Friday, December 22, 2006

Never too late

Five Christmases ago, I wrote this for The Big Issue. Enjoy it, and have a very happy christmas.

PANIC STATIONS. You've left it too late again. The shops are shut, you're half-cut and you haven't got a single present. But all is not lost. Adam Macqueen reveals the secrets of late-night Christmas shopping at the 24-hour garage.

Next year it's going to be different. Next year I'll buy everything from the sales in January and have it wrapped and gathering dust on top of the wardrobe for 11 full months. I'll post my cards in time and won't have to cross out the message inside and write 'Happy New Year' instead. I'll be that smug git who blithely says 'Oh, I got all mine online; I can't bear the crowds in the shops, you know.' Anything to avoid this horrendous last-minute rush.

It's 10pm. For the purposes of our exercise, it's Christmas Eve, no shopping days left till Christmas, and I'm slightly drunk. My mission: to buy presents for my entire family in the space of one hour, using only the retail outlets that will be available when staggering out of the pub on Christmas Eve. That's right, I'm off to the all-night garage.

Staggering up to the forecourt I reject the assorted barbecue materials on offer - I know I'm desperate buy you can't really buy someone coal for Christmas, even if they have been naughty. There's a bag of firewood though - if you screw up your eyes you could mistake it for a selection of yule logs. I can take them back to my parent's house and we can do... whatever it is you're supposed to do with a yule log.

Then the automatic doors glide back to reveal a shopping wonderland. Unfortunately, it falls rather short in the festive-gift department. There's not even a sprig of tinsel to be seen. But it is open, and that's the main thing.

I start off in the munchies section for no better reason than it's nearest to the door. Hobnobs do not a thoughtful present maek, even if they do come in a special resealable pack. But with a bit of lateral thinking... selection packs! That essential part of every 1970s Christmas, scaled up to adult size so that my nostalgia-freak student brother can make himself sick before lunch just like in the old days. Jammie Dodgers, Wagon Wheels, Custard Creams and Bourbons. But best of all, rather than a crappy nylon net stocking, his selection pack will come wrapped in a festive BP carrier bag. Anyway, the £20 I'll slip in for booze, drugs and whatever else students spend other people's money on should keep him happy.

Right, sister... she's a girl, so she's going to want something half-decent. I stop in front of the magazine rack. One copy of Marie Claire isn't going to do it... but 12, spread out throughout the year, might! And best of all, if I can just tear the subscription form out without the security guard seeing me, I don't even need to buy this one! Even better, the form offers subscriptions to otehr mags from the same company, so Golf Monthly and Homes And Gardens will sort out my uncle and aunt respectively.

Then there's their repulsive snotty son who'll be slouching his way through Christmas day with us. What do 15-year-old boys like? Sod it, I'll just get him some porn and fags, at least they should keep him out of the way for most of the festivities and avoid family arguments. I toy with the idea of asking the cashier which particular grumblemag he thinks would most appeal to a 15-year-old, but the conclusions he's likely to draw are just too alarming, so I just chuck in a couple along with a novelty mobile phone cover that will serve as the present he actually gets in front of his mum. Am I the coolest cousin in the world or what?

Brothers-in-law aren't a problem; they have their own section marked 'car care'. I toss a chamois leather and a novelty wind-screen-scraper into the basket. The sad thing is, he will actually think these are good presents. As for my baby niece, she gets a selection from the soft toys most garages keep for panicking divorced dads on their way to weekend access.

So, just my parents left. When you ask my dad what he wants for Christmas he always just says 'peace and quiet'. I consider getting him some blank tapes, but in the end the two universal truths of Christmas win out: one, that dads are utterly impossible to buy presents for, and two, that as long as there's enough booze, everyone's happy. I don't know when garages started selling alcohol, but I'm bloody glad this one does. A bottle of whisky, some port, a red and a white will mean he can potter about pouring things for people and not get in the way of my mum with the turkey.

Now then, mother, mother. A bunch of flowers will do as a start, and they'll be nice and fresh tomorrow morning... well, as fresh as garage flowers ever are, anyway. Some chocolates, obviously, and we'd better have a tin of Quality Street because that's the law at Christmas - but what the hell will I give her for a main present? Last time I asked her she just said 'Dont worry, it's enough just to see you all', which is mum-speak for 'you'd better get me something nice or I'll go all tearful after the first sherry.' My life could just be saved by the odd selection of CDs that all garages stock in accordance with the 'people who like petrol also like soft rock' formula... there we go, the latest Ruth Rendell read by that nice Jan Francis off the telly. Everybody's happy.

Mission accomplished, in only 38 minutes. In fact, if I get a move on putting all this in carrier bags, I can probably still make last orders...

Friday, December 15, 2006

Sixty mile-an-hour turnaround

Managed to turn this (click the title, I haven't worked out how to embed the links yet - it can be my new year's resolution) round for The First Post yesterday within 90 minutes of the report's publication.

I'm not a Diana obsessive, honest. I never had any particularly strong feelings either way about the woman when she was alive. It's just... as a journalist who actually bothers to do his research, I can't help getting cross about the complete bollocks that still gets written about her elsewhere. Still, it ain't going to stop any time soon, whatever Lord Stevens says.

