When there's a scare, ask what the real story is

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The Independent Online
OH NO, not again. There I was, recovering nicely from my last bout of not having anthrax, and now the symptoms have come back in force: normal temperature, stable pulse, a complete absence of sore throat, sweats and nausea. I feel terrifically well, as most people do when they haven't got anthrax, and the fact that I'm not likely to catch it has even been confirmed by Downing Street. Why, then, was everyone suddenly talking last week about the threat of a biological attack on Britain? Why did an alleged Iraqi plot to smuggle anthrax into the country in duty-frees feature heavily on the Today programme and turn up on the front pages of the broadsheets? ("Ports alert for Saddam anthrax in duty- frees", announced the Daily Telegraph.)

The answer is that the Sun had got an exclusive, a copy of an all-ports warning issued by the Home Office on 18 March, suggesting that Iraq was threatening to smuggle anthrax into "hostile countries", including Britain. As other journalists struggled to catch up with this scoop, interviewing the usual array of experts, the Government moved to calm people's fears. "There is no specific threat so far as we can gather to Britain. I don't think this is a greater threat than many others that have been made," said a Home Office minister. I'm sure his remarks were sincere but the denial kept the story going as reporters pressed for more information.

What no one seemed to notice was the uncanny parallel with a scene in the movie Wag the Dog. Early on in the film, when a spin-doctor played by Robert De Niro is called in to divert attention from a sex scandal which is damaging the president, he starts talking about the B3 bomber. What they must do, he tells White House aides, is issue an angry denial that the president is planning to sell the top-secret warplane. "But there is no B3 bomber," protests a puzzled aide. That's the story, explains De Niro. Moments later, the film cuts to a national news programme in which the denial has already got top billing.

In our cynical times, playing down a sensational story can be as effective as giving a briefing. If the kind of warning that was leaked to the Sun is issued fairly frequently, it seems reasonable to ask why this particular one got into the press. It's worth recalling here that the same newspaper recently ran a story suggesting that the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, had been tricked during his visit to Baghdad, meeting not the Iraqi leader but one of his doubles. On that occasion the Sun had the grace to say where the story came from: the Israeli secret service, Mossad, which is hardly a disinterested source.

I have no idea how the Sun got hold of its anthrax exclusive but, before anyone panics and chucks out their duty-free whisky, I would like to enter a caveat. A similar story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph last month, when negotiations between the UN and Iraq hung in the balance. The effect of such stories, however well-intentioned the journalists who write them, is to keep at the forefront of our minds the idea that Saddam Hussein poses a direct threat to Britain. Right now, it's not the prospect of catching a nasty sheep disease from a handbag-sized Obsession spray that worries me. It's the idea that we're being softened up for another round of hostilities with Iraq.

HE WAS aiming at "certain individuals, especially the girls", said the grandfather of one of the two schoolboys charged with the murder of four classmates and a teacher in Arkansas on Tuesday. Doug Golden's remark confirmed what many people had already noticed - that the shootings in Jonesboro were far from random. The two boys, cousins aged 11 and 13, killed four girls and a woman teacher who threw herself in front of another pupil, saving her life. Reports of the murders, and the planning that had gone into them, revived memories of the Montreal Massacre, when a young man walked into a class of engineering students, ordered the men out and opened fire on the terrified women. The killer, Marc Cepine, freely admitted he hated feminists and singled out the engineering students because they were women who had chosen a man's job.

The cousins accused of the Jonesboro killings will not come to trial for some time but there is already a suggestion that the older boy's girlfriend had broken up with him and he wanted revenge. On Wednesday evening, during a discussion of the 1970s at the South Bank in London, there was a sombre moment when Germaine Greer mentioned the Arkansas killings. In answer to a question from the audience, she admitted she had not yet worked out whether some men hate some women all of the time, all men hate some women all of the time - you can guess the other permutations.

The press coverage of Tuesday's events in Arkansas has focused on the boys' obsession with guns, and their apparently easy availability to children. But most of us at the South Bank on Wednesday could not help thinking about a famous line from The Female Eunuch, published nearly 30 years ago: "Women have very little idea of how much men hate them". If anything has changed in the intervening period, it's the extent to which that hatred, dread, fear - whatever you want to call it - has come out into the open.

THERE were some lighter moments on Wednesday evening, when every seat in the Purcell Room was taken by an audience who had come to hear Dr Greer, Fay Weldon and Erica Jong read from books they published in the 70s. Erica read the celebrated passage from Fear of Flying in which she introduced the concept of the "zipless fuck" - a phrase neither of us was allowed to use when we discussed the book on Woman's Hour that morning. Germaine talked about her dislike of marriage, recalling how much she hated her own and how relieved she was to get out of it - after three weeks. She also talked about the way in which relations between men and women have become more difficult, a theme that preoccupies many women today. As usual, though, Germaine put it more succinctly. "If Sharon Stone can complain about not getting laid, what hope is there for the rest of us?" she demanded, leaving us to troop thoughtfully into the night.