For – cough!

They called her “divisive”. She isn’t now. She has united this divided country in laughter. Press reaction to Theresa May’s “last gasp” closing speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester seems to go beyond party politics. Her performance, wracked by a psychosomatic nervous cough and speared by the latest human hack by comedian Simon Brodkin (with whom I worked long and hard on a sitcom pilot that was never green-lit), was a how-not-to. Even her bracelet bore images of a Communist. As the Express helpfully explained, the horrible piece of wristwear “featured self-portraits of communist artist Frida Kahlo, who was Mexican and died in July 1954 aged 47”, going on to say that she “even had a love affair with Leon Trotsky, who is thought of as one of the fathers of modern communism. Communism is the theory that all property should belong to the state, and those in the community contribute to the state so that everyone’s needs can be met.  This is somewhat at odds with the Conservative Party, which traditionally favours private ownership as a means to promote enterprise.”

TheresaMayconferencenightmare

She may refuse to hand even a fake P45 to her unsackable Foreign Secretary, but she should sack whoever was in charge of putting the white letters onto the blue background. (I’m sure they can find another zero-hours job in May’s Britain, although it will not be May’s anything for long, surely. The writing’s partially on the wall. Oh, and just in case you thought my assessment of her nationwide unification was correct, and multi-partisan, the Express proves me wrong this morning, with a rallying cover that must have been put to bed before anybody had seen the speech, or perhaps composed on the moon. That’s the only possible explanation for this work of fiction.

TheresaMayspeechExpress

And the Mail remains on a planet of its own, with reference via Quentin Letts to the outgoing Prime Minister as “the old girl.”

TheresaMayspeechDailyMail

Advertisements

A year in bullshit

NYDaily_Mail311215daily_mail_29_12_2016

Another year of bad news, by which I mean news that was bad, and news that was conveyed badly, or with bad intentions, aimed at our lowest common denominators (fear, prejudice, envy). It’s sweet that the Daily Mail began the year calling the New Year’s Honours “TAINTED” because the Chief Executive of Ann Summers and Knickerbox, Jacqueline Gold, was given a CBE, and ended it with a bannered opinion by attack-columnist Sarah Vine in which the Honours were once again “tainted” by a successful woman being given an OBE, this time Victoria Beckham. It’s good to know that some things never change.

I won’t annotate all of these covers – I prefer to present them as a kind of “mood board” of the year, as viewed through the rheumy eyes of hate and business interests. When the Mail calls Tony Blair, after his chilling Chilcott testimony, “A MONSTER OF DELUSION,” the paper’s views coincide with my own; but on points, I generally feel nothing but revulsion for what the CAPITAL LETTERS spell out in the right-wing national press. Warning: even scrolling down this blog entry at speed and only glancing at the words might make you feel a bit sick in your mouth.

I tend to “collect” my favourite covers during the year, and it seems apt to hang them out to dry, not necessarily in any chronological order, just as they fall. Refrains will emerge, especially at the Express and Mail, which, on paper (which newspapers still are, for now), had a good year, with their preferred result on the EU and a rightwing president elected in the US. But still they wring their hands and clutch their pearls, oh, and hate women (especially the women).

Let’s begin with my nomination for the worst front page of 2016. It has it all: ideological self-interest, overstatement, a slogan that’s also an egregious pun (“BeLEAVE in Britain”), and a built-in full-page advert for itself, as the film Independence Day: Resurgence was released that very day and happens to be a 20th Century Fox Film Corporation production (whose parent company is 21st Century Fox, founded by Rupert Murdoch, who is it Executive Co-Chairman, as well as Executive Chairman of News Corp, which publishes the Sun). Talk about taking back control.

eurefsun

The rest is wallpaper. They used to call it chip paper, but I suspect health and safety have put paid to that tradition. Maybe when we actually leave the EU sometime this century, we can repeal it and take back control of whether or not we can eat our chips out of newsprint.

Let’s start with a few damning indictments of Blair, one subject that seems to unite our entire printed media, and see where the capital letters take us.

ChilcotDaily_Mail_7_7_2016ChilcotDaily_Star_7_7_2016ChilcotDaily_Express_7_7_2016EUDaily_Mail_30_5_2016EUDaily_Mail_27_5_2016EUDaily_Mail_3_6_2016EUDaily_Mail_1_6_2016EUDaily_Express_30_5_2016EUDaily_Express_28_5_2016EUDaily_Express_2_6_2016Daily_MailQueen90 cameroncutiedaily_mail_14_7_2016 chilcotdaily_mirror_7_7_2016    daily_mail_1_4_2016daily_expresseu_14_6_2016daily_mailprince22_4_2016  dailymail2feb2016  eudaily_mail_3_6_2016 eudaily_mail_28_5_2016 eudaily_mail_30_5_2016 eurefborisdaily_express_28_6_2016 eurefdaily_express_23_6_2016 eurefdaily_mail_23_6_2016 eurefdaily_mirror_23_6_2016 eurefday1daily_express_25_6_2016 eurefday1daily_mail_25_6_2016 eurefday1daily_mirror_25_6_2016 eurefday1the_guardian_25_6_2016 eurefday1the_independent_25_6_2016daily_express_30_3_2016roma

trumpdaily_express_10_11_2016  trumpdaily_mail_11_11_2016 trumpdaily_mirror_10_11_2016

To finish, two delectable examples of the Sun failing to grasp the gravity of death, knocking out a truly pathetic and insulting vandalism of his own verse to mark the sad passing of Muhammad Ali, and hoping its “ordinary” readers would despise the hereditarily blameless son of the Duke of Westminster enough to treat him as a source of class-war entertainment while at the same time advertising his eligibility (“Good news, girls, he’s single!”), at a time when he will have still been grieving the death of his father.

sunonsundayali5june16  sundukewestminister11aug

And finally … a rare instance of a national newspaper adjusting its prejudices in the full glare of publicity: when the Times was “advised” before its second print run that to completely ignore the victory of the Hillsborough inquest on its cover in favour of the paper of record’s “ultimate guide” to “status handbags” might be misconstrued as forgetful at  best, and at worst, a subliminal editorial line on the verdict.

timesx2hillsborough27apr16

I fancy some chips.