Look out for more - and an interesting revelation about that financial link we've always suspected between the Daily Express and Al Fayed - in the Christmas Eye that's out next week.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The perfect Christmas present for Dads

Two years ago I wrote a book.

It's the biography of a Victorian businessman (the founder of Lever Brothers, later Unilever), but don't let that put you off. He was barking mad, slept in an open air bedroom, had flamingoes and zebras in his garden, locked his diabetic brother in a madhouse, went surfing in Hawaii in 1892, forced his employees to take lessons in latin and housewifery and do gymnastics and sacked them if they had "a wife of objectionable habits." The Mail on Sunday said it was "wonderfully entertaining", Waterstones said it was "joyously funny", and the first nob joke is on page 9.

Click on the title above to read some of the other things nice people wrote about it when it came out. And then click on the link on that page to buy a copy, and Amazon guarantee to deliver it in time for Christmas. It's ideal for dads, or even brothers-in-law. Much better than anything golf-themed from Marks & Spencer.

Killer lies

I think this was probably the most downright irresponsible story the Sun have printed since Kelvin MacKenzie's famous "straight sex cannot give you Aids: Official" front page back in the 80s. Christ, they make me cross sometimes.

From the current Eye:

"KILLER PLAGUES" screamed the Sun over a calm and rational editorial on the "migrants' Aids epidemic threat" to Britian.

"The problem is set to hit crisis point when Romania and Bulgaria - nations with some of Europe's highest Aids rates - join the EU next year. Workers from these countries are expected to flood into Britain," the paper warned.

According to the latest statistics released by the Joint United Nations project on HIV/Aids, the estimated adult HIV prevalence in both Bulgaria and Romania is less than 0.1% - the lowest rate recorded anywhere in Europe and Central Asia. While there are currently 59,000 HIV-positive residents of the UK, the number of Bulgarians living with HIV is estimated at "less than 500".

Joined-up editing

Ian liked this story so much he printed it twice, on pages 4 and 6 of the current Private Eye.


23 November: Conservative party launches "inner tosser" advertising campaign to persuade young people that getting into debt is a bad idea
28 November: Conservative party reveals to Electoral Commission that it owes £35,315,060 to 62 creditors

Thursday, November 30, 2006

I made this

And had to get up at 5.30 in the morning to do so. It's nice, isn't it?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


So Clive Goodman, royal editor of the News of the Screws, has pleaded guilty. And, according to the Media Guardian, Sun editor Rebekah Wade was not the only one checking her messages either...

Here's what I wrote for Eye 1165 back in August, when he was first arrested:

The News of the World’s Royal Editor, Clive Goodman, was charged last week in with the illegal interception of phone calls made by members of the royal family. Here are some of the stories Goodman has published over the last year – all, naturally, acquired through his excellent contacts in the royal household and good old-fashioned journalism.

4 December: “Prince Harry is in secret talks with Comic Relief for a joint project to help HIV victims in an impoverished African state. The 21-year-old prince has made the Mants'ase care home for orphans in Lesotho his pet cause since a gap-year stint there before joining Sandhurst military academy.”

18 December: “Christmas comes as a welcome rest for Prince Harry’s private secretary, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton. Because on top of normal duties, JLP has been giving Harry a guiding hand through his Sandhurst studies… ‘It’s like Who Wants To Be a Brigadier with Jamie as Harry’s phone-a-friend lifeline,” joked one colleague.”

15 January: “As Prince William pines for girlfriend Kate Middleton, he’s doing his best to make his Sandhurst quarters more homely… ‘Everything is khaki this and khaki that. It’s all completely army,’ he confided to a pal.”

12 February: “We reveal how Wills is grooming his Valentine to be a royal… and their secret nicknames… The pair have been secretly phoning and texting each other every day and even arranged to meet – strictly against Sandhurst rules. A pal said: ‘Willie would hide his phone in his kit and send her a cheeky text so she knew she wasn’t on her own’… He has a picture of her in his room. ‘I don’t know if its allowed,’ Wills joked to a cadet. ‘I might get b*******d for breaking rules or congratulated on my taste.’”

26 February: “Unlike younger brother Harry, Prince William doesn’t go in for boozy bonding binges with his platoon. Harry’s friends are used to fielding drunken calls in the early hours as he screams good natured abuse at them.”

19 March: “Chelsy Davy and Prince Harry are slipping off for a hideaway holiday in an attempt to patch up their rocky romance. The couple haven’t seen each other since welcoming the new year together and Chelsy’s only communication with the prince has been when he makes his late night drunken calls from nightclubs. ‘The phone will go at 3am or 4am and it’s him swearing how much he loves her,’ said a family friend. ‘It would be more convincing if there weren’t music, clinking glasses and girl’s voices in the background.’”

9 April: “Shame-faced Prince Harry has been given a furious dressing-down over his late-night antics in a lapdancing bar. Yesterday the repentant Prince took an ear-bashing phone call as news broke. ‘It’s Chelsy. How could you? I see you had a lovely time without me. But I miss you so much, you big ginger, and I want you to know that I love you,’ said a hysterical voice. Luckily the caller was joker brother Prince William. He thought the whole episode was hilarious and decided to take the mickey by putting on a high-pitched South African accent.”

