Axe falls on al-Jazeera editor - and independence?

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The Independent Online

Sweaty brows at the headquarters of al-Jazeera International in Doha, Qatar - and not just because of the sweltering 45C summer.

Staff at the yet-to-air television station, which has hired scores of British journalists including Sir David Frost and Rageh Omaar, expect a crackdown on their editorial independence after the director of programmes was sacked.

Paul Gibbs, the former editor of BBC Breakfast, was fired on Wednesday, according to colleagues.

A spokeswoman for al-Jazeera International, bankrolled by the Emir of Qatar, claimed that Gibbs' contract "had come up for renewal and there was a decision not to renew it, in fact it was a mutual decision".

Insiders at the channel said this was untrue, however. "He is gutted, he worked so hard on this and they fired him," said one colleague. "We are very worried this is a political decision to undermine our independence." The channel was scheduled to open last year but has been beset by delays. It will not go live until late this year, or even 2007.

Another al-Jazeera International journalist said: "Paul is a very big wheel to go and his firing raises question marks over our future.

"This is a brilliant project - an independent news channel trying to better our understanding of the Arab world. But there are people out there trying to sabotage everything."

Gibbs had previously claimed the Emir's funding for the station would not erode its impartiality. Remotes at the ready.

I want that one ... Wally shirt up for grabs

Last week, Little Britain star David Walliams donated 70 items from his wardrobe to the Marie Curie charity shop in Belsize Park, north London.

Intrigued, Pandora raced there on Saturday morning to sift through the designer clothes bounty, from Savile Row, Ermenegildo Zegna and Versace. Alas, much of it had already been snapped up. But, for £6.99, I acquired one rather "special" item: a Frederick Theak tuxedo dress shirt, size 16/41, white with psychedelic alien monsters on the sleeves. Fair to say that Joseph (of Technicolour Dreamcoat fame) would have rejected it for being a bit gaudy.

A lucky Pandora reader will soon own this garment, formerly worn by Walliams. I have opened an auction, with the proceeds going to Marie Curie's cancer care work.

Please e-mail offers to! A colleague opens bidding at a measly £2. Do I hear five?

Much ado about Kenneth

Kenneth Branagh has a track record with young Hollywood starlets that would make Colin Farrell blush.

Our foremost Shakespearean has previously been linked to such beauties as Alicia Silverstone, Darryl Hannah and Courtney Cox.

The latest belle to fall for the Branster's charms, albeit professionally, is Bryce Dallas Howard, who he recently directed in a forthcoming film version of As You Like It.

"Kenneth is just the most amazing person to work with," she gushes. "His understanding of Shakespeare is incredible, and he also made it so much fun to do as well."

Is that a sick bag I see before me?

Cruise control

News to prick up the ears of George Michael, recently seen "cruising" on Hampstead Heath and liaising with a 58-year-old van driver by News of the World journalists.

The Heath manager, Bob Hall, threatens a crackdown on late night homosexual encounters.

Hall is, mercifully, no puritanical tyrant: he objects only to the quantity of "sex litter", which he says costs £40,000 to clean up each year.

"Condoms have been found in the men's [bathing] pond and Cohens Field," he writes in the Camden New Journal. "This is unacceptable and the City may have to review its approach on whether to prosecute if ... such litter continues."

A case, if there ever was one, of "cleaning up one's act"?

Get cracking!

News of a splendid book promotion. One reader of Can You Crack the Enigma Code?, out next month, will win an original 1940s Enigma machine, of the type used at Bletchley Park to break the Nazis' "unbreakable" cipher.

Working with Royal Holloway cryptographers for three months, author Richard Belfield inserted "evil" coded messages throughout the book. The first person to decipher them wins the relic. "It's about skull work," he says. "A pen and paper give you as much chance as using a computer."

Robert Harris, who wrote the novel Enigma, which was made into a hit film, tells me the machine may be worth "about £10,000". He quips: "I should have picked one up when I was writing the book because they're probably out of my financial league now."