THere Was a curious front page in the Times last Wednesday. The main headline was: "Brown bonus for the old and young", the second story was "Clubs where children learn and play", and under that we read: "Saddam 'could kill everyone on Earth'". It was that sort of week, with coverage of stories about a cat, a divorce and the death of a rock star reducing those of the fall of a major financial institution in Japan and the possible obliteration of mankind to the briefest of mentions.
Humphrey the cat was the good news of the week - or was he? The Guardian on Tuesday, in a piece headed "Ailing Humphrey is sighted to end cat flap", reported that the former Downing Street cat was "already looking better in his new stress-free environment". The Times identified the goldfish Humphrey was eyeing so hungrily as Moby - surely going against press guidelines on naming victims of potential abuse. The Mail called it "Cat flap in Downing Street" and published a first person account from Humphrey "with a little help from Mail writer Jane Kelly" of life in Downing Street. It accuses New Labour of having "that kind of puritanical streak you find in people who just don't like cats" and ends: "As Moggie once said when she, too, found herself pushed out into the cold, politics is a funny old game, isn't it?" Funny, too, how the picture of Humphrey adorning that piece is the same as that in the other papers, except that where they all have his front paws resting on a copy of the Mirror, it has now metamorphosed into a copy of the Daily Mail. The picture of the cat itself is also reversed.
Only the Telegraph gave full credit for the Humphrey revelations where it was due. All this cattery had been started, as that paper was first to note on Monday, with a demand from Alan Clark to prove that Humphrey was still alive. "Humphrey is now a missing person," the Kensington MP said. "Unless I hear from him or he makes a full public appearance, I suspect he has been shot while trying to escape." The Telegraph remained ahead of the game the following day too, asking, when the cat appeared for a photocall: "But was it the same cat or a look-alike procured by New Labour's spin-doctors?" The Mail took up this cry, asking: "Where were the matching paw-prints? The DNA tests on his whiskers?" The Times, in a leader, suggested that "Baroness Thatcher or John Major must attest to the authenticity of the cat claiming to be Humphrey." The Independent, however, was more worried about the effect of all this on press freedom if Humphrey was not now allowed to live a paparazzi-free life: "The use of a long lens to capture Humphrey in flagrante in the rose bed could lead to renewed calls for legislation."
Talking of sex, the Mail on Friday told us that: "Sex can be dangerous for males who may fall over on to their backs ... and never right themselves again." That useful information was number 13 among "20 tantalising tortoise titbits" - a curious space-waster connected to a story of a millionaire who bequeathed his tortoise-minder a good deal of money. This, however, might as well have been a comment on the Divorce of the Decade: Spencer v Spencer, as most of the tabloids called it.
The spirit of vengeance in much of the press was obvious. The Mail ran a piece by Henry Porter entitled: "Why those with most to hide want to gag the media". It began: "When Earl Spencer accused the media of having blood on its hands after the death of his sister Diana, Princess of Wales, there were few who disagreed with him," but now, he argues with bewildering logic, "we may reflect that this issue is too complex and important to be decided in the heat of the moment". In other words, the media hounded Diana to death, but the man who accused us of doing so is a serial philanderer, so it may not have been our fault after all.
But how the papers enjoyed savaging the Earl - or the "Lord of the Flings", as the Sun described him. "I've had 12 mistresses" screamed the Mirror, and "I was a vicious bully". They all took great joy in publishing Lord Spencer's love letter to Chantal Collopy, especially the Mail which highlighted the lines "My marriage was a terrible mistake" and "To be loved by you is the greatest gift I could ask for". But they didn't point out the curious similarity between that second statement and the other great schmaltzy love line of recent history: "My darling, your one great achievement in life has been to love me" - as said by the other Charles in that notorious Camillagate tape.
All the papers lingered on the dozen (Times) or at least 10 (Guardian), or 12 (Daily Mail) or up to 12 (Telegraph) lovers, or mistresses (Mirror), or Charlie's Angels (Sun) affairs the Earl had in five months, though they were all very interested in the financial side of the squabble, too. Only John Walsh in the Independent put his finger on the vital moment in the whole story, when the Earl "naked, pink, hideously complacent and spectacularly vulnerable" called his wife in as he lay in the bath and told her that he loved another and wanted to ditch her. "How many female readers of those sordid details," asks Walsh, "have, I wonder, become lost in silent contemplation of what they might have done with (handily adjacent) nailbrush, loofah, aerosol can, plastic duck and freezing cold shower head attachment?" The most startling line of all the coverage of this case, however, was also in the Independent, when it wrote on its front page on Tuesday that: "Earl Spencer was accused of committing adultery with up to twelve women yesterday." Let's hope he takes things more quietly today.
Finally the pre-budget speech - or "blueprint for the biggest shake-up of the welfare state since its birth 50 years ago" as the Guardian saw it. "Brown bonus for the young and old" said the Times; "Brown's winter warmer" said the Mail; "That's good of you Gordon" said the Express; while the Sun just said: "Good Gord". For the Telegraph, however, it was "Lone parents lured to work". Well, with unanimous joy at the return of Humphrey and general cheerful prurience at the Spencer expense, we could hardly have had the press agreeing about everything.
But what will they all do when the Spencer case really gets serious? This was, after all, only a hearing to determine whether the divorce case should be heard in England or South Africa. The full revelations of a randy earl are yet to come.
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