16 April: “Boozy Prince William and his gang of braying pals outraged guests at Prince Harry’s passing-out ball with disgraceful drunken antics. Just hours afterwards Sandhurst’s commandant General Andrew Ritchie rang William’s office at Clarence House to register the complaints and ask for an explanation. The prince’s private secretary Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton is now trying to smooth over the row.”

16 July: “A laptop containing ‘highly sensitive’ royal files has been stolen from Buckingham Palace,” reveals Goodman in yet another royal exclusive. “Police are taking the theft very seriously. An aide added: ‘They won’t stop looking until they find out who’s got this laptop.’”

Three weeks later, police are reported to be searching the offices of the News of the World in Wapping while Goodman is interrogated in Charing Cross Police Station. Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall for that conversation?


I've inspired another blog. I'm so proud.

The marvellous Vickywatch (click above), details the brilliance of the Sun's Bizzarre columnist Victoria Newton, whose scrupulous attention to detail I documented in a Hackwatch for Private Eye back in March this year.

From Eye 1155:

Congratulations to Victoria Newton, editor of the Sun’s Bizarre column, who not only managed to spend five thousand pounds of the Sun’s money in an attempt to get a picture byline she was happy with, but also picked up the Showbusiness Writer of the Year Award at the British Press Awards last week. Here are just a few of the spectacular scoops she has pulled in over the last twelve months:

March 2 2005: “Former Busted star Charlie Simpson’s single with new band Fightstar is due to chart at a pathetic number 73 on Sunday,” crows Newton. “I think Charlie, left, who split Busted when he left, will soon be begging for his job back. I've written a letter he can cut out and send to his former pals: Dear James and Matt, Hey you guys. Looks like I made a huge mistake leaving Busted.” Rather than take up her offer Simpson’s record company instead issue a press release pointing out that the record in question was a limited-edition vinyl 7-inch of which only 1000 copies were pressed, and for it to make the charts at all is an almost record-breaking achievement.

March 7: “Bad boy rapper 50 Cent has become the first artist to have three singles in the US top five,” Newton points out. Unfortunately the record – an even more impressive five out of five, in April 1964 – is actually held by a little-known outfit called The Beatles.

March 8: “Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston are secretly trying to mend their broken marriage,” Newton reveals in a front-page Bizarre “exclusive”. ‘Brad, 41, has moved back into the Beverly Hills home he shared with Jennifer, 36. A source said: ‘They really want to patch things up.’” “These are made-up stories and non-stop lies”, says the couple’s publicist. They file for divorce two weeks later.

March 9: “Billie Piper is secretly planning to relaunch her music career, I can reveal,” pants a breathless Newton, a few weeks ahead of the actress’s debut in Doctor Who. “A source said: ‘Billie would love to make a return to the music scene… She has been having talks with a number of labels, including Sony BMG, but hasn't put pen to paper yet.” Four months later, a still-unsigned Piper tells an interviewer “I care so much more about acting than I do for music. I never really wanted to be a singer in the first place. I’m having the time of my life at the moment.”

April 14: “The Westlife boys have come to blows after a massive punch-up,” Newton tuts. “I can reveal that tempers are running so high between the lads, I fear this could mean the band is close to calling it a day… the band's only commitment is for one more album, pencilled in for studio time in August. But sources close to the boy band say the rivalries developing mean they are likely to go their own way once the record is complete.” Five months on from the album’s release, the band remain together.

May 20: “Ladies, it's time to dust off your Union Flag dresses - because the Spice Girls are back,” Newton shrieks. “I can reveal the fab five are set to reform for a one-off ten-year reunion concert next summer, so get those platform shoes on and be ready for some serious zig-a-zig-ah… I can’t wait.”

May 25: “Madonna has a title for her next album - Defying Gravity,” Newton confides. “The release date for the album has been pencilled in for January. A source said: ‘There is a rockier edge and the usual electronic influence.’” The album is released in November, consists almost entirely of disco tracks and is called Confessions On a Dancefloor.

June 2: “Madonna will duet with Sting at London's Live 8 gig on July 2,” reveals “the official Live 8 columnist. “It's a collaboration which will go down in history and is perfect for the biggest gig of the decade.” And that’s not all – in another exclusive, Newton reveals that “The Spice Girls are being secretly lined up to make a comeback at Live Aid II.”

August 8: “Little Britain’s David Walliams lands Bond Role” reports our mole at Mi6. “The funnyman is being lined up for a quirky cameo part as an in-joke for British fans.” Over to Walliams for confirmation: “No, I haven’t auditioned. I don’t know where that story came from.”

September 9: “Have Kate Moss and Pete Doherty had a secret engagement?” asks the woman in the know. “The pair held a private party at London's Dorchester on Wednesday night. Some say it was a pre-engagement party to tell pals about their plans to marry. Watch this space...” Naturally, the couple split up within weeks.

November 30: Scoop! George Michael has decided to “speak exclusively to the Sun” about the new civil partnership law. “Although George supports the new legal rights, he has no plans to marry long-term lover Kenny,” Newton reveals. Which comes as something of a surprise to readers of the same day’s Times, Mirror, Express, Daily Record and Evening Standard, all of which carry quotes from an interview with Michael in which he reveals that the couple are planning a “small private ceremony relatively soon after it comes in, probably early next year.”

