Richard Ingrams' Week: Here's proof of how much the US differs from us

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The Independent Online

Tania Head, the American who fooled everyone into believing that she was one of the few survivors of 9/11, explained that "something gave me the strength to get out. I believe that it was my fiancée on his way to heaven" (the fiancée, a figment of her imagination, had, according to her fictitious account, already perished in the blaze).

I hope that I am right in thinking that if someone had said that in this country, a large number of us would have been overcome with indignation, if not nausea.

If so, the story may be helpful in reinforcing the important message that Americans are not like us and that it is a very great mistake to think that we are indissolubly bound together by shared customs and beliefs. Take the new flavour of the month in the United States – Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. She has told the Republican convention that American troops in Iraq are "doing God's purpose". God's purpose is unspecified by her, but it is legitimate to ask if it includes torturing large numbers of innocent civilians and killing a great deal more of them.

The thought that someone who talks like Palin could not only be elected, but quite possibly become President, is alarming. But there is absolutely nothing any of us can do about it.

All it should do is to emphasise again that Americans are a peculiar lot, and that G K Chesterton was right when he said that "nowhere in the world does an Englishman feel so much a stranger as in America".

Palming off services is problematic

In spite of all that has been divulged, it still came as a surprise to hear an American voice on the radio seeking to justify the recent SATS fiasco which has left thousands of pupils still without their exam results, due on 8 July.

The voice belonged to Philip Tabbiner, the senior vice-president of ETS Global, which is responsible for the marking cock-up.

As was only to be expected when questioned by a House of Commons select committee, Dr Tabbiner did everything in his power to pass the buck.

As a senior citizen, I find it hard to adjust to this new situation where duties that one always assumed were the responsibility of the Government or the civil service – marking exams or running prisons – have been relegated to private companies which may not even be British.

The case of the prisons was highlighted this week with the extraordinary story of Darren Harkin, an escaped psychiatric patient who attacked a 14-year-old girl at knifepoint and raped her. There were predictable cries of horror from the media, especially when it emerged that Harkin had been provided with a large collection of violent and pornographic videos.

But what nobody seemed to think worthy of comment was that Hayes Hospital, the Bristol institution where Harkin was housed, has nothing to do with the prison service or the NHS.

The organisation responsible for the hospital, the National Autism Society, is a private charity engaged in all kinds of worthy activities, including what they call the provision of "an autism-specific quality assurance programme" for local authorities etc and helping those with "high support needs arising out of challenging behaviours". The authorities seemed to find nothing odd about dangerous rapists being included in that category.

* "What's interesting about Top Gear," announced Wayne Garvie, the director of content at BBC Worldwide, "is that everyone thinks it's about cars. It isn't. It's about men and their relationships, and that's a universal theme."

And to think that millions of viewers, most of them aged about 10-12, have all this time been getting it wrong and completely failing to realise that what they were watching was something akin to all great literature and drama. As for those cars, Clarkson and Co might just as well have been fooling about with bicycles and skateboards.

And just in case some parents might feel qualms when, for instance, Clarkson, talks about going to lap dancing clubs or getting sexually excited on catching sight of some hideous new sports car with a price tag near the £100,000 mark, there are some words of reassurance from the executive producer of Top Gear, Andy Wilman, who says the show has "got that 1950s Ovaltine feel about it".

What we have here is the modern voice of the BBC, rich in self-congratulations, deceit and humbug. The BBC and Clarkson are making an enormous fortune out of Top Gear and they are doing so at a time when the motor car is being held responsible for global warming.

So let's pretend the show has got nothing to do with cars and that it isn't laddish or crude. Otherwise the BBC might be accused of gross irresponsibility, and the viewers might start asking why they should be expected to pay for it all.

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