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Matthew Norman

Matthew Norman: Chris catches cold as ‘Mail’ goes nuclear


The first Swine Flu Article of the Week award of doubtless many goes unreservedly to Christopher Booker in the Daily Mail for "Pandemic or Panic?" Catchily sub-headed "After Salmonella, Bird Flu, the Millennium Bug ... Should We Actually Be Scared This Time?"

Mr Booker concludes that we should not ... and that "we should learn to be much more careful not to talk up scares beyond what the evidence is there to support."

That seems a perfectly fair line, and certainly a more temperate one than Simon Jenkins took in The Guardian (swiftly and expertly debunked by its own Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre), where he insisted that it's all got up by the press to sell newspapers and the WHO to justify its budget. But Mr Booker wins not so much for his argument as its location. There is a special joy about finding such a calm appraisal of public credulity towards scare stories in the Daily Mail, which had downplayed pandemic fears itself three days earlier by leading its website with "How Swine Flu Could Be A Bigger Threat To Humanity Than Nuclear Warfare".

At times the Mail hasn't been so restrained, as with its proselytising of the fictitious link between the MMR vaccine and autism, while with the age's most unquestionably genuine cause for alarm it veers in the other direction to dismiss climate change as cobblers. With swine flu, for once, it appears unsure of itself, unable to decide whether to take the Booker line or the worse-than-nuclear-war one. Time and epidemiology will clarify its thinking, but for now let's reflect on Mr Booker's closing words. "Stick to the facts, keep everything in proportion and don't give way to speculations which, a year or two later, may make us look very silly indeed." Wise words. If only the Mail had followed them on MMR.

Mad science

No doubt subdued by the memory of her own role in inflating Dr Andrew Wakefield's flawed research into a measles epidemic, Melanie Phillips has been oddly reticent about swine flu thus far. Instead, Mad Mel turns to religion, and the relationship between Creationism and its kissing (with tongues) cousin Intelligent Design – the theory that there must be a higher power, to précis slightly, though God alone knows what.

Irked by a Today Programme item on the matter, MM derides the general belief that ID was invented to sidestep the US constitutional ban on teaching religion in schools. Far from it, she confides to her blog, the two are at odds "because Creationism comes out of religion while Intelligent Design comes out of science". Exactly which science she doesn't say. Nor does she mention the consensus that ID cannot be science since it cannot be tested by scientific methodology, and that it is widely known to scientists as "junk science", or to the more courteous American Association for the Advancement of Science as "pseudoscience". These details aside, spot on once again.

'Mirror' gets wrecked

A glorious week for the Daily Mirror on several traditional fronts. Pride of place among the usual deluge of "exclusives" goes to the genius two-year-old girl featured in every other paper the same day. Also impressive was the feature in which the faces of two celebrities were combined to produce a third, published the very day after the Mail did the identical thing.

Most pleasing was the report of the MPs' expenses debate in the Commons, regarded by everyone else as another humiliation for the PM. "Brown Perks Up" was the headline above Jason Beattie's account. "Gordon Brown breathed a sigh of relief last night ... " Now that interpretation really was exclusive. Once again we're reminded of Admiral the Lord Horatio d'Ascoyne in Kind Hearts And Coronets, bravely steering his vessel towards a collision, then saluting bravely to the last as he goes down with his ship.


Without having heard it, one can't be too dogmatic about the On The Ropes with Andy Kershaw, dropped from the Radio 4 schedule at the last minute, about which he wrote in this paper on Friday. But given that the interview was cleared by hyper-cautious BBC lawyers, and conducted by a journalist of the experience and judgment of John Humphrys, it's hard to believe the official reason that it infringed the privacy of the children about whom Mr Kershaw insists he spoke only with affection; and all too easy to believe that this was yet another depressing show of cowardice from executives whose only surviving instinct is the avoidance of trouble.

Gullible's travails

I much enjoyed Daily Express editor Peter Hill's appearance before the Commons media committee to discuss his sensitive handling of the Madeleine McCann story. "I do not publish stories I believe to be untrue," said Peter. Who can doubt his word? Whether one so endearingly gullible is suited to editing a national title, even the Express, is another matter, but hats off to him all the same.

Don't do as I do, do as I say

In The Sun, finally, Kelvin MacKenzie has a pop at the remade Reggie Perrin starring Martin Clunes. I thought the first episode was hilarious, but that seems the minority view, and Kelvin took grave umbrage. "Some between-jobs idiot at the BBC decided it could be updated," he harrumphs. "Having seen the first show, the answer is clear – no it couldn't." Well, he has a point. It can be pitiful when people try to reinvent a memorable triumph of old. Kelvin's paper, meanwhile, featured Gordon Brown's face in a 60 watt bulb beside the headline "Will The Last Young Family To Leave Britain For Australia Or New Zealand Please Turn Out The Lights".