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Leading article: A tawdry story with no heroines

LUCILLE McLAUCHLAN and Deborah Parry are not heroines. It is not clear that they are victims. They may even be guilty of murder - that was, after all, the finding of a properly constituted Saudi court basing its judgment on an old and hallowed body of law. They say they were intimidated, invalidating the confessions they made. What is the balance of credibility? Too much uncertainty swirls around their story to allow any conclusion but this: red carpets, publicists, fat cheques and film scripts are entirely misplaced. Worse, they point to a growing national tendency in this country, exhibited most recently in the Louise Woodward au pair case, to prejudge foreign courts and substitute the wettest of sentiment for the dry-eyed pursuit of justice.

This is a story which does few of its participants much credit - except, possibly, King Fahd, whose exercise of royal prerogative on behalf of the nurses surely now qualifies him for the award of the Garter (which seems to be a flexible diplomatic resource these days). Dignity is missing in equal measure from the conduct of the murder victim's brother and the convicted nurses' families. The British administrative machine, including the Prime Minister, has been mobilised for the sake of two prisoners no more deserving of political attention than a score of others languishing in foreign jails. The British press is feeding frenziedly and once again the Press Complaints Commission's code of practice stands exposed as a rather flexible document.

It is what lies behind this tawdry saga that gives rise to deeper anxieties about our age. Since the 17th century Britons have gone overseas in large numbers to seek employment and adventure. Most have been prepared to play by the rules of the game. Commit an offence abroad and accept the judicial consequences. Only in egregious circumstances where, for example, foreign authorities have deliberately targeted British nationals or arrested citizens for political crimes did British governments get exercised. Now, however, a new mood is abroad. Young women - gender is an important part of it - arrested smuggling drugs into countries which are known across the globe for their restrictive laws suddenly get transformed into lionesses of the press and public and then a vote-hungry No 10 Downing Street gets on their case.

In the Saudi instance, prejudice has all along coloured responses. Of course, there are universal standards which should govern trial and the handling of prisoners: most people would agree that torture and execution are never justified. But in a diverse world, we must tolerate different systems of trial and incarceration. The Saudis are not the only objects of judicial chauvinism. The French have lately been portrayed as a nation along whose streets stumble serial killers by the score - yet on any objective analysis French society is broadly the same as British in terms of public safety and police efficacy.

McLauchlan and Parry are fortunate. Women with more self-respect than they evidently possess would evade the crowds and the cameras and fade as best they can into this country - leaving the rest of us to hope against hope that their protestations of innocence are true.