Royal bulletin: BBC has shocking grovelling attack

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ON THURSDAY Radio 4's flagship news and current affairs programme The World at One devoted 16 minutes, nearly half the running-time, to a single news item. Not the Serb threat to Zepa and Gorazde, nor the government's innovative plan to motivate bored 14-year-olds by sending them to sell jumpers in M&S for part of the week. This was the big one, a breaking story which required a studio-location link and instant reaction from a variety of interviewees with inside information.

Yes, we're talking about the Queen Mother's cataract operation. Royal cronies were wheeled out, Sir Cliff Richard and Dame Vera Lynn among them, to field taxing questions such as - I swear this is verbatim - "I put it to Sir Cliff that she really is a remarkable woman" and "Would you like to use our programme to send her your best wishes?". Sir Cliff succeeded, with commendable restraint, in not breaking into an a cappella version of "Congratulations", which is more than can be said for Tim Maby, the BBC's man at King Edward VII's Hospital for Officers in London.

Half-way through a breathless fashion report about what the QM was wearing when she left hospital - flowered dress, big hat with a green bow, black and purple Daimler ... sorry, she was getting into the Daimler - he was suddenly overcome with emotion and addressed her directly on behalf of the nation: "Good morning, ma'am, well done".

Well done? Did the QM perform the operation herself? Had she survived an amazing ordeal from which few patients emerge alive? Hardly, as an interview in the programme with an eye surgeon who performs hundreds of cataract operations each year revealed. The best line of all, though, came from an unnamed woman who'd recently undergone the same procedure.

"You know," the World at One reporter began solemnly, signalling that another of those tricky questions was on the way, "you know what the Queen Mother's been through." Before he could finish, his eager interviewee was out of the starting-gate. "Absolutely nothing," she gasped, putting the whole ludicrous item in context.

THE ABSURD deference still paid to members of the Royal Family, of which the above is only one example, is one of the most cogent arguments for the abolition of the monarchy. The notion that certain individuals deserve special attention solely because of birth or marriage is an anachronism in a sophisticated modern democracy, and plays an important role in maintaining our remarkably resilient class system.

The previous afternoon, a Radio 4 newsreader used another breaking-news formula - "It's been announced in the last half hour" - to introduce a story of staggering insignificance about the Prince of Wales. He has given up flying. The only conceivable impact this decision could have on my life, or yours, is that there is now no possibility that an aircraft of the Queen's Flight will plummet into our homes with the heir to the throne at the controls - a pretty unlikely eventuality in any case, even though Prince Charles did manage to overshoot the runway at Port Ellen airport in the Hebrides last year, causing pounds 1m worth of damage.

The RAF squadron leader in charge of the flight has, mysteriously, been ticked off for allowing the Prince of Wales to land the plane; it's hard to imagine, given the extraordinarily deferential behaviour the royals expect from those around them, that he had much choice if Charles, who has a pilot's licence, wanted to do it. Sadly, this little contretemps squashes a fantasy of mine about what the Royal Family might do with themselves when Britain finally catches up with the rest of the civilised world and declares itself a republic.

Imagine: you're settling back in your seat for take-off when a familiar hesitant voice addresses you from the flight-deck. "Welcome aboard, um, Windsor Airlines. My name is Charles and I'm your captain for today's flight to New York. The weather is absolutely appalling but don't worry because my brother Andrew - I mean my co-pilot - will be doing the difficult bits. The chief flight attendant, Fergie, will be handing out whoopee cushions during the flight and her assistant," - audible gritting of teeth - "lovely Diana, has some important safety information for you." Wouldn't the Princess of Wales make a great air hostess?

A NEW threat to the elderly has been identified by the Daily Telegraph: "Lesbianism risk to older women," it warned on Friday. I detect the possibility of an interesting new party game here, with participants required to speculate on what the risk might be - aggrieved occupants of nursing homes being exposed to lengthy readings from turgid lesbian classics such as The Well of Loneliness, perhaps?

The headline referred to a warning from a psychologist, Hamilton Gibson, that women are increasingly likely to become lesbians in later life because of a lack of men. I know nothing about Dr Gibson, whom I assume to be a man, other than his own advanced age - 80, according to the Telegraph - but it seems he's worried about changes in sexual practices among the over-60s leading to older women being seen, in his words, as "randy old hags".

Dr Gibson's concern is puzzling. Lesbians have a very low incidence of Aids and their sexual activities don't lead to pregnancy, which is hardly a major worry for this age group in any case. Some people might think it's good news that older women are staying sexually active and enjoying themselves; they might also conjecture that this story, with its emotive language, reflects a frisson of horror at the prospect of them doing it without men.

UNLIKELY remarks overheard on trains, part one: "I'm just desperate to get on to the Internet." Part two, on a sweltering District Line train one afternoon last week: "He's a very talented trader." Ruminative pause. "Very talented. He always gets someone else to take the blame for his mistakes." So that's where Nick Leeson went wrong.