A second opinion

AshyaThe_Sun_30_8_2014AshyaDaily_Express_Weekend_30_8_2014AshyaLondon_Evening_Standard_1_9_2014AshyaDaily_Mirror_2_9_2014

There are bigger, more globally grave stories in the news, but this one has gnawed away at me over all of them for the past four days: that of Ashya King, the five-year-old with an aggressive brain tumour whose parents, Brett and Naghmeh King, are currently under arrest in Spain after removing him from the Southampton hospital where he was being treated. I’ve attempted to engage in a dialogue about the heartbreaking story as it unfolded via social media, but keep encountering people who I’ll generously describe as fence-sitters.

My reaction to the facts as they keep emerging has generally been a visceral one: that of disbelief, empathy and anger. Anger that when the seemingly well-informed, well-prepared and determined parents of a sick boy remove him from hospital care in order to seek an alternative, less scattershot radiation treatment which is not freely available on the NHS except in very rare circumstances – a treatment they were willing to pay around £100,000 for – are criminalised for taking this step. The parents, and the most tech-savvy of Ashya’s six elder siblings, Naveed, seem entirely fluent in the power of social media, and have been posting regular YouTube videos explaining their position.

Although it’s ten minutes long – and what’s ten minutes compared to the life expectancy of a five-year-old with a tumour on his brain stem? – I have been urging people to view father Brett King’s key testimony, in which Ashya appears, apparently relaxed and well cared for in a hotel in Vélez-Málaga. (They’d taken him to Málaga – not “snatched” him, in the alarmist words of the first media reports – in order to sell a holiday apartment to raise the money to pay for “proton beam” treatment in the Czech Republic.)

Although, as the fence-sitters have been quick to point out, we cannot know the full, transcribed conversations that have taken place between the Kings and the oncologists at University Hospital Southampton, Brett makes a clear and non-hysterical case for why he and Ashya’s mother took the unusual step of removing him from hospital care. They used the Internet to research alternatives and the one they chose was not one based on crystals or cabbage soup but on conventional radiotherapy, which goes against what would have been the media’s preferred narrative: that the Kings were complementary medicine nutters.

That they are Jehovah’s Witnesses – a breakaway millenarian Christian branch that, by strict doctrine, refuses blood transfusion, or so I’ve read – was seized upon initially before the facts were known. It was during this cloudy period of speculation and kneejerk conclusion-jumping – a vacuum into which rolling 24-hours expands to fill – that the facts got away from us. But it seemed to me that reason was to some extent restored and hysteria averted by the first YouTube video.

Naveed subsequently posted this, to reassure those who would condemn his family’s decision that they did not make it lightly or without investing time, effort and money into ensuring Ashya’s normal feeding routine would not be interrupted.

In Madrid, which is 322 miles away from Málaga, where Ashya remains under armed police guard in a foreign hospital, Judge Ismeal Moreno ordered that his parents be held in custody for up to 72 hours while he studied medical reports and documents from the couple’s defence lawyer. Those who insist on blaming the parents will experience a weird sort of melancholic schadenfreude here – if they hadn’t “snatched” Ashya, they’d have been at his bedside in Southampton, instead of staring at the walls of separate cells in Madrid.

Again, although we can only know what we know, the family’s lawyer gave a statement denying that Ashya’s life had been at risk, and that he had been admitted to the hospital in Málaga “in a perfect state of health”. (Ashya’s brother Daniel, 23, was with him in hospital – thank heavens for small mercies in a case where very little has been shown, in my emotionally crazed and ill-informed opinion.)

There is still a chance that common sense will prevail and the family will be reunited after days of stress that none of them asked for. There was no “snatching”, there was “abandonment” (quite the opposite) and there has been no “neglect”, the flimsy basis of the arrest warrant and the threat of extradition. I asked aloud on Twitter when David Cameron would step in: he’s quick to get on the phone to Obama when the US needs our “military prowess” – why not a quick call to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy? Nick Clegg has weighed in today, coincidentally after the Daily Mail made it a campaigning issue, although I fear one needs political and/or moral weight to make “weighing in” count. Cleggs boasts neither.

AshyaDaily_Mail_2_9_2014

I hold no torch for the Mail‘s dirty tricks and grubby Victorian hypocrisy, but when it gets involved, politicians tend to be roused from their slumber. I’m no expert on the law, but isn’t extradition – an outcome that is on the table – basically about co-operation of governments? Though the Kings have refused extradition, surely some co-operation could resolve the matter before – and let’s not be coy – things deteriorate?

Unless Brett King is lying through his teeth, he was “threatened” with a “protection order” by the boy’s oncologist if he continued to push for the proton beam option and thus defy the child’s doctor – which would have meant (ironically) that he and Ashya’s mother would have been denied access to their son’s ward. That prospect seems to have driven them to act. They’d contacted the Prague clinic, but when the clinic contacted Southampton for the requisite X-rays and paperwork, the request was ignored. (Unless, again, Mr King is lying, or dressing up the facts. The fence-sitters will cling to this grey area until the story has been the subject of an independent review, I guess.)

Is it so wrong to air a gut reaction to a news story as it unfolds? I felt so sick about how quickly a child’s parents can be painted as neglectful, irresponsible criminals in a supposedly free society. Even if the hospital felt it was acting in the best interests of Ashya King, did it really have to call in Hampshire police so soon after discovering he had been removed? The first “breaking” media reports were of a “missing boy” who had been “snatched”. He was not missing. He had not been snatched. Assistant chief constable Chris Shead said in the police’s first statement on Friday: “It is vital that we find Ashya today. His health will deteriorate rapidly. Ashya is in a wheelchair and is fed through a tube. The feeding system is battery operated and that battery will run out today.” Clearly, at this stage, the police had no idea how well equipped the King family was, but no wonder the world acted with alarm.

