Chavez stirs up a degree of controversy at Oxford

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The Independent Online

Hugo Chavez isn't just causing political controversy during his tour of Britain, he's also stirred things up a treat in the cobwebby world of academia.

The Venezuelan President, who arrived in London at the weekend, has sparked an almighty panic at Oxford University after his supporters wrongly announced that he's been accorded an honorary degree.

Speaking on Venezuelan TV, the country's ambassador to London, Alfredo Toro Hardy, claimed recently that the left-wing firebrand is to receive the honour from Oxford's Centre for Socio-Legal studies.

"I was informed by a Professor Moussavi that this centre, together with the Human Rights Programme of the Faculty of Law, had launched proceedings so that the faculty formalised a request for an Honorary Degree for President Chavez," he said.

Unfortunately, this simply isn't true. Oxford's authorities say that no such degree has been (or will in future be) awarded to the Venezuelan leader.

"There are no plans for Chavez to be awarded an honorary degree by the university," confirms a spokesman. "A member of one department had issued a very tentative invitation for him to come and give a lecture, but that really is it."

Later today, Chavez will dine with Ken Livingstone (at the taxpayers' expense) at London's City Hall. As I revealed last week, Bob Neill, leader of London Assembly Tories, is boycotting the event in protest against the Venezuelan leader's record on human rights.

Hugh's publicity shyness jinxes pic

Hugh Grant's recent film career has produced enough turkeys to earn unflattering comparisons with Bernard Matthews. His latest flick, a satire called American Dreamz, in which he plays the host of a reality TV show, is a case in point.

"It opened in the US three weeks ago, received mixed reviews, and has been a commercial disaster," says one. "Its box-office position is 20th, and it took just $300,000 last week, a decline of 80 per cent on the week before."

Hollywood analysts blame the poor showing on Grant's prickly attitude towards the press. He granted just a handful of newspaper interviews in connection with Dreamz, and has barely been seen on US television.

"The picture failed to make much of an impression," notes the Hollywood newspaper Variety. "Exhibitors felt that it suffered because Grant did little promo work."

Fiona's secret is safe

Fiona Bruce, Queen Bee of the BBC's auto-cuties, has so far managed to avoid the embarrassment of having her salary leaked.

She has, nonetheless, spoken out in support of the £1m salary trousered by her Newsnight colleague Jeremy Paxman.

"Jeremy's the only person on the planet who can do what he does, so whatever he earns isn't an issue with me," Bruce told me at a recent party organised by Cosmopolitan magazine.

"At the BBC we don't sit around and discuss our salaries all day, though. As for my salary, it wasn't divulged because I don't earn enough."

This revelation surprises Bruce's work chums. "We always thought Fiona earned a huge whack," says one.

Quick change

The choreographer Arthur Pita - who, with his boyfriend Matthew Bourne, forms one of the arts world's top "power couples" - committed the faux pas of arriving late at the Royal Opera House last week.

For all the tut-tutting of fellow punters at Cyrano de Bergerac, he did turn out to have a good excuse, though.

"Being quite organised, I had taken my black suit to the Albert Hall with me, where we are rehearsing the musical Showboat," explains Pita.

"Unfortunately, after I hung the suit up, it got confused with one of the costumes and got whisked away to the costume hire shop. So I had to rush home and change, and ended-up missing the first 20 minutes. It was a frightful panic."

Prezza's parting shot at the shires

The decision to let John Prescott keep his £133k salary and perks has meant one final insult for his long-standing class enemies. Because governments can only legally employ 109 paid ministers, Prezza's continued existence on the payroll means that (for the first time in history) Britain has no full-time Minister for Agriculture. The job - a junior post in Defra - has instead been taken, part-time, by Jeff Rooker. He spends most of his days at the Northern Ireland office.

With some justification, the Countryside Alliance describes this as a two-fingered salute to rural Britain, which is still waiting for the new Defra chief David Miliband to get his teeth into some prime British sirloin. Elsewhere, the CA has discovered how many farms exist in the constituencies of Miliband and his new Defra juniors Barry Gardner and Ian Pearson. Zero.