January 30 2006: “McFly frontman Danny Jones has asked to leave the band to go solo - casting doubts over their future,” an ashen-faced Newton reports. “Sources from McFly HQ tell me they are panicking Danny may leave and never return. Is it all over?” Er, not according to Danny Jones, who issues a statement via his record company: “I’m really upset by this rumour. No way am I giving up my dream job.”

February 2: Hold the front page – “SPICE GIRLS WILL REFORM” shrieks Newton. “Forget the half-truths that keep surfacing - I can tell you for DEFINITE that Geri, Victoria Beckham, Emma Bunton and Mel B have agreed to a tour in November with at least ten, and possibly 12, dates. The live dates will be followed by a greatest hits album and DVD, which will be released in time for Christmas.”

February 16: “Coldplay ‘split’” claims the headline on Newton’s coverage of the Brit Awards. Her column the following day clarifies this slightly. “Coldplay ‘no split’.”

February 23: “A bitter Big Brother battle is on the brink of blowing up,” Newton warns. “BB3 contestant Jade Goody is terrified that her crown as Queen Of Reality Telly is under serious threat from Essex Celebrity Big Brother winner Chantelle Houghton.” One month later, the pair do a joint interview. “I don’t see you as a rival, I see you as a big success and I hope you carry on doing well,” Goody tells Houghton in, er, the Sun.

March 16: “At last some good news on the Spice Girls reunion tour - it's not going to happen,” writes Newton, proving that consistency is just as important to her as accuracy. “I can reveal that Mel C and Victoria Beckham have seen sense and realised it is a bad idea. So we can breathe a sigh of relief. It would be cringeworthy.” Nothing like the Sun’s showbusiness coverage, then.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Oh yes they did, part II

Here's the piece "Hutton Dressed as Sham", which I wrote for the current issue of Private Eye. All the evidence and hearing transcripts are still up on line - - and well worth a read (his final report less so).

“There was no reasonable basis on which my conclusion that the government did not know that the 45 minutes claim was wrong and had not ordered the dossier to be sexed up could be described as a whitewash of the government,” announced Lord Hutton last week his 26-page huff, “The Media Reaction to the Hutton Report”, published in academic journal Public Law. This ignores the fact that everyone in the country except Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell and John Scarlett has long since concluded that that was what exactly it was. But then the good Lord is extremely good at ignoring things…

“My terms of reference were ‘urgently to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr Kelly… An inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of one man was not an appropriate forum for investigating the reliability of the intelligence provided to the government by the JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee] or the Prime Minister’s use of the machinery of government”.
• Hutton devotes 73 words of his 26-page article to the topic of “How Dr Kelly came to die”, before getting on to such juicy topics as, er, the reliability of the intelligence provided to the government by the JIC and the prime minister’s use of the machinery of government.

“The evidence at the inquiry established that the allegations reported in the Today programme that the government probably knew that the 45 minutes claim was wrong…were unfounded”.
• It certainly did. It was one of the first things to be established, on day 3, when Andrew Gilligan admitted in his evidence that “that was not an allegation I would necessarily support…My phraseology in that first two-way was not perfect …it was not my intention to give anyone the impression that the Government had lied or that it had made up this intelligence. It was real intelligence. I always wanted to make that clear.”

“In relation to the allegation that the dossier had been sexed up, it was important to bear in mind that this allegation was made in the Today broadcast immediately after the allegation that the 45 minutes figure was wrong. Accordingly, the allegation of sexing up would have been understood to mean that in response to the government’s order to sex up the dossier, to make it more exciting and discover more facts, intelligence was included which the government probably knew was wrong.”
• Would it? Surely it would have been understood to mean that they, er, sexed it up? In his 2004 report Hutton seemed to think the term was ambiguous – “It is capable of two different meanings. It could mean that the dossier was embellished with items of intelligence known or believed to be false…or it could mean that whilst the intelligence contained in the dossier was believed to be reliable, the dossier was drafted in such a way as to make the case against Saddam Hussein as strong as the intelligence contained in it permitted.” He even admitted that “If the term is used in this latter sense, then because of the drafting suggestions made by 10 Downing Street for the purpose of making a strong case against Saddam Hussein, it could be said that the Government ‘sexed-up’ the dossier.” That’s certainly what Dr Kelly appeared to be suggesting to journalist Susan Watts, in a transcript presented to the inquiry – “the word-smithing is actually quite important and the intelligence community are a pretty cautious lot on the whole but once you get people putting it/presenting it for public consumption then of course they use different words. I don't think they're being wilfully dishonest, I think they just think that that's the way the public will appreciate it best” – and it’s what Hutton admitted had been implied by “the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons section of the Defence Intelligence Staff” whose head “did suggest that the wording relating to the 45 minutes claim was too strong”. But all such ambiguity now appears to have been forgotten. If you’ve accused the government of lying once (even inadvertently), it stands to reason that you’re always accusing them of lying – even when you’re accusing them of doing something else.

