postal district of Bray was subsumed into Maidenhead?" he asks. "What a pity they didn't go in the other direction and give it to Slough." Good old Parky in a queeny strop over a postal district? Nah.
FINALLY, COYNESS enshrouds an item in the Times column of Mary Ann Sieghart, where a science slogan competition at her daughter's school has thrillingly been won by a girl she refuses to name. Since the snippet is headlined "Modesty Prevents", and since "the winning entry is so clever I thought I should share it with you" (don't ask), fans of Mary Ann's legendarily gifted progeny may come to the obvious conclusion. Those girls were brilliant enough before sailing round the world. Now, it's nothing less than frightening.