Leading Article: Wakeham fails to hit the target

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THE CAPACITY of tabloid newspaper readers to ironise and deconstruct what they read should never be underestimated. Readers of the Daily Star, for example, may not score highly on advertisers' wish-lists or academic attainment tests, but they are not stupid enough to take silly headlines about frogs in football literally, especially if they have anything to do with Arsenal, Spurs or any other club which relies on French talent. Committees sitting in sententious judgement on the handiwork of back-page sub- editors run a grave risk of themselves looking ridiculous.

But it is also the job of the Press Complaints Commission to fire warning shots across editorial bows and the Star and rivals tempted to follow its lead need to be warned. The forthcoming World Cup will excite passions and newspapers should report as we all would wish players on the field to behave - with engagement, but responsibly. Lord Wakeham and his colleagues know the score when it comes to international football competition. Who else is in a position to strike pre-emptively when newspapers are in danger of behaving badly? That chance has been open to them for months and the commission should have stirred itself sooner to prevent World Cup coverage becoming tainted by jingoism. In refusing to rule against the Daily Star's headline about kicking the French - deemed to be a mere matter of taste, and hence apparently outside the commission's remit - the commission has missed a trick.

Perhaps Lord Wakeham has forgotten that the commission is an adjudicator on trial. Substantive issues of privacy and press intrusion in the context of incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights remain to be settled. This episode can have won the commission few admirers.