“Some of the commentators who criticised my conclusion that the government did not have a dishonourable strategy in relation to the naming of Dr Kelly suggested that I was too ready to accept the evidence of the Prime Minister and senior officials on this matter... A judge conducting a public enquiry must always be alert to the possibility that witnesses may not give truthful evidence in relation to particular matters… The evidence of the Prime Minister and the senior officials was strong and was consistent with the surrounding circumstances.”
• Oh yeah? Hutton quotes great chunks of Tony Blair’s evidence in which he claimed he was only keen to disclose Dr Kelly’s admission that he had spoken to Gilligan so that “no-one could say afterwards: look, this is something that you people were trying to cover up or conceal from a House of Commons Committee… It did look as if we were withholding information of great public interest.” This comes from a prime minister who for six years refused to allow Lord Birt or any of his other “special advisers” to be questioned by Commons Committees, and for two years refused to show the Attorney General’s advice on the war’s legality to the cabinet, let alone parliament. Blair’s unwillingness to share information with anyone beyond an intimate group of informal advisers was even criticised by Lord Butler in his inquiry – but Hutton appears to have been happy to take his word on this one (despite the fact that the prime minister’s evidence contradicted a number of statements he made following Dr Kelly’s death, as documented in Eye 1190).

“Some commentators focused on Mr Campbell’s diary entry that ‘GH [Geoff Hoon] and I agreed it would f*** Gilligan if that [Dr Kelly] was his source… But this focusing on Mr Campbell’s diary entry ignored the weight of the evidence given by the Prime Minister and some very senior officials.”
• Instead, Hutton chose to ignore the existence of Alistair Campbell – which might at least help explain his conclusion that “there was no dishonourable, or underhand, or duplicitous strategy by the government”.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Lead story on the news page of Private Eye, lead in Street of Shame... and this morning, lead story in this week's Popbitch.

Which cheers me up as I'm painting the kitchen...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Scoop Macqueen strikes again

Walking into the office on Wednesday, I passed Paul McCartney in Soho square.

This isn't that unusual, given that he does, er, have an office in Soho square. The main thing I noticed was that he was wearing a nice smart suit, and looked considerably better than the last time I saw him, pre-break up, when Heather had him wearing an outfit that would only have looked good on someone forty years younger, blacker, and a resident of south central LA.

So apart from mentioning it to a couple of people in the office, I thought nothing more of it. until this morning, when my colleague Francis Wheen pointed out this double page spread in the Mail on Sunday...

Friday, October 27, 2006

Oldies and goldies...

From the front page (which, wierdly, isn't at the front due to a very odd page plan) of the latest Private Eye, no. 1170:

“We have to change our approach and our attitude and our behaviour towards older people in order to reap the benefits of an older and more mature society,” announced Tory leader David Cameron. Attempts to “airbrush the elderly out of the picture” were, he declared, “a national tragedy.”
Those with still-functioning memories might recall that one of Cameron’s first acts when he became leader was to dispense with the services of sexagenarians Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Tim Yeo, Maurice Saatchi and Michael Ancram, leaving only one member of his shadow cabinet, 69-year-old Lords chief whip Lord Cope of Berkley, within striking distance of the legal retirement age.
Out of his 24 shadow cabinet colleagues, only six are over 50. And the majority of candidates on the A-list – chosen to “make the party more representative of modern Britain” – are in their 30s and 40s.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Oh yes they did...

I read the Guardian this morning. Someone has to.

In an edited extract from his Tate Britain Lecture, Armando Iannucci (my old boss, but that's another story) said that "Everyone has analysed the result of the Hutton inquiry. But no one has analysed all the evidence given during it. Because the result, not the evidence, was deemed to have been the story."

That made me a bit cross. Because actually, I did.

In Private Eye number 1190, published 1st October 2003, long before Lord H published his findings (with a little bit of help from the Sun) I wrote this:

As Lord Hutton starts wading through the 23 days worth of transcripts and 9,000 pieces of published evidence in order to write his report on the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly, the Eye offers the good lord - and its readers - a handy bite-sized reminder of the biggest lies that have been exposed by the Inquiry over the last two months.

“The allegation that the 45 minute claim provoked disquiet among the intelligence community, which disagreed with its inclusion in the dossier … is also completely and totally untrue.” - Tony Blair, House of Commons, June 4
On September 19, 2002 (just one day before the finalisation of the dossier’s contents), the branch head of the Science and Technological Directorare at the Defence Intelligence Staff, wrote to the Deputy Chief Director detailing “reservations on several aspects of the dossier”, on the part of his colleagues including “a number of questions in our minds relating to the intelligence on the military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, particularly about the times mentioned and the failure to differentiate between the two types of weapons.” In another memo, the following day another member of the DIS advised "It is not clear what is meant by 'weapons are deployable within 45 minutes'. The judgment is too strong considering the intelligence on which it is based."

“There was no attempt, at any time, by any official, or Minister, or member of the No. 10 Downing Street Staff, to override the intelligence judgements of the Joint Intelligence Committee.” - Tony Blair, House of Commons, June 4
In an email dated September 19, 2002, after the deadline that had been given to JIC members to submit changes to the dossier, No. 10 Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell sent the following email to John Scarlett: “I think the statement on page 19 that ‘Saddam is able to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat’ is a bit of a problem. It backs up the… argument that there is no CBW threat and we will only create one if we attack him. I think you should redraft the para.” Although the sentence had already been passed by JIC members in three separate drafts with no objections, Scarlett told Hutton that as a result of Powell’s email he “looked at it again” and “we concluded that that was not right, the way this was phrased, and therefore we took that out.”