I can totally understand Hampshire’s “damned if we did, damned if we didn’t” defence, but what I personally regard as a heavy-handed, panic-button reaction did not help matters, or contribute to the boy’s health. A European arrest warrant? Could they not have called the family to ascertain how much danger Ashya was in?

I’m not a parent. I will never be in the Kings’ position, thank God. But this didn’t stop me from feeling for them. Commentators have been saying, “It’s what any parent would do if they felt it was the best for their child.” I suspect the unconditional love for a son or daughter would trump all nuanced options, but I think the Kings should be applauded for taking such careful preparation before removing Ashya from care. (Naveed said that their mother was “by Ashya’s side for the whole month that he was in hospital.”)

AshyaThe_Sunday_Telegraph_31_8_2014

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But since we all hope that Ashya’s health will improve, by whichever treatment his guardians decree and pay for, at least there is some common ground. Without the Internet (and some of us can remember a prehistoric time before it), patients were in thrall to doctors for advice, and took it, without question. The dissemination of information, while wildly unpoliced across a once-super highway full of potholes, means access for all, even we plebs who do not have the luxury of a medical degree.

But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and that works in both directions.

Bad men

LenFaircloughtrial - Version 3

In July 1983, when I was 18, Peter Adamson – the actor known to and loved by millions as Len Fairclough on Coronation St, a character he’d played since 1961 – went on trial for the indecent assault that April of two eight-year-old girls in a swimming pool. As you can see from the blunt-instrument graphic used by the Sun newspaper, the lines between Adamson and his fictional persona were deliberately blurred. I remember the trial well, as I was an avid viewer of the soap at the time. I stuck the above graphic into my diary on Thursday July 21, mid-hearing, alongside this doctored collage from the same newspaper:

LenFaircloughtrial - Version 2As you may be able to see, I wrote “GUILT” in pencil over Adamson’s suit, so I would be able to add, “He’s got guilt written all over him.” This was my 18-year-old’s idea of a joke. A casualty of trial by tabloid – and the red-tops were pretty despicable then, in their early-80s pomp – I had passed judgement before the court had. (It’s a shame I wasn’t more sensitive, but we cannot rewrite our own history.)

In the event, on July 26, the jury found Adamson – and by dimwitted association, Fairclough – not guilty. But it was immaterial; he’d already been tried and convicted in the public mind. Although he lived until 2002 and managed to get some theatre work, he was never again seen on Coronation St, having been written out back in February, before the arrest, ironically for selling stories to the tabloids. A sad figure by all accounts, he struggled with a long-standing drinking problem and died penniless after a 1991 bankruptcy.

The clinical term “paedophile”, although well established, was not in general use in 1983; it was certainly too long a word for the Sun. I suspect, as well as “dirty bastard”, Len will have been branded a “pervert”. I bring up his story partly because it has stayed with me, and partly because at least two equally well-loved Coronation St stars are currently embroiled in court cases over alleged sexual assault: Michael Le Vell, who’s played Kevin Webster since, coincidentally, 1983, and William Roache, the longest-serving Coronation St star of them all, having been Ken Barlow since the first episode in 1960. Le Vell goes to trial in September for 19 charges, including alleged sexual assault and the rape of a minor; Roache goes to Crown Court next month for the alleged rape of a 15-year-old in 1967. Both men deny all charges.

These big tabloid stories interest us – and, one assumes, appall us – because they are men in the public eye. In the wake of Jimmy Savile, which I wrote about at the time, and Operation Yewtree, the truism is to say that each week discredits another previously loved celebrity from the 60s, 70s and 80s (which covers a lot of our childhoods). If any of these multiple, often historic accusations turn out to be true – and when Stuart Hall pleaded guilty to indecent assaulting 13 girls, aged between 9 and 17 years, between 1967 and 1986, he became the first to cross over from lurid speculation to actual admission of despicable deeds – then it will say dark things about society in the not-too-distant past.

Daily_Mirror_2_5_2013 Daily_Mirror_11_5_2013

I’m not really here to talk about “the culture” that permitted a now unacceptable degree of “harmless” fun between powerful men and often much younger women, and children, nor about how boundaries have been more clearly drawn in the more enlightened decades since, as to do so often risks sounding as if you excuse the bottom-pinching that was the tip of a much more sinister iceberg. If an ex-Radio 1 DJ is accused, historically, of groping a female work colleague in the 70s, we should not excuse it just because it was time of Carry On films and Benny Hill, any more than rape should be excused because the victim was wearing a skirt. It’s very likely that the victim either didn’t come forward because she feared he or she would not be believed (that’s certainly the case with Savile’s victims), or that he or she did come forward and wasn’t believed.

This past week, Stuart Hazell, who was not a celebrity but achieved a level of ubiquity through his disgusting deeds, was imprisoned for a minimum of 38 years for the murder of his partner’s 12-year-old granddaughter. At the trial, some pretty disturbing insights into this 37-year-old man’s character emerged. With barely time to catch our collective breath about the prevalence of this kind of abuse and murder of children from within families, we saw seven members of a “sex grooming ring” in Oxford convicted at the Old Bailey of abusing six girls, who were targeted, drugged and suffered “sadistic abuse” while aged between 11 and 15. The details are too horrible. I won’t repeat them. Difficult debates are being had about the ethnic background and religion of the men, which largely matches that of the nine convicted last year after a Rochdale sex trafficking ring was exposed. However, there’s a much bigger coincidence, which links Stuart Hall to Stuart Hazell and every other sex offender in between: they’re all men.

Daily_Mirror_27_4_2013 Daily_Star_15_5_2013

Suzanne Moore has been writing passionately and controversially about this subject in the Guardian from a long-range feminist perspective (today’s column was particularly furious). Her concern is not just the seeming ubiquity of male sexual assault, whether historic or current, it’s the failure as she sees it of men to do something about it. She has harsh words for the authorities, social services, the police, the media, for failing to act, but she asks, legitimately, why women seem to be more enraged about it than men. Does that make all men culpable?

