Matthew Norman's Media Diary

Is Ali making a coded apology?

Plumped up by that triumphant Cudlipp Lecture in which he readdressed media failings with renewed vim and authority, Alastair Campbell widens his net. In The Times, he turns to the hounding of Britney Spears, implicitly by outlets other than Rupert Murdoch's, which in his quaint world view abide by the ethics of a Shropshire village newsletter in 1911. But that's by the by. What concerns us here is Ali on Britney, at a gig of whose Ali was famously spotted in the late Nineties.

In truth, those of us who wake most mornings to US network helicopter footage of the poor girl being carted off by paramedics can't disagree with Ali about the rank inhumanity exhibited by the tabloids of TV and print (although obviously not Fox News or the New York Post, more on which below). "Does there ever come a point where a judgement forms that says, let's just leave her alone?", asks Alastair, and it's a good and important question, however depressingly rhetorical.

Where I think he lets himself down is by raising the ghoulish spectre of suicide. He recalls telling the Sunday lobby, after Ron Davies's moment of madness, "You lot won't be happy till he's topped himself," and mentions finding 532,000 entries on googling "Britney Spears" and "suicide". "It's sick," he observes, and who can argue? Yet recalling the part Downing Street played in nudging the media he despises towards David Kelly before his death, you wonder whether Ali is especially wise, or sensitive, in dwelling on media-induced suicide. Then again, perhaps it's his coded way of apologising. Difficult to be sure.

WIDESPREAD RELIEF as the Writers Guild of America strike drags on, that East Coast president Michael Winship resists the lure to portray the struggle, primarily about new media earnings, in absurdly grandiose terms. "Solidarity and strength have gotten us to where we are in this strike so far," begins his latest missive to members. "We have, as Martin Luther King Jr once said, organised our strength into compelling power. Patience and perseverance, added to that unity and power, will now take us the rest of the way." A nicely understated comparison, and topical, too, with all the recent MLK/ LBJ squabbling between Hillary and Obama. "Babe Ruth used to say that it's hard to beat a person who never gives up," concludes Michael, moving effortlessly between icons. "You're proving him right."

IN THE SUN, favourite columnist Jon Gaunt engages in more light-hearted joshing. Under the headline "Norman's So Nauseating", he satirises himself as an insecure fellow in constant need of affirmation (he mentions The Sunday Times calling him "a star" and "king of talk radio") before moving to the vaudeville knockabout. "I was delighted to see that little posh boy Matthew Norman was still slagging me off in his pointless column," writes Gaunty, and few of you would pick a fight with the end of that sentence. Preparatory to launching a mock attack on my wife, whom I suspect of suggesting that headline to him last Tuesday when we went out with Jon and Lisa for a slap up polenta-and-cous-cous supper, he reveals a certain fascination with our "Islington skinny latte lifestyle", not to mention our "politically correct lifestyle", before estimating the combined marital IQ at well over 200,000 points. As my late boss, Stewart Steven, used to insist, "irony doesn't work in newspapers". While I've tried to follow that stricture myself, even Stewart might agree that in the hands of our own PJ O'Rourke it works just fine.

WHETHER Gaunty's audience can read the humour between those beautifully crafted lines I'm not sure (at times, he is too clever and opaque for his core readership), but anyone who doubts our true feelings should attend his Q&A show at London's Shaw Theatre on 27 April, for which I've just booked four tickets in the third row. At £18 a pop Gaunty must be coining it, and good luck to him. Even in the PC coffee houses of London, N1, we're all for the unfettered free market when it rewards a chap like Gaunty!

MILD BEMUSEMENT greets the endorsement of Barack Obama by Mr Murdoch's New York Post. Given how cosy he'd become with local Senator Hillary, hosting fund-raisers and lavishing her with praise, no one seems sure why the old goat has gone for youthful idealism over wizened competence. Perhaps his old Clintophobia has simply resurfaced, or it could be a purely strategic move to confuse the Post's rival, the NY Daily News. Then again if Rebekah Wade is right (and who'd gainsay her on this?), Mr Murdoch would never dream of telling a tabloid editor what to think. While the Post will doubtless back John McCain for president in November, this is a useful boost for the plucky little hopemonger from Illinois, and we Obamaniacs are truly thankful that, for now at least, Rupert's fired up and ready to go.

APOLOGIES FOR the uselessness, but last week I forgot to doff my cap to Martin Kettle for the Guardian column in which he propounded Tony Blair's claims to become President of the EU. Martin, who memorably recalled in May 1997 how he once gave Mr Blair the run of his plumbing (the PM fixed a leaky cistern) and Mr Blair reciprocated by giving Martin the run of his mind, makes a persuasive case. I certainly can't see any conflict of interest issues in a man on the payroll of major global financial institutions heading the EU. That Kettle, he's steaming as seldom before!

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