Sun's editor is left 'gobsmacked' as Menem denies apology

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The Independent Online
IF IMITATION is the sincerest form of flattery, Carlos Menem is a great admirer of the former Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. The Argentine President wrote a supposed apologia in The Sun about the Falklands War with remarkable similarities to one in the same Murdoch- owned tabloid by the Japanese premier over the suffering of British prisoners of war in the Far East.

But appearances can be deceptive. President Menem, who visits Britain next week, is now saying he never said sorry over Las Malvinas, and, indeed, he has not relinquished his country's claims to the islands.

All this is deeply embarrassing to Tony Blair, after the Sun article was seized by ministers and Downing Street as offering a post-Falklands rapprochement, and also defusing the problem over the arrest of the former Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.

The Sun's editor, David Yelland, who was responsible for the front-page headline "Argentina says: We're Sorry for Falklands", is "gobsmacked".

So was something lost in the translation? No, because if one is to believe Whitehall gossip the Menem piece did not need to be translated since the person responsible for it was the Prime Minister's chief press secretary, Alastair Campbell.

Both the Menem and Hashimoto articles appeared in the Murdoch press, which New Labour is especially keen to keep on side, and both had preceded potentially tricky state visits, in the Japanese case by the Emperor Akihito with the prospect of protests by angry British former prisoners of war.

The "coincidental" similarities do not end there. The Menem article begins with the headline "Argentina says: We're Sorry ...", compared with "Japan says sorry ..."

The texts offer similar sentiments, using similar words expressing a desire to bury the problems of the past, and pointing towards a future of co-operation. What is also remarkable is the number of gushing tributes to Mr Campbell's boss. For President Menem, the British Prime Minister is "a great leader. His modernising approach and strong commitment to sound economics are a benchmark in today's world ...".

This was not lost on Mr Hashimoto back in January: to him Mr Blair "is now a star on the world stage and, whether addressing our top businessmen or meeting the people of Tokyo, he has made a huge impression which can only benefit our relations further".

Yesterday Downing Street said that following "the success" of an article by Mr Hashimoto, the editor of The Sun "approached" No 10 about the possibility of an article by President Menem.

The message was passed on to the President, who apparently said he "was happy to do so". But who actually wrote the piece? "The words are the words of the Argentines. We provided advice on style. But the content was theirs," a spokesman said.

Downing Street made it clear that Mr Hashimoto's article was his own work, although it was infused with some of the favourite phrases of Mr Blair and Mr Campbell.

Raymond Chapman, Professor of English studies at London School of Economics, said of the texts: "The structure is similar and there are similarities in the expressions of regrets by Menem and Hashimoto. Tony Blair gets a boost at the beginning and end of both pieces."