This line unfortunately takes us down the hardline Andrea Dworkin route (the uber-feminist wrote, in a 1987 paper called Intercourse, “Physically, the woman in intercourse is a space inhabited, a literal territory occupied literally”), and is not helpful, especially when most men – surely! – are not potential rapists, respect and like women, and know that a child is a child.

I’m quick to say that society is to blame, but that’s not to let individuals off the hook. If you talk about “a crisis of masculinity” it suggests you wish a return to the good old days when men were breadwinners and “masters of the house”, and I have no love for those Victorian values. The pressure on men today is not to be “the man” but to be a more caring, open-minded, feminised member of a family or social group. You might say that men are not born this way; to be the leader is somehow in the DNA of the hunter-gatherer, the physically stronger sex, the Martian (if we really are from Mars). But society changes, for the better, usually, and to fail to adapt is to die.

I re-educated myself in the 80s, taking onboard new information, discarding orthodoxies handed down to me from less enlightened times, and adjusting my behaviour and my thinking accordingly. This was not unique for the time. (I also went to art school, a more effeminate choice than most, and was in a minority as a male at my halls of residence and at college, which can only have had a good effect on me. I also looked effeminate, by choice, and was called a “poof” often in my teens, which galvanised my instincts about sexual equality.) I really do worry about subsequent generations who have grown up with available 24-hour porn, and especially those young enough to have come of age in the post-Loaded era of Nuts and Zoo. Those boys are going to have to do a lot more adjustment than I did.

Anyway, there’s a link between casual, seemingly benign sexism among male friends and unspeakable acts. I am not a psychologist, but the need to wield power must lie at the heart of sexual assault. To abuse, to rape, to threaten, to kill, are all acts of power. Stuart Hazell wanted something that was forbidden under the laws of the land, but he could not stop himself from taking it. Once the switch flicks, men are capable of bad things. We all do and say things we regret, and relationships break down all the time, and we can find ourselves saying unkind things to people we love, but all of this takes place within boundaries. To raise a hand is to cross that boundary; to break the law is to cross another one.

I don’t think you should hit women, but I don’t think you should hit men, or children, either.

The_Sun_1_5_2013 The_Sun_8_5_2013

Tabloid headlines never tell the whole story. They paint men as “evil”, and quote relatives of victims who wish to see them “hanged”. The headlines above from the April Jones and Tia Sharp cases are designed to lure us in on our basest instincts. The “goodies” and the “baddies” are clear cut in the blunt-instrument tabloid narrative, but the stories also offer voyeurism, and that’s where a lot of the bad stuff starts: looking at things you shouldn’t look at, or looking at things that you should look at, but looking at them in a funny way.

We do not yet know if Rolf Harris, or Michael Le Vell, or Max Clifford, assaulted anyone, although we do know that their careers are likely to be over, even if they are acquitted. We live in suspicious times. (Anyone else see Paul Shane’s name the other night and think, “Oh no, not another one”, before sighing with relief when you found at that, no, he had only died?) The historic cases and the contemporary ones tell a sad story about men. I am, at heart, a self-hating man, in that I have no great love for my gender. I am not perfect, but I do consider myself a feminist and have a pretty sensitive radar to everyday sexism.

I felt very uncomfortable about the fact that, for no real narrative reason, and in a 12A certificate film, Alice Eve stripped down to her underwear in Star Trek Into Darkness. This was a Nuts moment, pandering to the young male’s worst instinct, which is to ogle and objectify. It’s not a trivial matter. Stamp this sort of thing out and you get to the root of the problem: some men hate women and don’t even realise it.

Cull all parents!

Daily_Mirror_foxbabyThe_Sun_foxbaby

Here is the news. Regrettably, an urban fox got into a house in Bromley, South East London, whose back door was seemingly open while it awaited repair, and it bit a four-week-old baby. The baby’s finger was bitten off. (Surgeons were able to re-affix the finger, which is good news. Not much else about the story is good news.) Our balanced, responsible newpapers also reported “­puncture wounds on his face”, although when the baby’s photo was published on the front of the Mirror and the Sun this morning, none were visible.

The story was related in terrifying, lurid detail, and we learned that the baby’s mother was “in the next room”, when she “heard a scream” and a “loud thud” when the baby was apparently pulled from its cot. She also described his little hand being trapped “halfway down the animal’s throat”. The three-hour operation was described as “tense.”

I don’t for one minute doubt the facts of the story. It’s a nasty story that will unnerve parents everywhere. You wouldn’t wish it on anyone. However, what bothers me is that those with an axe to grind against foxes, and animals in general, are already jumping all over this poor mother’s anguish. London Mayor Boris Johnson thundered, “We must do more to tackle the growing problem of urban foxes. They may appear cuddly and romantic but foxes are also a pest and a menace, particularly in our cities. This must serve as a wake-up call to London’s borough leaders, who are responsible for pest control.”

The first wake-up call surely goes out to Bromley council, who had left the mother without a working back door, certainly by her account. The family have, it seems, been rehomed by the council, but if it’s a council deficiency that caused a door not to be repaired or replaced then the real wake-up call goes to the Government, who are decimating council budgets up and down the country in order to pay for their rich friends’ lifestyles and various colonial military adventures.

It’s essentially a tabloid story (and you have to admire their cheek with the way the photo of the poor baby is telescoped so that its injury looks as big as another baby), but well done to the Telegraph for this added flourish: “A child’s red pair of shoes and a deflated football remained in the front garden of the end of terrace property.” A neighbour, Khadine Peters, 36, was doorstepped by the eager Telegraph reporter, said, “I wasn’t there at the time, I was walking home down the street when I saw the ambulance outside the house.” Not much use as a witness, then. However, she had an opinion. “I definitely won’t leave my back door open again. Something needs to be done about all these foxes roaming freely around all these homes. They’re disgusting, they’re not cute pets, they’re vermin. The council should get rid of them.” (Who, by the way, leaves their back door open, and unmonitored? It’s the 21st century. A burglar is more like to come in than a fox.)