"Now, the allegation that has been made by the BBC's defence correspondent, is that the Prime Minister … put to the country and to Parliament a false basis for putting at risk the lives of British servicemen … Now that is why I take it so seriously… I simply say in relation to the BBC story: it is a lie, it was a lie, it is a lie that is continually repeated and until we get an apology for it I will keep making sure that Parliament, people like yourselves and the public know that it was a lie.” - Alastair Campbell, evidence to Foreign Affairs Committee, June 25.
This was actually the fourth different reason Campbell had given for attacking Gilligan’s story. On May 29 Downing Street wrote to the BBC “to register our concern at the failure of this morning’s Today programme to contact Downing Street for a response to Andrew Gilligan’s story.” On June 6 Campbell wrote personally to complain about Gilligan’s “extraordinary ignorance of intelligence issues” and the way he had described the Joint Intelligence committee. On June 12 he wrote again to complain that the use of a single source story broke the BBC’s producer guidelines. His appearance at the FAC nearly a month after the report was broadcast was in fact the first time he had “simply” complained about the veracity of the story.

“I did not authorise the leaking of the name of David Kelly. Emphatically not. That is completely untrue.” - Tony Blair, press conference, July 22 Questioned by Lord Hutton on August 28 about the decision to confirm David Kelly’s name to any journalists who guessed it, Blair admitted that “Responsibility is mine in the end. I take the decisions.” He also said that at the meetings where the decision was taken, “there was some surprise we expressed to each other … that it had not already leaked, and I think there was no doubt in anyone's mind that if on reinterview it was clear that he was in all probability the source then we were going to have to disclose that.”

“The matter was handled in accordance with MoD procedures and had been overseen by those at the top of the MoD in view of the fact that it had been the lead Department." - briefing by Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman, July 22
Questioned by Hutton, Blair admitted that noone from the MoD was present at the meeting where the decision was made to confirm Dr Kelly’s name. He also confirmed that, as the MoD’s director of personnel had said on the first day of the inquiry, no relevant MoD procedures existed. The Prime Minister did however continue to maintain he had “played it by the book”.

“We made great efforts to ensure Dr Kelly’s anonymity.” - Geoff Hoon, BBC interview, July 19
Questioned by Hutton, the defence secretary admitted that on July 8, just two days after he had learned of Dr Kelly’s identity, he had officially approved the following course of action: “if a journalist approached the press office with the right name, then that name would be confirmed by press officers”. He also said that Sir Kevin Tebbit checked the plan with him twice during the following day, and he confirmed his approval.

“On the 25th September there were a small number of headlines about that; and afterwards virtually no reference to it.” - John Scarlett on media reaction to the 45 minute claim, Hutton Inquiry, September 23
The Sun, Britain’s biggest selling paper, ran the front-page headline “BRITS 45 MINUTES FROM DOOM”. The Star’s front page read “MAD SADDAM SET TO ATTACK: 45 MINUTES FROM A CHEMICAL WAR.” The Daily Express joined them in reporting as fact that chemical weapons could be used against troops based in Cyprus, while the Daily Mail, Telegraph, Guardian and Times all reported the 45-minute claim on their front pages with no qualification about it only applying to battlefield munitions.

“I do believe that anyone with an interest in good, decent journalism… should understand that when allegations are made, when lies are broadcast, when there is not a shred of evidence to substantiate the allegation they should apologise and then we can move on.” - Alastair Campbell, Channel 4 News, June 27
Asked why he did not complain about a front page story in the Sunday Times on June 1 which specifically accused him of making “our intelligence services become the puppets of a lying government”, Campbell replied “It happens to be untrue but there is not much I can do about that.” When Geoff Hoon was asked why his department had not corrected the many newspapers which had interpreted the “45-minute” claim in the dossier to refer to anything other than battlefield munitions, Geoff Hoon told the inquiry “I have spent many years trying to persuade newspapers and journalists to correct their stories. It is an extraordinarily time consuming and generally frustrating process.” The BBC’s lawyer then asked “Do you accept that on this topic at least you had an absolute duty to try to correct it?”, to which the Defence Secretary replied, “No, I do not.”

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Web Exclusives...

and - why not - a couple which didn't make the paper and would otherwise merely moulder on my machine...

“The astonishing waste of paper and money caused by the rising tide of junk mail has been revealed,” gasped the Daily Mail on 28 September. “British households receive a total of 3.4billion unsolicited items through the post every year, of which 750million go straight into the bin. Researchers found that 22 per cent of direct mail, much of it from banks and credit-card companies, is never opened. … Many Daily Mail readers have complained about the level of junk mail flooding on to doormats. They are also angry that they have been unable to get through to the helpline which is supposed to allow householders to block it.”
The paper did, however, neglect to mention one interesting finding contained in the survey by Nielsen Media Research – that in 2005 Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail (as well as those litterbug’s favourite freebies, Metro and London Lite), spent £791,000 cluttering up the nation’s doormats with junk mail subscription offers.

