Of 'busty teachers' and 'randy pupils'

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On Wednesday, or "Teacher on Trial: Day 7" as it was billed by one tabloid, I turned up at 11 Downing Street for a seminar on morality.

On Wednesday, or "Teacher on Trial: Day 7" as it was billed by one tabloid, I turned up at 11 Downing Street for a seminar on morality. The editor of The Sun, had he been invited, would have been disappointed to find that no one showed interest in his current obsession, a court case involving a "busty teacher" and her allegedly "randy" pupils.

In fact, sex wasn't mentioned once as a group of academics, politicians and journalists met to discuss the ethical dilemmas outlined in The Moral Universe, a pamphlet published last week by the think-tank Demos. It's a series of essays in which "world-leading thinkers" – including the Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen, Professors John Gray and Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economics, and the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway – discuss the need for a new morality in a world transformed by globalisation and several varieties of fundamentalism.

My contribution to the collection is about tabloid values, an anachronistic set of assumptions in which sex and morality are still taken to be synonymous. The popular press doesn't care much about the ethics of faith-based schools or the precise meaning of Western values, subjects that occupied much of Wednesday morning's 90-minute discussion. What editors want is an excuse to reveal intimate details of someone's sex life, whether the victim happens to be a footballer, a soap star or the defendant in a sensational court case. Amy Gehring, the gym teacher who is accused of four counts of indecent assault on male pupils at the school where she worked, has been splashed all over the tabloids for several days; the Daily Mail has printed verbatim extracts from the court proceedings, while it emerged that another paper had paid witnesses for their stories. (She was cleared of a fifth charge last week.) The case is still going on but what is already clear is that it involves no issues of public interest, and has filled so many pages only because the rules that apply to reporting trials allow them to be turned into a debased form of entertainment.

It is hard to imagine a more egregious example of sex being used to sell newspapers, in a moral atmosphere that has evolved not one jot since the 1950s. Sex and private life are continually on display, creating an illusion of permissiveness, yet the papers' attitudes to sexuality are puerile and punitive. You don't have to figure in a sensational court case to get the treatment: this is a world where HIV is still a gay plague and women who have had several partners are slappers. Misogyny is the order of the day and the jaunty six-times-a-night confessions of game show contestants co-exist with a set of moral standards that would delight the Archbishop of Canterbury. In our everyday lives, we are used to encountering a range of relationships – serial mono- gamy, cohabitation, gay partnerships – which are a sign of our society's maturity in sexual matters. Yet we tolerate a popular press that for the most part ignores the really important moral issues – poverty, globalisation, the conflict between religious and secular morality – and serves up a daily caricature of our values. No matter how much the tabloids mock the chattering classes, as I'm sure they would characterise those of us who turned up at Downing Street last week, the fact is that we have grown up and they haven't.

I'm sorry, Ma'am, I can't make it

Try as I might, I cannot recall a single event connected with the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. I am told that there were street parties, and cheering pensioners lined the streets to catch a glimpse of Her Majesty, but it is all a complete blank. My recollection of the royal wedding four years later is also pretty sketchy, for different reasons; a group of us organised a party in South Kensington, got drunk and watched old movies in a successful attempt to miss the entire event. So I am not, as you can imagine, looking forward with trembling anticipation to the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations later this year.

Even so, I dutifully scanned the list of events announced last week by Downing Street and Buckingham Palace. Banquets! Speeches! Regional visits! On 1 May the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will visit the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, followed by a lunch to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the diocese. The next day it's the Farmers' Market in Taunton, followed by a visit to Wells. The itinerary goes on like this for pages, with one of the highlights being a two-day visit to the Royal Windsor Horse Show. Can anyone explain to me how this dull tour of civic amenities and agricultural shows differs from the usual round of royal engagements? And which bright spark imagined that giving local dignitaries the opportunity to genuflect to the royal couple is a way of rekindling interest in this ludicrous institution?

Salem II: Bush's new witch hunt

Flushed with the success of his bellicose State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Bush flew off to North Carolina the very next day and announced a new scheme to enlist volunteers in the war against terrorism. The Citizen Corps will be the domestic arm of a new USA Freedom Corps, created by executive order earlier in the week, and will recruit delivery drivers, postal workers and ship's captains to report "suspicious activities". This extension of the informal "shop-your-neighbour" scheme which has been in existence since 11 September – FBI agents have been turning up on the doorsteps of people who are reported to have made "anti-American" remarks – confirms that a new wave of McCarthyism is sweeping the United States. So it's a nice touch that the President chose to announce it in a town with the evocative name of Winston-Salem.

Consign post offices to oblivion

We all know what sub-post offices are like – dusty places with lino floors, displays of greetings cards, scales held together by string, and long queues. There's something depressing about them, not least the way in which people collecting state benefits and pensions are exposed to the gaze of other shoppers and, in some cases, thieves who prey on the elderly and vulnerable. I assume that this run-down state is evidence of how difficult it is to make money from post offices these days, but it also makes me wonder whether they're necessary. In an age when money can be transferred electronically, there's little reason to dish out cash over the counter. Last week a report suggesting that 3,000 post offices might have to close was greeted with a predictable outcry. But if they went, I, for one wouldn't mourn their passing.

And finally, a shameless plug

A footnote on morality: I'm going to be reading from my book on the subject tomorrow night at the Players Theatre in Villiers Street, central London. The evening is in aid of Amnesty International and will include readings by Libby Purves, Michele Roberts, Linda Grant and Amina Shah. Sheena McDonald is in the chair. If you happen to be in Covent Garden, come and join us in a celebration of women's writing. We begin at 7.15pm.

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