Thankfully, we heard from a spokeswoman for the RSPCA, who said the only reason that a fox would ever attack is due to fear, adding, “It’s extremely unusual for foxes to attack young children or anyone. It’s not typical fox behaviour at all. Foxes will come closer to a house if there are food sources.”

The truth is, like it or not, we share our cities with animals, including foxes, and it can’t be long before we hear the c-word: cull. Cull the foxes! Cull the badgers! Cull the deer! (It sounds a bit like “kill” but it’s more socially responsible.) People who live in towns are mad for culls. They resent wildlife encroaching upon territory they have helpfully marked out as their own by putting up fences and gates and walls around. How dare “disgusting” animals fail to recognise that boundary? (Any cat owners ever observed a cat when a door in the house it expects to be open is closed? Ours just sits there and looks at it, until somebody opens it. Animals do not recognise physical boundaries. At best, they confuse them. At worst, they frustrate and irritate them.)

What do urban foxes live off? Food we throw away and leave outside. We feed them. That’s why they thrive. If I were a fox, I feel certain I could live off the food that various householders round my way leave out on refuse-collection day, because they helpfully put it out the night before, not in a bin, but protected by a special fox-deterring meniscus of thin black plastic called a bag. (On my Monday morning walk to the shop for my newspaper, I measure out my progress by the torn-open bin bags containing fragrant leftover food. Oh, and our bin collection occurs after breakfast, so putting it out the night before in exposed bags is nothing short of stupid.)

Assuming it’s adults who leave the bin bags out, then why not cull them? Cull the parents! Cull the idiots!

I don’t have a newborn baby. If I did, I would not leave doors and windows open, which is usually the way when babies are attacked by foxes. And yet, nobody ever blames the parents. (Me? I always blame the parents!) It would be a preposterous and unthinkable idea to cull people. So would culling foxes because they inconvenience us, and expose our slovenly habits, and our knackered infrastructures. We have to learn to live together. Either that, or stop feeding the animals. (It always amazes me how bloodthirsty some people are. You may or may not remember “WHY I HATE SQUIRRELS!”, the SCREAMING Daily Mail manifesto in 2010 for urban blood sport and the judicious use of the back of a spade by the obviously-bullied Quentin Letts, which I wrote about here, at the time.)

There’s an urban fox attack every couple of years. That’s a lot of foxes not attacking a lot of babies in the interim. It’s rare. They are not hunting for babies. They are trying to survive. When we get hungry, we go to a shop and buy a thing that somebody else has made for us in a factory. When an animal gets hungry, unless it’s one of our pets, it goes to forage and hunt for food, wherever it can find it. We sometimes get in the way with our fences and a our plastic bags and our broken doors and our babies’ hands.

It’s a royal knockers-out

Pardon the deliberately lowered tone of the headline, but we must dip a toe here into the murky depths of tabloid intrusion and a very British obsession with bared flesh. Kate Middleton, an attractive if thin Berkshire woman of 30 whose official title is Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge – or has been since she married, with her eyes wide open, Prince William, His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus, in April 2011 – is currently on holiday. It is a working holiday, in the sense that she didn’t choose it, or plan it, and while on it, much of her time is being spent doing things she wouldn’t normally choose to do, while being photographed doing it. This is the life she chose.

Although her role in life is now predominantly played out in public, by her own choice, and much of what she does during the day is arranged specifically to be seen by the public, she is, like anybody entitled to private time. Of course she is. What she does in private is nobody’s business, unless it is against the law, at which point her qualification to represent this blighted nation before the rest of the world would be called into question. To my knowledge, she has not broken the law, and seems, if anything, quite nice.

However, last week, during some private time before embarking upon her current, paid, working holiday of Southeast Asia, she relaxed at the private chateau of Viscount Linley – which is his whole title – son of Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, and Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon. (Linley’s daughter was a bridesmaid at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in April 2011.)

The royal couple called it a “second honeymoon”, according to the press, who must have been fed this information. And why not? The Chateau D’Autet in Provence, is set “amid 640 acres of ­lavender fields and woodland”. The temperature while they were there reached 31C (88F). Perfect weather for sunbathing, like normal people do.

During a spot of sunbathing, among friends and family, it seems that Kate took off her bikini top. We know this because a man photographed her in this state of undress with a long lens. As far as I know, he is not the first photographer to use a long lens. Again, as far as I can tell (as I haven’t seen the photos, other than on photos of the cover of Closer on the newsstands, which are on the internet), Kate went topless outside, on the verandah or balcony of Linley’s chateau. Now, outside on private property may be private on paper, but if you are outside, in the world, that privacy is harder to apply in actuality. The result of this confusion: scandal. And the second example of illicitly-documented young, royal nudity in two months.

In August, Prince Harry – sorry, His Royal Highness Prince Harry of Wales – took his clothes off in a hotel room in Las Vegas, during a game of what was reported as “strip billiards” and, seemingly, unsupervised. (One imagines the young royals are usually chaperoned for most of the time.) Photos of this nakedness were published in this country in the Sun, and the paper seemed to get away with it. He was naked in private, behind closed doors, but, unfortunately, among a bunch of other people who did not necessarily respect that privacy. Frankly, you take your kit off in a hotel room with other people in it, especially when phones are cameras, and you run the risk of photos being published. This, presumably, is why Clarence House didn’t attempt to sue anybody after the fact.

With Kate, it’s different, apparently. The French version of Closer magazine splashed the pictures (“Oh My God,” it squealed, in the international language of exclamation) and the magazine is being sued. The Irish edition of the Daily Star has also reprinted them, with an Italian magazine, Chi, threatening to do the same now. (Richard Desmond, the notoriously prurient and censorious owner of Northern & Shell, which publishes the Express and the Star, and co-publishes the Irish Star, has threatened to take his ball home and withdraw his stake after the publication of the snaps.)

