Listen to the mocking roar of the tabloid lions

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The Independent Online
WHEN Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, warned newspapers last week to exercise restraint in their coverage of the football World Cup, he sounded as effective as a zoo-keeper appealing to tigers to go vegetarian. His exhortation to editors not to overstep the line between "robust comment" and racism was particularly piquant, coinciding as it did with a PCC decision which cleared the Daily Star of the latter charge. A headline in the paper in March, "Frogs need a good kicking", above an editorial accusing the French of "slimy continental ways", simply reflected the excitement and high emotion generated by national sporting events, the PCC found. Deep in the tabloid jungle, the lions gave a mocking roar.

Lifting their heads from a tasty meal of raw gazelle to taunt Lord Wakeham, they humorously insisted they had already adapted - indeed were enjoying - their new diet. "He is preaching to the converted," announced Piers Morgan, editor of the Mirror. "Language such as Hun and Boche is passe. Our readers don't want that any more and nor do we." Stuart Higgins, editor of the Sun, agreed that there was no need to use offensive language - and promptly launched into a tirade against the French, who, he said, "deserve a good kicking" for their handling of ticket allocation.

I suppose we should be thankful he didn't suggest air strikes. But Mr Higgins's Rambo-esque imaginings have their limits and "we're not going to go out and say we're going to invade France", he assured Lord Wakeham. What this reveals is that editors are happy to pay lip service to the PCC because it has already demonstrated, in a slew of judgments prompted by coverage of the Euro 96 football championship, that its chief concern is to avoid charges of censorship. Infamous headlines - "Achtung! Surrender! For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over" in the Mirror and "Blitz Fritz" in the Sun - were excused by the PCC on the grounds that they raised questions of taste rather than discrimination, a sure signal that newspapers are free to express their bellicose fantasies as much as they like.

I haven't encountered words such as Hun and Boche since I briefly read boys' comics Valiant and Victor in the 1960s. They already seemed to belong to another era, one in which footballers wore knee-length shorts and Tommies in tin hats endlessly re-fought battles from the Second World War. That the tabloids were employing this language as recently as two summers ago says something about the imaginary world they inhabit; it must also be perplexing to English football fans whose idols - Gianfranco Zola of Chelsea, Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp, David Ginola of Spurs - demonstrate the extent to which the game has successfully broken down national barriers.

Although the Mirror escaped censure by the PCC two years ago, its editor was forced to apologise for its "Achtung!" headline after a barrage of criticism from readers and MPs. It will be interesting to see, over the next few weeks, whether the papers' interpretation of "robust comment" is shared by their readers - or whether, as I suspect, the majority of British fans have a more sophisticated (and less crudely racist) grasp of the pleasures and rivalries afforded by an event such as the World Cup.

"THERE'S one thing at which we DO lead the world," a Sun editorial announced on Friday. It was referring to new figures which show that Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the world - nine times worse than Japan's, apparently, and a reason for us to "hang our heads in shame". Working itself into a fit of moral indignation, the paper boldly identified the cause of the problem, which is our habit of telling teenagers "too much" about contraception. No, really, I'm not making it up: in a brilliant display of tabloid logic, the Sun has decided that 14-year-old girls are getting pregnant because schools give them too much information about how to avoid it.

"The more sexually aware our children become at too early an age, the more they are tempted," the paper sermonised. And in a pioneering move to protect younger readers from premature exposure, it restricted itself to only two stories about sex on the same day's front page: "Mel B to marry her sexy dancer", accompanied by a colour photograph of a nearly naked Scary Spice embracing her lover, Jimmy Gulzar; and an account of George Michael's conviction in Los Angeles for "sordid behaviour in a public loo". Inside, on page three, 24-year-old "Colchester cutie" Jade showed off her erect nipples and there were five more pictures of Mel B romping bare-breasted with her fiance in the South of France. "Jimmy's been spending a lot of time in Mel's hotel room," an unnamed source told the paper. Thank God, for the sake of our children, that none of these stories whispered a word about contraception.

SO WHEN are we going to bomb India? I know Robin Cook had other things on his mind last week, but surely he could find time to dispatch a squadron of Tornados, at the very least? I mean, isn't that what the British government does these days when a foreign regime starts testing weapons of mass destruction? Not to mention threatening its neighbours and disrupting the security of an entire region. It's not even as if the right-wing government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is being shy about its nuclear arsenal, even though American intelligence apparently failed to detect it. (Funny, isn't it, how the Americans can tell so much from satellite photographs, yet the Indians had to explode an H-bomb before the CIA realised they had developed one.)

The Indian government's decision to test three nuclear devices, and two more in the face of worldwide condemnation, threatens to make South Asia as unstable as the Middle East. It has certainly alarmed India's neighbour and traditional enemy, Pakistan, whose government has fiercely reiterated its right to defend itself. The fact that the UN Security Council is not in emergency session, and an Anglo-American flotilla is not heading for the Bay of Bengal, highlights the double standards which come into play when the West is faced with a soft target such as the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein.