The Prime Minister of Lebanon has enough problems at present but, even so, he might have been distracted by one trivial, nagging question when he met the BBC's Middle East editor this week. What on earth has Jeremy Bowen been doing to his cheeks?
The answer, embarrassingly, is that this senior foreign correspondent, a grey-haired man in his forties, is sporting designer sideburns. His favoured design, which was popular among the sillier, flashier players in the World Cup, involves a downward sweep of hair in the shape of a narrow, curved sword, to reach a delicate point mid-cheek.
As a facial fashion statement, it is the kind of thing Ali G might try but, on a grizzled journalist reporting from a war zone, it looks downright bizarre. Like any foreign correspondent, Bowen must be brave and bright but, watching him with those sideburns, it is difficult to resist an image of him before a hotel mirror, teasing and trimming as the rockets fly and the bombs fall.
No one at the BBC tells him that the way he looks undermines his seriousness; to be serious today is a PR liability. So desperate are public figures to present themselves as chummy, next-door-neighbour types that any pretence at dignity has cheerfully been abandoned.
Nor is it thought remotely odd, to take another example from the week's news, when an organisation charged by the Government to fight terrorism, people-smuggling and international drugs cartels has taken on a new mission: to encourage children to read. Declaring that the Reading Agency's Summer Reading Challenge was "an exciting project", MI5's director-general, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, invited a group of schoolchildren to look around its headquarters.
There are few more worthwhile projects than promoting reading among the young, and MI5 probably has its uses too, but the combination of the two is distinctly odd. In a grown-up world, an intelligence organisation would not see cuddly image-building as part of its role. It would dare to be dull.
But there are precious few grown-ups left in public life. The police have become so excited by their role in the Crimewatch culture that, increasingly, police officers interviewed about a real crime give the impression that they are auditioning for a follow-up to Inspector Morse.
Now the self-parody had been ratcheted up a couple of notches by, perhaps unsurprisingly, the senior rozzer who once wasted police time by mounting an investigation into an alleged private reference by Tony Blair to the "fucking Welsh". Richard Brunston, Chief Constable of North Wales, has announced that he is to share a report of his daily doings with members of the public on an internet weblog.
"We did a 12-hour stint on the A497 in the outskirts of Pwllheli, in baking sunshine," he has told his public this week. "This part of Wales is one of the nicest places on the planet - shame it doesn't happen more often! The camera read 5,891 number plates, from which we had 321 hits, resulting in us stopping 109 cars.' He managed to get a couple of uninsured drivers, too. "If your car isn't insured, look out!"
This depressing, faintly sinister gush, which may tempt some readers to repeat the phrase which nearly got Tony Blair into trouble, is published in the name of innovation and communication. In fact, the chief constable, like Jeremy Bowen with his sideburns and the kiddie-friendly MI5, is just indulging himself in the name of PR. The silly season now lasts all year.
Sitting on a ticking fat-bomb
Discussing on the Richard and Judy Show whether prejudice against the fat was now comparable to racism, I was surprised to find I was the only fattist on the panel. In a filmed interview, an outsized London taxi driver complained that a customer had been rude to him. Instead of roaring with laughter at the idea of a sensitive cabbie, we solemnly discussed his role as one of society's victims.
The sun has brutally revealed the folly of the we-are-all-guilty approach. Gazing at the acres of lardy, dimpling flesh now exposed, few could seriously deny that, as a parliamentary report put it, we are sitting on a ticking fat-bomb. For all the concern about eating disorders, a few dotty, celebrity-inspired dieting fads are surely needed to redress the balance on the country's groaning scales.
* Men who worry about the dangers of sleeping with women now have a new concern: it is harming their brain. Thanks to research at the University of Vienna, and reported in the New Scientist, we now know that men not only sleep far better alone but, when sharing a bed, show a significant loss of cognitive powers the next day. Women, on the other hand, are just fine.
At last, and not before time, the truth has been told. For years, women have peddled the lie that they are sensitive sleepers, disturbed by the nocturnal duvet-tugging, muttering and huffy tossing and turning of their men. Now it turns out that we have been the ones who were suffering while our women were snoring away beside us. The news also explains why during the first World Cup matches, when their partners were allowed to accompany them, the English team played like zombies.Reuse content