So … before I comment on the whole hoo-hah, may I just state the following facts:

  1. I am a republican. I do not believe in the royal family. Which is not to say I do not believe that the current royals are descended from previous royals, or that there is such a thing as royalty, or that the current House Of Windsor goes back to 1917, before which it was called the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. I know that the crowned heads of Europe are all historically sort of interrelated, and that cousins have always been marrying, and that by this complicated series of fluid exchanges does Kate Middleton now get called Her Royal Highness as if perhaps we still live in the 15th century. I also know the powers of the constitutional monarchy are limited. I still firmly believe that by the state funding these decorative ambassadors, who are some of the richest landowners in the country, is wrong. I do not think the royals should be guillotined, merely stripped of their public funding and asked to fend for themselves, like the other aristocrats with all their assets.
  2. The world we live in is a coarse and ugly one, and no matter what the outcomes of the Leveson Inquiry, and the News International criminal prosecutions, it is unlikely that our newspapers will suddenly stop being interested in famous people at any time in the foreseeable future. The celebrity culture is here to stay for as long as it sells papers and advertising. I find it unedifying. But for as long as we all flock to the newsstands and the websites to seek out grubby gossip about people who are only by the smallest margin more famous or richer than ourselves, the papers and the websites will continue to print it, within the bounds of the law.
  3. Exhibitionism is now standard. Where once this country was renowned, and mocked, for being stuffy and sexless and tongue-tied and shy, we now seem to flaunt ourselves and our emotions with abandon. We make more noise. Sometimes this noise is cheering, as heard at the Olympics, and can be good noise. Sometimes it is simply shouting, as heard on trains and buses and in the streets after 11pm in cities, or in the afternoon if the sun’s out. (I passed through Euston station yesterday and a man, with his top off, was slumped at the feet of his friends at an outside table on the piazza, shouting at the world.) I am not John Major, or Mary Whitehouse; I do not wish a return to Victorian values, but my abiding prudishness does seem to make me feel increasingly out of step with modern thinking. This is my problem.

With all this said – and I hope I have painted a depressing enough picture for you! – I will say this: Kate Middleton is an idiot. Why, when she is the wife of the future King of the United Kingdom and the 16 sovereign states of the Commonwealth (gosh, even typing those words makes me feel a bit queasy), would she take her bikini top off when she is outside? It was the daytime. The clue that she was no longer inside, away from prying lenses, was that there was a sky above her. Prying lenses work best when there are no bricks between them and the subject. Paparazzi scum have been plying their trade since the 1960s when the term for their profession was coined in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (in which news photographers harass a visiting film actress, and, in a neat reversal, one of their scrum travels out to photograph a sighting of the Madonna at a church). Fellini said that the word Paparazzo “suggests to me a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging.”

Kate’s husband, William, is the bereaved son of Her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales, herself hounded by the paparazzi, who were certainly on her tail when her car crashed in a Parisian tunnel, killing her, in August 1997. If ever a new royal knew what she was getting into, it was Kate Middleton. I am not Kate Middleton. But if I were, the one thing I would make sure I never did, ever, was to take my top off outside. Just in case. (We might remember that no topless shots of her late mother-in-law and arch publicity-manipulator Diana ever came to light, so we have to assume that she never went topless outside.)

It is a tragedy that a 30-year-old married woman cannot take her top off on the balcony of her bridesmaid’s parents’ chateau in Provence without being photographed from a very long distance away by a man who makes his living selling his photographs to magazine and news agencies, but there it is. I feel sorry for her up to a point, as her freedoms, as a holidaymaker in the South of France, have been curtailed in a way that an ordinary woman on a balcony’s freedoms would not be. But then, she is a member of the royal family, and I stopped feeling 100% sorry for her the day she agreed to join this unlikely and surreal firm of interrelated people.

Closer’s editor-in-chief Laurence Pieau described the photos as “beautiful” and claimed that they’d not printed anything degrading: “There’s been an over-reaction to these photos. What we see is a young couple, who just got married, who are very much in love, who are splendid. She’s a real 21st Century princess … a young woman who is topless, the same as you can see on any beach in France or around the world.”

Hey, I’m quaint enough to still be against Page 3. I don’t think women’s breasts should be shown in newspapers which can be seen by children and impressionable teenagers. This is the kind of 1980s woolly liberal I am, and if grown women want to be topless on beaches around children and people they don’t know, that must be their right. And with the internet, you might argue that what’s on the third page of a newspaper doesn’t matter any more. (I think it does.) We all agree that Kate Middleton has not committed a crime. When I first heard that topless pictures of her had been printed, I assumed these were from the days before she was married, from some scummy ex-boyfriend or something. If they had been, I would have had full sympathy for her, as she can’t really have known she was always going to be a “21st Century princess”.

But she slipped up. The world outside the walls of her chateau – a safehouse – is a sleazy one. She should know better. Don’t feed the trolls. The trolls have cameras.

World of the news

OK, the news. Preamble: in 1999, I was writing for Heat magazine. Seems unlikely now, but when it was first launched by Emap – the publisher for whom I’d worked on Select, Empire and Q before I went freelance – it was not the epoch-defining behemoth of celebrity tittle-tattle and eugenics that it is today; rather, it was a typically middlebrow attempt at a British Us Weekly: a bit of everything under one roof. To give you an idea of how different it was in its first, not-very-successful incarnation, I was commissioned to write a 1,300-word double-page spread comparing books about serial killers (“Dahmer cooked and ate the bicep of one victim with salt and pepper and steak sauce: ‘My consuming lust was to experience their bodies'”), and another comparing books about war (quoting Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad at this much length: “The silence that fell on 2 February in the ruined city felt eerie for those who had become used to destruction as a natural state. Writer Vasily Grossman described bomb craters so deep that the low-angled winter sunlight never seemed to reach the bottom, and ‘railway tracks, where tanker wagons lie belly up, like dead horses'”). Confusion initially reigned about what tone the new weekly should take. It was on fire in the TV ads, but not in real life.

