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What you can find if you read between the lines

Fat cats and sleaze are on the decline, says William Hartston
The world is becoming a better-educated and more moral place, with better spelling and no longer threatened by a tide of sleaze, all possibly under the influence of a new power axis spreading across the whole of north London. Those are the main conclusions revealed by an analysis of newspaper contents over the first six months of 1996 compared with last year.

The tables below give the number of instances of the highlighted words in a representative cross-section of British national daily and Sunday newspapers. The figure in each case is the number of articles in which the relevant word appeared. The first table shows clearly the geopolitical changes of the past year:

Table One:

Jan-June '95 Jan-June '96 % change

Bosnia 2230 1642 -36.4

Burma 373 364 -2.4

Burundi 152 74 -51.3

Chechnya 645 397 -38.4

Hong Kong 2538 3393 +33.7

Indonesia 384 565 +47.1

Rwanda 404 181 -55.2

Southgate 605 1221 +101.8

Wembley 3645 6291 +72.6

The severe drops in Bosnia, Chechnya and Rwanda, show that the world's hot-spots have cooled off significantly. Hong Kong, as handover day approaches, has risen according to expectations, but the most dramatic increases are seen in the last two entries on the list. And their phenomenal rises appear to be by no means coincidental. Indeed, if we look for the number of newspaper articles containing both words "Southgate" and "Wembley", we see that the figure has risen from 72 (first six months of 1995) to 489 (first six months of 1996), an astonishing 579 per cent increase. We can only infer the existence of an axis stretching across the whole of north London that has a wholly disproportionate influence on the news media.

Table Two:

Jan-June '95 Jan-June '96 % change

Peter Mandelson 78 356 +356.4

Chris Patten 152 312 +105.3

Michael Portillo 1255 749 -40.3

John Redwood 994 886 -10.9

The increasing interest in Hong Kong is also seen in our second table, which records the trends among certain prominent people. Chris Patten has more than doubled his representation. Since Hong Kong itself was only up by 33.7 per cent, he is clearly a man to watch - though not as much as Peter Mandelson. John Redwood is only a little down on last year, when his figure was considerably boosted by the Conservative leadership election, and has now overtaken Michael Portillo who has been rather quiet of late.

Table Three:

Jan-June '95 Jan-June '96 % change

Reinvent 160 156 -2.5

Sleaze 1323 438 -66.9

Fat cats 668 570 -14.7

Fat-cats 89 119 +33.7

Millennium 944 1801 +90.8

Millenium 130 126 -3.1

With the increased visibility of Mr Mandelson, and his role in reinventing Socialism and the Labour Party, we were surprised to see that fewer things had, in fact, been reinvented this year than last. Wheel reinventors, however, have had a good year so far, with the wheel being reinvented 21 times compared with only nine in the first half of 1995.

The tide of sleaze has also passed by, with the number of fat cats also dropping significantly. The increase in hyphenated fat-cats, however, may be taken as a sign that have become accepted as part of the establishment.

Most encouraging of all are the figures for misspelt millennia. As 2000 approaches, it is no surprise that the number of mentions of the millennium has almost doubled, but it is heartening to see that the number of misspellings has actually gone down. The percentage error rate has thus dropped from 12.1 to 6.5. The Independent has, as usual, been leading the way, with a slash in its misspelling quotient from 11.7 to 4.5 per cent. The figure would be even better if we excluded articles about bad spelling.

Southgate and Wembley apart, however, how are our other national obsessions faring this year? Table three tells the whole sad story:

Table Four:

Jan-June '95 Jan-June '96 % change

Lottery 4496 5499 +22.3

Divorce 2746 3940 +43.5

The media's love affair with the Lottery has clearly survived the honeymoon period of early 1995, thanks perhaps to double-rollovers. But divorce is coming up close behind it and will, if these trends are maintained, overtake the lottery as our primary obsession in the second half of 1998.