“The BBC has grown into a bloated bureaucracy with more than 25,000 employees – some of whom, as we discovered this week, have nothing better to do than debate whether or not Fiona Bruce should be allowed to wear a piece of jewellery in the shape of a cross when she presents the news,” grumbled Tom Utley in the Daily Mail last week. “Would they agonise as much about a Muslim presenter who chose to wear a headscarf? I rather doubt it.”
This is one of the few occasions when a columnist’s rhetorical question can be easily answered, given that the entire furore over Ms Bruce’s jewellery only arose from an article in the Guardian in which former BBC controller of editorial policy Stephen Whittle was given a series of hypothetical dilemmas to struggle with, including… whether a Muslim newsreader would be allowed to wear a hijab on screen or not. Whittle’s answer? “It is not something I would want to allow without it being properly discussed beforehand.”

From Eye 1169

The original version of this one, which I prefer to the edit that appeared:

Several commentators noted the speed with which Nick Hornby rushed to condemn shadow chancellor George Osbourne for suggesting Gordon Brown suffered from autism, while ignoring the same charge when it was laid by his brother-in-law Robert Harris in the Sunday Times last month – but few of them noticed that neither man was the originator of the supposed insult.
He “was accused of mocking hundreds of thousands of people with learning difficulties” and “risked stigmatising the 535,000 people in Britain on the autistic spectrum,” frothed the Times, presumably forgetting that a mere month ago columnist Anatole Kaletsky referred to the chancellor’s “brooding, almost autistic personality” – and, indeed, that the only person actually to use the word during the fringe discussion which ignited the row was their very own Mary Anne Sieghart. “He should apologise to the thousands of people affected by autism for trying to turn their condition into a term of abuse,” a “source” told the Independent, whose Simon Carr noted in May that “Mr Brown answers questions in that autistic way he has”, and has yet to show any contrition. But who was the first man to publicly insult Brown thus? None other than ginger whinger Simon Heffer, who in his Telegraph column of 19 November 2005 indulged one of his own repetitive behaviour patterns in yet another piece about the importance of proper dress. “Gordon Brown of course refuses arrogantly and ignorantly even to put on a black tie when he goes to official dinners,” he fumed, “for reasons that I have never heard satisfactorily explained, but are, I presume, down to his almost autistic rudeness.”
Heffer, of course, has form on letting Tory front-benchers take the rap for his tasteless remarks – he was the author of the infamous 2004 Spectator editorial on Liverpool for which editor Boris Johnson was forced to make a personal journey of apology.

“OVER THE COUNTER KILLER” shrieked a headline in the News of the World on September 10, over the news that “terrorists hell-bent on mid-air murder can track EVERY aeroplane in the sky armed with a ‘virtual computer radar’ readily available on the internet.”
“Hooked up to a laptop or PC the British-made gadget replicates exactly what flight controllers see on their monitors. And chillingly, all the information is relayed LIVE,” the paper revealed. “It could have potentially horrendous implications. A News of the World reporter was able to easily buy the £499 scanner from a leading specialist shop. Staff did not inquire why we wanted it or what we intended to use it for.”
And what did the intrepid hacks do with this deadly piece of kit when they had finished with it? Flogged it off on eBay, of course. “press_snapper” put the gadget – “used for demonstration purposes (News of the World story) but like new” – up for sale on the auction site, where it fetched a handsome £440 (plus £5p&p) on 23 September. The new proud owner? One “warbird-nl”.

September 2006: John Prescott tells the Labour Party Conference that “The canals of Manchester and many cities were symbols of urban decline. When we came to office we changed the Treasury borrowing rules to allow publicly owned bodies like British Waterways to be more enterprising, using public private partnerships to unleash their full potential. They have become major engines of urban regeneration. As a result, we transformed derelict canals into flourishing urban centres: profitable assets instead of the decaying liabilities the Tories left behind.”
September 2006: British Waterways has its grant from government slashed for the third time this year, resulting in the scaling-back of future restoration projects and the abandonment of a number of canals.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The news, before it happens

"Shop Your Children, Says Reid", was freesheet thelondonpaper's front-page splash last Wednesday, over news that the home secretary had addressed a meeting in Leyton, east London.
"Reid faced fierce criticism from the audience on the government's actions in Iraq," revealed hack Eugene Henderson. "But he rejected suggestions that British foreign policy was to blame or the 7 July bombings."
Curiously, the paper made no mention of the event that led most of that evening's news bulletins and featured heavily in the following day's papers, the heckling and subsequent expulsion from the meeting of radical activist Abu Izadeen, who demanded of Mr Reid: "How dare you come to a Muslim area?"
Perhaps Henderson hadn't noticed - hardly surprising, since in order to meet his paper's deadline, he wrote his thorough piece covering the question and answer session long before the home secretary had even set off for Leyton. Just the sort of hard-hitting investigative work we can look forward to more of in the age of the freebie!

360-degree Cherie

From the current Eye, 1168:

"This year I have seen something in our conference coverage that was unique and exciting," gushed Guardian bigwig Emily Bell in her column on 23 September, enthusing over the experimental techniques of photographer Dan Chung, whose 360-degree panoramics of events in Brighton and Manchester are displayed on the paper's website.
"Dan is one of what I hope will be a growing number of journalists who will push the boundaries of what new technologies can add to journalism and storytelling."
Sadly, Chung is not quite so appreciative of his employer's efforts. Setting up his hi-tech camera to snap Cherie Blair in the round in Manchester on Sunday, he was asked by the prime minister's wie if he was getting paid extra for his efforts. "No," replied the disgruntled snapper. "We're all going on strike."
Indeed, Guardian staff are currently threatening industrial action over, among other things, the fact that staff working in new technologies get paid considerably less than their colleagues on the paper!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

And another anniversary

It's the fifteenth birthday of The Big Issue this week.