Anyway, I was dispatched to interview Chris Tarrant, by then a huge TV star again thanks to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. It was a hugely enjoyable interview and I delivered the copy. However, there was a problem. I hadn’t asked about his estranged stepson. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know he had a stepson, estranged or otherwise. But it had been in the tabloids apparently. And, sensing a certain lack of newsstand appeal, the editors of Heat seemed to want to move into a different realm. I was pretty mortified to have to go back to Tarrant’s PR and request a “top up” chat with Chris about this urgent matter that I had failed to ask him about on the day, too busy was I asking him about Tiswas.

Tarrant was, I felt, gracious in agreeing to a bonus 10 minutes on the phone. He was in the back of a car being ferried somewhere, and, forewarned, he knew I was calling about more personal matters. I apologised for what I was about to ask him, and explained that I was under the cosh, but he said fire away. This is what I had been instructed to ask, and what he said, and what was printed, in full, at the end of the subsequent interview in Heat (you can skip past it if you’re not interested in a TV presenter’s relationship with his stepson in 1999):

Your 18-year-old stepson Dexter told one of the tabloids last year that you had thrown him out, saying, “Chris was an egotistical pig who tried to buy his family’s love with money.” What went on there?

The bottom line was, he wasn’t thrown out, he chose to run off into the night because he didn’t like the idea of doing a day’s work. It was very hard at the time, particularly on his mum, very upsetting all round. He and I are now having a continued dialogue, we’re working towards a sort of amicable reunion. He made his protest like all kids at 18 do, but had no idea that it was such a ridiculously high-profile thing to do. It happens to half the families in the country, but unfortunately because he’s my kid it became a big deal. Dexter himself has been amazed, horrified and saddened by this huge public profile that he then got. He’s cool, I spoke to him yesterday.

Other than that, the press have been pretty good to you haven’t they?

Until Heat really. Those stitch-up bastards!

As you can see, he accepted his fate as a public figure with tabloid form with good humour and honesty. But I felt dirty. I was a freelancer, so I was cutting off a revenue stream, but I made clear that I was uncomfortable with this type of work, and I wasn’t asked to write any more profile interviews. As it turned out, the magazine turned a corner when Mark Frith took over the rudder and the launch of Big Brother decided the magazine’s fruitful fate. I was no longer required, and nor were my 1,300-word book pieces. (I guess the real irony of all this, is that David Hepworth and Mark Ellen were the launch editors – and it was Mark who’d sent me back for the extra tabloid content on Tarrant. Now, both of these men understand magazines, and Mark has a natural instinct for how to tell a story, which he uses when commissioning and editing for Word, but a more decent, honest, faithful and true pair of gents you would not meet. It does seem bizarre now that they started Heat. But they did.)

This was my first, last and only flirtation with tabloid journalism, and even then, at one remove from the real thing. It’s not my strong suit. I’m rubbish at getting the killer quote. If I ever have got one, it has been by accident. My interview style is to try to find some common ground and develop a matey rapport with my interviewee in the allotted time, which can sometimes lead to a relaxed enough attitude for enlightening stuff to come out. Most of the time, you just get a chat. I’m happy enough with this, but don’t come to me for a scoop. Leave that to the journalists.

As we speak, the profession of journalism seems to have split down the middle. On one side, we have the venal, unscrupulous, immoral, bloodthirsty, phone-hacking News Of The World scum; and on the other, the noble, investigative, truth-seeking, establishment-undermining Guardian knights in shining armour, who broke the phone-hacking story, and dragged it out into the open from the shadows of nepotistic self-interest and corruption. It is worth stating that not all tabloid journalists are scum. Not all journalists are tabloid journalists. And not all non-tabloid journalists are saints. Equally, not all journalists who worked at the now-defunct News Of The World were involved in illegal phone-hacking. But it seems fairly likely that journalists at other tabloid newspapers will have also paid for phones and emails to be hacked; after all, if it was common practice at one Sunday tabloid, it was probably on the menu at the others. After all, the newspaper market, in decline now, has always been pretty cutthroat. At the visible end, we’ve seen price cutting, bingo wars, spoilers and endless free CDs, DVDs, downloads and Greggs steak-bake vouchers; behind closed doors, far worse goes on.

“Tabloid journalism” is not restricted to the tabloids. Everybody’s after a quote or a headline, a line it can sell, whether it’s the Sun, or 6 Music News, or Radio Times. Tabloid mentality is endemic, and as the media marketplace becomes ever more frantic, attention spans more microscopic, and the meat on the bones of the available audience ever more scarce, tactics will get dirtier. Or maybe, now that the deletion of texts from a murdered schoolgirl’s mobile stands as the flashpoint for the current crisis of confidence, tactics will have to be cleaned up. At least until we’ve all forgotten about it.

Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks are merely the most public and most powerful faces at the centre of the current circus of death. It’s easy to hate an apparently vulgar old billionaire who effects dodderiness when it suits him, and yet rules one of the biggest media empires the world has ever seen, so can’t actually be that doddery. It’s just as easy to hate a jumped-up, Harvard-educated corporate automaton and heir, who speaks in a monotonous American accent and exclusively in legalese. And it’s even feasible to hate the woman who launched the “name and shame” campaign, even if that was the only alarmist stunt Rebekah Wade/Brooks ever pulled while editing a tabloid newspaper. They all claim to have been clueless, which is a counter-intuitive quality for chief executives of multi-million-dollar companies to show off about, when you think about it. I rather expect my bosses to know everything.

And when key News Of The World shopfloor whistleblower, Sean Hoare, is found dead – a death that is without suspicion in the same way that David Kelly’s was – it’s easy to feel a certain degree of sympathy for the reporters who were the last contact between their newspaper and a revolving cartel of seedy private investigators with loose morals and a tendency to go through bins. Hoare said that he and other reporters endured a climate of fear: get the story or else. The blame must go to the top. The bankers played with our money. The media moguls play with our heads.

