More to Martyn Lewis than his soft furnishings

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The Independent Online
IN THIS week's Spectator diary, Alan Rusbridger attacks journalists like Martyn Lewis who set themselves up as arbiters of their colleagues, then does it himself. Rusbridger criticises those of us who have written profiles of Lewis for focusing on his interior decor while failing to mention a murky incident in his past. I feel I ought to defend myself here, not least as Martyn Lewis's soft furnishings made no appearance in my piece. Unfortunately, I fear Alan Rusbridger may be right.

At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Lewis became the recipient of a hot news story that members of Afghanistan's athletics team wanted to defect. The story ran on ITN, prompting Afghan team officials to call a press conference, complete with loitering KGB heavies and denials. Death was then the common penalty for defection from Afghanistan, yet to the horror of other journalists present, Lewis identified his informant as Sadek Zarga, and invited him to repeat himself.

I asked Lewis whether this might not have been an appalling thing to do; but he insisted he'd acted, not to prop up his story, but to protect Zarga. He had been shocked, he said, to see a KGB colonel put a hand on Zarga's arm, and thought that if the rest of the world knew who he was, Zarga might stand a better chance. I decided at the time that this was all a bit complicated, and Lewis's part in it was open to interpretation. But I have thought sometimes since that it is very odd that Lewis never found out what happened to Zarga. He says he tried, but I am not sure he ought to have been satisfied with just trying.

Lewis can be very plausible, which is partly what so irritates his colleagues, who didn't come out of the good news discussion at all well, refusing even to engage him in debate, behaving as if news values were immutable. (Whereas I have lived in Bahrain, and know that the most important news story every day is how many telegrams its ruler Sheikh Isa has sent.) Unfortunately, Lewis has also emerged from scrutiny increasingly uncomfortably - as a supporter of the status quo, whose good news agenda threatens to be a tool of cosy conservatives with their own reasons for wanting everyone to believe life is nice and happy. Besides, how can you take seriously someone who has their jackets specially made with tacks at the back so that they sit more neatly on television?

CHRISTMAS card buying used to be simple. You went into a shop and found some you liked. Then charities started to get in on the act: now if I didn't buy charity cards I'd worry that my relatives were curling their lips as they opened the envelopes. This year it's emerged that charities get different amounts of money depending on where you buy the cards. It's no longer enough that Oxfam is written inside; you need to have got them from a proper Oxfam shop or by mail order. No wonder people are fed up with Christmas long before it arrives.

I found a shop that promised to donate 82p in the pound to charity, and decided that would have to do. The first batch I picked up came from the Marwell Zoological Society, probably a very good cause, but just not the one for me this Christmas. The next lot came from the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners Society. I think shipwrecked mariners (are there a lot of them?) come above zoos in my personal hierarchy of charities, but it still didn't feel quite the right image.

Finding a personally and publicly acceptable charity actually turns out to be rather difficult. Finding a personally and publicly acceptable charity that has nice cards is impossible. I passed over Aid to Russian Christians, unable to believe that Christians need more aid than other Russians. I didn't know what Population Concern does, and Help Hammer Cancer is a stupid name. In the end I settled for mainstream charities for humans, like Shelter and Mencap. Then I started worrying about recycled paper.

CINEMA audiences groan whenever the Bacardi commercial is screened. The nation is sick of Auntie Beryl, Peckham High Street on a wet Saturday afternoon, next door's budgie, and those blokes with their jackets poncily flung over their shoulders, skipping to catch the last bus home.

Fortunately for sanity, Bacardi has just changed advertising agencies - not that anyone involved is prepared to say whether this means death to Auntie Beryl (who has allegedly been around only for four years; it feels like 40). The old agency refuses to comment, and the new agency reacted as if I'd asked them to give details of the sex lives of its directors. Bacardi clearly has a mysterious hold over its advertising agencies. Only its PR company would talk, and as is often the way with PR companies, it didn't have anything to say. But there were dark mutters about 'creatives'. It may be safe to go back to the cinema next summer.

THE battle of Rebecca Hall and Nicola de Pulford is shaping up promisingly. Miss Hall, author of a book called Fruits of Paradise, hopes to 'liberate the vegetarian within' and has offered farmers pounds 10,000 to live in the equivalent of a cage for battery hens for a week.

De Pulford, a Devon farmer, has accepted, though she claims that the rules have since changed. One person in the cage has become five, and if one fails, they all do. The cage is too small, only four and a half times the size of the average chicken cage, she says; and Hall is insisting on maintaining the story rights, meaning that she won't be able to speak to the press. There has also been some talk of her having to live in underpants.

Hall mutters grimly that de Pulford 'keeps trying to change things too'. She claims she has stipulated minimal clothing, not underpants, and that the human chickens will be able to speak at a press conference. The size of the cage has been worked out by Compassion In World Farming. Despite the evident antipathy, de Pulford is arriving with four women friends next weekend, and they are planning to go ahead in Hall's back garden.