Trounce the tabloids by telling the truth

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WELCOME to the Bates Manoeuvre, otherwise known as the pre-emptive strike. It was launched, of course, by Ken Bates, the chairman of Chelsea Football Club, at a press conference on Thursday when he announced that he was living apart from his wife, Pam, and having an affair with a freelance football writer called Suzannah. 'Neither Pam, Suzannah nor myself will have any further comment to make,' he concluded and then walked out. He did not say what prompted his confession, but presumably it was the knowledge that a Sunday tabloid was on his trail. Now the story is killed stone dead.

Surely much of what is called press harassment could be eliminated if only people would copy this useful tactic and tell the truth. The whole hideous farrago of Freddie Mercury's dying weeks with a press corps camped on his doorstep would not have happened if only he had admitted he'd got Aids. By denying it he put reporters on their mettle to prove him wrong. Reporters don't like to be lied to; it gets them wound up; it gives them a crusading zeal. Whereas the truth, baldly stated, is often too boring to be bothered with.

A few years ago a friend of mine who was then leader of Tower Hamlets council, realised that he was being followed and photographed in the street. Eventually he got a phone call from a Star reporter who told him he had reason to believe that he was gay. 'Yes that's right,' said my friend, 'obviously you've been reading my election address.' 'Huh?' 'Well it says there that I'm gay.' This answer completely poleaxed the reporter and killed the story.

I am always surprised, when the issue of privacy comes up, how many people say that 'of course' we all have skeletons in our cupboards that would ruin our lives if revealed. Do we? I don't think I do. What sort of skeletons could they be anyway? Fifty years, even perhaps 20 years ago, a person's career could be ruined by the revelation that he or she was adulterous, or homosexual, or living in sin, or the parent of an illegitimate child, but that is not the case today. The recent David Mellor and Paddy Ashdown revelations showed very clearly that the public could put up with almost any amount of adultery (rather too easily for my taste) provided it wasn't accompanied by too much hypocrisy in the shape of happy family snaps. It is the lies that do the damage, not the facts.

I suppose if the Governor of the Bank of England were found to be perpetrating cheque frauds, or the Archbishop of Canterbury became hooked on Ecstasy, they might be 'ruined' in the old-fashioned sense, though even that is doubtful - there were lawyers prepared to argue that even had the DPP been charged with kerb-crawling (he wasn't, of course) he shouldn't necessarily lose his job. I occasionally feel that we have gone a bit too far along the tout comprendre est tout pardonner road, and that some old-fashioned moral opprobrium would not come amiss, but in dealing with press intrusions into privacy, there is nothing more effective than a short, blunt Batesian admission of the truth.

AT MY OLD office reunion the other night, Cally, who was always the adventurous one, the innovator, said: 'Well I've finally done it, just like I said I would.' 'No]' we all howled, 'you haven't] How brave, how terrifying, how does it feel?' Wonderful, she said, beyond wildest dreams. Then she started jotting down figures on bits of paper and showing us how we could do it, too. We all shook our heads sadly and said we could see it made sense but we lacked the courage.

Anyway, Cally is the first of my group but probably not the last to do the clever Nineties thing - sell her house in Islington, bank the money, and rent a flat from the interest. In a couple of years, she reckons, she can buy her old house back or another one like it, for three quarters the price and pocket the difference. 'And,' she added, 'one day the washing machine broke down and I rang the agent, and by the time I got back from work it was fixed.' Imagine]

THIS WEEK'S Jaguar launch proved - as if proof were needed - that women are not only better drivers than men but also much nicer people. Look at the facts. Jaguar flew 13 motoring correspondents out to Austria to test- drive their new XJ220 on the Salzburgring. One of the 13 was a woman, Julia Finch of the Express. She completed the test-drive successfully but one of the men, John Samuel of the Guardian, was not so skilful. By shifting into first gear while doing 90mph, he blew up the engine, causing pounds 20,000 worth of damage. All the other male correspondents gleefully reported this fact along with a lot of ya-boo-sucks jokes about Grauniad reporters not being used to power and not knowing their frist gear from their thrid. In the following day's reports only kind, feminine Julia Finch spared Mr Samuel's blushes. Case proven.

STRANGE that the Daily Express devoted two pages to the death of 'Bubbles' Rothermere, while the Daily Mail, owned by her husband, could manage only one. The Mail obituary suffered from discretion, too, whereas Ross Benson in the Express had no such inhibition. He said he 'would not wish to say anything malicious' about Lady Rothermere and then described her as 'difficult, sometimes obstreperous, even, on occasions, a little worse for champagne wear'. So great was her love of parties, he said, that she 'would attend the opening of an envelope'. He claimed that she wore Zandra Rhodes's entire frock collection one on top of the other, with plimsolls underneath and often a leg in plaster for no particular reason. Yet, oddly or perhaps not so oddly, it was the Ross Benson obituary - mildly bitchy but also affectionate - that conveyed a sense of the woman, while the po-faced Mail effort made her sound almost dull.

ACCORDING to the Sun, if you join the top half of the new pounds 10 note (featuring Charles Dickens' bald head) to the bottom half of the current pounds 5 note (featuring the Queen) you end up with a portrait of John McEnroe. Just thought I'd let you know.