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Men plumb the depths of bad behaviour

Jack O'Sullivan relates a chronicle of atrocity, sin and lies
Let's face it: 1996 looked like a bad year for British males. Rather than a chronicle of great achievement it seemed to mark the descent of man.

The lowest point was Thomas Hamilton and the killings in Dunblane. Then Horrett Campbell attacked a group of toddlers with a 2ft machete. These events further raised public anxiety about the safety of children with men. So did the news earlier this month that one-third of Britain's police forces were investigating allegations of abuse by paedophiles in their children's homes. That's men, again.

Euro 96 offered some relief from men behaving horribly, a temporary boost to those who keep faith in male heroism. Victory against the Netherlands, dignity in a narrow defeat by Germany and the elegance of Paul Gascoigne's great goal against Scotland were reminders of when men could feel proud. And then Gazza blew it. He beat up his wife, Sheryl, and reminded us of the modern shame attached to maleness.

He was not the only hero to tumble. Until "Randy Roddy" hit the headlines in September after running off with a divorced woman, he was the much- admired Roderick Wright, Roman Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, a model of male celibacy and trustworthiness. Then it transpired that he had another mistress, who had borne a son, never publicly acknowledged by the bishop.

And the other male figureheads? Prince Charles, the man who would lead the rest of British men, looked out of touch and out of date, distant from his children and alienated from his society as he divorced his wife. As for his father, Prince Philip did not seem even to understand why the rest of us were so upset about handguns after the atrocities of Dunblane.

It all made for a fairly sad image of decline. And the Royal College of Nursing further elaborated the picture of men as pathetic inadequates when it reported last August that when men live without women, they eat rubbish, drink excessively and smoke too much. As a result, they die sooner. In short, take away nanny and men end up with one foot in the grave.

So men have a problem with the way the lead their lives - and it causes difficulties for everyone else. But the biggest problem in 1996 was their silence. On an individual level, many are experimenting with new ways of working, of being parents, of being masculine. But, unlike the days when feminism set its agenda, they are talking little to each other about what they are doing.

There is dearth of leadership. It was not possible in 1996 to name a single significant male public figure who articulated a fresh vision for men, a new dignified, useful and satisfying way to define themselves. Thinking men abdicated that responsibility, preferring to focus their energy on other forms of politics. What does our male- dominated Parliament have to say about the nature of men? Nothing. MPs and other male public figures can speak about Labour and the Tories, about religion and foreign affairs. But not about themselves as men.

So women filled the vacuum and, as they have done for two decades, told the story of men in 1996. Good for them. Not so useful for men. The picture that prevailed was inevitably stereotypical rather than innovative, partial rather than complete, reflecting a female rather than a male perspective. And its dominant images - abusive men, feckless fathers, criminal boys - were unrelentingly negative.

In 1997, men should start telling their own story.