Richard Ingrams' Week: Cry wolf too often and no one pays attention

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The Independent Online

It is hard to take seriously someone called Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller (the head of MI5); she sounds like a character in a Ealing comedy or one of those frightening aunts in P G Wodehouse's novels.

Such reactions are illogical and unfair. We should not judge anyone by their name, or even by their physical appearance.

All the same, when Dame Eliza warns the country that it is facing a serious threat from at least 1,600 British-based terrorists she faces a major problem, namely that a great many people will be inclined not to take her seriously.

So many lies have been told both before and after the invasion of Iraq that large sections of the public no longer believe what they are told about the terrorist threat.

Dame Eliza warns that terrorists could even acquire nuclear material. But we have heard this sort of thing before from Blair, not to say Bush, who, more than once, told his American audience that the threat from Saddam Hussein could well come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

That does not mean that Manningham-Buller is mistaken about terrorists - only that she is in the position of the boy in the story who cried wolf.

Another difficulty that those of us with long memories will have is that the record of MI5 over the past, say, 30 years is scarcely an impressive one.

There has been a succession of spy scandals and bungled operations notably in Northern Ireland. Again, it is possible that in the well-worn phrase lessons have been learnt and new procedures put in place.

But where is the evidence of that?

No news can be bad news

One of the things that hit you when you come back to this country after even a short absence is the triviality of what passes for news.

Yesterday, the front-page headline in more than one paper was that Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow was not going to wear a poppy when he appeared on the telly. It was made to seem as important an issue as the sacking of Donald Rumsfeld. In a public statement Snow defended his decision, though he insisted that he would continue to wear those garish ties. A spokesman for the British Legion declined to be drawn on the subject.

I am an admirer of Jon Snow and a regular viewer of his programme, but he can be just as guilty of an erratic approach to news as yesterday's paper. In the case of Channel 4 it takes the form of an obsession with violent crime (being by no means unique in this respect). Any rape or murder, especially one involving paedophiles, is likely to be given lengthy coverage on a par with major world events.

There is no justification for this. It is pure sensationalism and Snow is compromised by it far, far more than by his failure to wear a poppy.

* As readers of Miles Kington's column yesterday will have seen, I have been away on a cruise, one of the last on offer from Swan Hellenic before that excellent organisation sinks beneath the waves, the victim of a heartless takeover.

During my absence there have been a number of cheering developments, in particular the fact that David Blunkett's book, for which he was paid £400,000, has so far sold only 1,000 copies.

Will this discourage publishers from paying out huge sums to discredited public figures? I doubt it. Tony Blair is likely to receive an even bigger sum from his friend Rupert Murdoch. His former spin doctor Alastair Campbell will also hit the jackpot but their books are more than likely to suffer the fate of Blunkett's.

What such people have in common is a stubborn reluctance to admit to having made mistakes - the only thing that might make their books interesting. The same is true of two men who, while I was away, publicly proclaimed their indignation at the way they had been attacked in print. One was Lord Hutton, author of the report that exonerated Blair and Campbell. The other is former Daily Telegraph owner Lord Black of Crossharbour who is clearly irate by the revelations in Tom Bower's new biography.

Neither man has the slightest bit of awareness that he has done things for which he should offer a grovelling apology. Black even claims to be short of money. Perhaps he too should approach a publisher.