Matthew Norman's Media Diary

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

IT IS with genuine concern and fraternal sympathy that we turn to the vexing matter of David Aaronovitch and his anguish over Iraq. Of all newspaper columnists, the Times man has been perhaps the most hawkish, rigorously supporting the invasion and refusing to reveal the tiniest chink in his armour of self-righteous certainty. Others have succumbed to CP Snow's trusty counsel to the pundit who has made a bish on a major issue of the day (CP's precise advice, from memory, was "bite the bullet, and say: 'I dropped a right bollock on this one'"). But not David, whose doughty effort to hold the line has even extended to a bold comparison between Saddam and Hitler.

Last week, however, saw what leading professors of journalism believe to be the first chink. In an article directed at his Times colleague Matthew Parris, who recently wrote: "Nobody seriously now thinks the invasion was a good idea...", David offered an apology of sorts, although it's hard to be sure whether he modelled it on Basil Fawlty's ironic self-flagellation following the O'Reilly building fiasco or Hirohito's surrender speech ("the war having developed not necessarily to David Aaronovitch's advantage..."). Disregarding the embittered tone, the question seems to me that of whether columnists, however grand, are significant enough in a global context to dwell at length on their own misjudgements. Some will think that they are. Others may suspect that apologies for geopolitical disasters, even heavily sarcastic ones, are more properly the preserve of the world leaders responsible for them. Are readers frantically concerned with David's ego being bruised by Matthew Parris? Perhaps they are. Even so, a feeling in my bones suggests that the only thing now required from David, on the matter of Iraq, is a prolonged period of silence.

ON REFLECTION, I think I'll ask my friend Peter Riddell, the bucking bronco of The Times, to take David under his wing. Although still young himself and prone to schoolboy howlers (you will recall the recent front-page disaster, when he misinterpreted a self-evidently rogue poll to suggest a Tory leadership win for David Davis), Peter is a two time winner of the Thin Unpompous Columnist of the Year award from the University of Nebraska. Just the man to have a go at persuading David to stop taking himself quite so seriously.

AND SO, at last, to the latest extract from Son of PC Gone Mad! (Virago, £17.99), Simon Heffer's rite-of-passage memoir of growing up as the son of a Southend beat bobby. Today, we join Simon on his 17th birthday, during his brief flirtation with punk rock. "July 17, 1977: I knew it wasn't going to be easy when Mam and Dad came in first thing with a present. 'It is what you wanted, our Simon?,' said Mam. 'You did ask for a Space Hopper.' Of course I didn't (a pogo-stick is what I asked for; I knew I should have written it down), but I didn't want to upset them. 'Oh yes, Mam,' I said. 'I love it.' 'Champion,' said Dad, 'in that case we'll take it to London to buy your punk-rock outfit. You can ride it into that Vivienne Winkworth's shop.' After a fruitless hour trying to cram the wretched thing into the Austin Princess, Dad strapped it to the roof-rack and off we went. We must have made quite a spectacle, even for Miss Westwood's boutique, when we arrived, Mam pushing her shopping trolley as if she was in the Co-op, Dad wearing his helmet with that canary-yellow tracksuit Nana Heffer gave him for Christmas, and me bouncing along on my bright orange Space Hopper. Just how I'd dreamt of meeting my idol Sid Vicious, who was at the counter, cussing at Malcolm McClaren!"

When we return in the New Year, a misunderstanding persuades Simon that Sid has invited him to join the Sex Pistols as the band's new harpist.

DEPRESSING NEWS from Downing Street that John Birt is to abandon his incalculably important work as Tony Blair's top-ranked blue-skies thinker, in favour of a position in the City. It is, of course, for future historians to appraise the full extent of his lordship's contribution to government. For now, though, it seems safe to predict that his major legacy will be the bespoke staircase built at immense cost which enables him to reach his office without having to share a lift with lowly civil servants. He will be gravely missed.

WITH THE future of Radio 4's Midweek questioned by Andy Kershaw and others following the scrapping of Home Truths, it's good to find presenter Libby Purves in fighting mode. When the show sparked into something approaching life with that spat between Darcus Howe and Joan Rivers, Libby complained to a journalist at the Daily Mail over the use of a "dishonestly edited transcript" (it omitted a barely audible attempt by Libby to force Darcus to disown his accusation of racism against Joan).

Curiously, the repeat of Midweek, broadcast at 9.30pm on the same day, also went out in incomplete form. Libby's "I have great sympathy for both sides," had gone. So had Joan's incredulous, "Both sides? Then you are a racist... Don't you dare call me that, you son of a bitch." Doubtless this poignant echo of The Brains Trust was cut for reasons of space, but, nevertheless, Libby might be more careful when next she feels tempted to accuse others of dishonest editing.

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