But let us not think ourselves morally superior to all this. Or to absent ourselves from the morass. We’re all responsible for the culture that took us to this particular brink … unless you have actually ignored celebrity tittle-tattle since 1969 when Murdoch’s brand of lowest-common-denominator sensation began (“HORSE DOPE SENSATION”). I have never really been a tabloid reader in adult life. My Nan used to bring the Sun round our house on a Thursday, and as a teenager on the cusp of discovering sexism and Labour party politics, I used to flick through it for easy, “ironic” entertainment and funny things to cut out and stick in my diary with Pritt, like frames from the cartoonishly erotic Axa comic strip, and disembodied soaraway headlines. I would soon be under the Guardian‘s spell, once I got to college.

Ironically – and I don’t mean “with irony” – I bought the Sun pretty much every week for three years between 2008 and 2011 so that Richard Herring and I would have something topical to make jokes about on our weekly podcast. We also bought the Mail, but mocked both for their poisonous and laughable idiocy, and in our own way, I hope, atoned for the 20p and 50p we paid out for those rags. But I’ve also bought the Sunday Times for my own use on a Sunday because I like the Culture section, and on occasion the Saturday Times, because I like the books section (which I’ve sporadically written for), so I’m in trouble when it comes to the absolutist stance of the cancel-your-Sky-subscription lobby – most of whom, I fancy, pay to see films made by the Murdoch-owned 20th Century Fox, or buy books published by the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins, or watch ITV, in which Murdoch has a 7.5% stake, or watch the Murdoch-owned National Geographic via another satellite provider. (And if they don’t, I congratulate them. Truly. I avoided Starbucks for years after reading No Logo, and then I read that Naomi Klein occasionally uses Starbucks if it’s the only coffee outlet available, say, at an airport, so I calmed down.)

It’s been a hell of a week for the top brass at News International and News Corp. The latter’s bid to buy the remaining 61% of the shares in BSkyB is dust. Execs including Brooks, Andy Coulson, Les Hinton and Neil Wallis, have either resigned and gone home, or resigned and then been arrested and then been released and gone home. The toppermost of the top brass have been called before a Parliamentary select committee, beamed all around the world, there to squirm beneath the desk, get the words “humble” and “humbling” mixed up, dish out platitudes and apologies and denials in the same voice, and in one soaraway instance, almost get some shaving foam on them. (All the while, the Metropolitan police, who appear to have been up to their necks in News International appeasement, are shedding chiefs by the day, to the point that – gasp! – a woman might have to be drafted in to save them.)

It’s been gripping telly, and although the newspapers have been perhaps unnaturally biased towards coverage and analysis of just the one story while the Eurozone and the United States have been on the brink of economic collapse, again, it’s been engrossing to read. It’s ironic that the news is the news, and that the news has drawn people back to the news, whether on the news channels, one of which is 39% owned by News Corp, or in the newspapers. I don’t usually like to see 80-year-olds being humiliated on television, but I do like seeing the most powerful people on the planet humiliated, so I didn’t stay conflicted for too long on Tuesday. And as someone who also bangs tables when he’s making a point, I even sympathised when Murdoch Sr was told by his wife to sit on his wrinkled hands.

But we are all to blame, as I say. The celebrity culture, whereby fame can be achieved by selling a story, or appearing on a stupid reality show, or having breasts, makes mugs of us all. Even looking at the headlines of the Sunday tabloids while picking up our Observer – just to see, ha ha, what they’re frothing about this week, oh, it’s Cheryl Cole – makes us complicit, even if we don’t hand money over the counter. So let’s not be too smug here, unless we are truly without sin. I will say this: Piers Morgan must be squeaky clean if he’s prepared to challenge Louise Mensch the way he did on CNN on Tuesday night after she collated two passages from his book The Insider and made five, using Parliamentary privilege as a fig leaf for basically accusing him of phone-hacking during the hearing, which he denies.

Equally, you have to hope that nowhere down the line has anybody working for the Guardian done a dirty deal in an alley to get information at any point, otherwise its overarching smugness might too turn to albumen. (You have to hope that there are some good guys somewhere on Fleet Street.)

Rupert Murdoch’s empire seems unlikely to strike back. If it turns out that victims of 9/11 were hacked, then it gets really nasty for him back home, as the Americans done like it up ’em, and I think I’m right in saying that corporate justice is much more bullish over there. We’re giving Man and Boy a fair old roasting over here, even though the parent company is based in the US, and he’s not from round these parts. Maybe a world where media empires don’t exist would be a better one, although the one I do a lot of my work for, the BBC, is a global force to be reckoned with, and that’s why the rest of the media are so enthusiastic about bringing it down. (The deal the government did in 2010 after which the licence fee was frozen, necessitating redundancies and property sell-offs and the threat to bring back the testcard, was done, we must now assume, at a time when News International ran the country. The NUJ are certainly asking the question: can we look at that again, in light of recent developments? If it’s a battle between the BBC and News Corp, I know whose side I’m on.) I don’t think David Cameron will be gone by Sunday, by the way. We shall see.

Sorry, going on a bit. But it’s a big story, and I’ve been too busy to tackle it this week. Some once powerful men and at least one woman might go to prison over this. The Met are going to have to clean up their own back Yard. News Corp will surely sell News International, and another publisher will be delighted to buy the Sun at a knockdown price, which remains a very popular newspaper, and the Times, whose heritage and reputation cannot be knocked up overnight (but which doesn’t make any money, and whose courageous paywall has yet to create a domino effect through the British newspaper industry). But will “the culture” look any different when the fuss has died down? We live in a post-News Of The World world. But its readers seem to have simply migrated to the Star and the Sunday Mirror and the People, because millions of British people wish to be entertained and titillated on a Sunday. And a Monday. And a Tuesday.

Like boxing, if you ban stupidity, it will only go underground. And anyway, isn’t Google far more sinister and powerful than News Corp? Discuss.