I was there for the tenth (it was in the three year period when I left the Eye before returning, in the immortal words of my late colleage Paul Foot 'like a dog to its own vomit'), and we'd prepared not one but three special commemorative editions, focusing on the hundreds of vendors the magazine had helped to move on out of homelessness, the part we had played in putting the issue on the political agenda, the surprising number of news stories we'd broken and the most embarrassing things celebrities had told us in interviews - that sort of thing.

We had a full schedule of events and activities lined up for the birthday week, founder John Bird (that charming man) had done plenty of interviews and publicity work which was scheduled to appear on the anniversary itself, and then a rumour went round the office that the Queen Mother was at death's door. We panicked. There goes our publicity. A series of phonecalls established that this was probably a mixture of chinese whispers and wishful thinking on our anarchist news editor's part, and after removing any even vaguely contentious references to the royal family from the magazine, we went ahead, slapping ourselves on the back for our care and foresight.

And lo, it came to pass, that the 10th birthday of the Big Issue arrived with the Queen Mum alive and well - on 12th September 2001.

I hope they get more coverage this time around. Happy birthday to them.

Leave it Grant, she ain't worth it...

From Street of Shame, Eye 1167, out today.

"POSHED AS A NEWT!" shrieked the Daily Mirror over the front-page 'news' that Victoria Beckham had been pictured staggering around drunk at 5am after a night out in London. Not to be outdone, the Star rechristened her "Slosh Spice", while the Evening Standard's headline was equally succinct: "BENDER IT LIKE BECKHAM".
One title, however, went for a different approach: "POSH JUST ACE IN LACE", simpered the Sun, over a full-page picture of Mrs Beckham looking demure, sober, and, er, "luscious in lace during a night on the loose".
Why the restraint? A clue was provided by the Daily Mail's account of how her "civilised evening of fine dining descended into one of raucous tomfoolery" - "her companions included the chef Gordon Ramsay and his wife Tana, interior designer Kelly Hoppen, actor Ross Kemp and his wife Sun editor Rebekah Wade." And we all know what she's like with a few drinks inside her, as her husband could have testified (but refused to) last November.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Nothing from the current issue of the Eye...

I've got plenty of stories in, but they're all a bit August.

So instead, lets take a moment to think of our Queen of Hearts, that windy candle who was taken from us so cruelly just nine years ago, and a little tribute to those who do so much to keep her memory alive.

From Private Eye, September 2002

“As bodyguard to the late Princess of Wales, Ken Wharfe got a taste for walking along sun-kissed beaches”, thundered Richard Kay in the Daily Mail on August 24. “To keep up the lifestyle he has betrayed her trust by selling a sordid memoir of her affairs and her instability.” Kay’s three page denouncement of the protection officer-turned-grass was accompanied by a picture of Wharfe on a French beach, taken by super-paparazzo Jason Fraser – precisely the sort of shot the Daily Mail swore blind it would never use again after Diana died all those years ago.

“It is breathtaking hypocrisy”, thundered Kay on the Mail’s front page the following Tuesday. He was referring not to his own paper, but Wharfe again, in the third article he had managed to squeeze out of the scandal in as many days. Kay, of course, would never dream of profiting out of the life and death of the princess. His own part work, “Diana: The Untold Story”, serialised interminably with the Mail in 1998 and then released as a book, was presumably bashed out in his spare time as a labour of love. As was his adaptation of Nick Davies’ book “Diana: A Princess And Her Troubled Marriage”, cobbled together as a serialisation for the Mail in 1992 when the paper was outbid for Andrew Morton’s tome. As was every one of the 1000 or so articles that he has written about Diana for various papers around the world since her death in 1997.

Kay bases his coverage on his close relationship with Diana – the pair used to have secret meetings in the hack’s car, at which the princess would feed him titbits of scurrilous gossip which would duly appear on the front page of the Mail the next day. “She trusted me and revealed herself constantly”, he boasted after her death. So he is well placed to judge Wharfe’s “shameful decision to cash in on his friendship with a Princess who placed so much trust in him”.

Could Kay’s pique at Wharfe be prompted by the fact that the book is co-written by his long-time rival royal correspondent at The Express, Robert Jobson? In the 4000 or so words he has bashed out for the Mail, Kay has not found space to tell us. And while he lists at length the book’s “sordid” and “shameful” claims about Diana’s sex life, he doesn’t mention another of Wharfe’s revelations – that she only ended her long affair with James Hewitt because her privacy was invaded by a scurrilous hack by the name of, er, Richard Kay.

From Private Eye, October 2003

If the “War of the Waleses” was sordid and vicious, it is nothing compared to the battle of the Diana pundits that has raged since the princess’ death. Paul Burrell’s latest revelations, revealed exclusively to the Daily Mirror, set off the latest round of side-swapping and name-calling in the six-year circus.

On 21st October the Sun called on two men amply qualified to criticise Burrell for cashing in on Diana’s memory by writing a book - former royal bodyguard Ken Wharfe (Diana: Closely Guarded Secret, Michael O’Mara, 2002) and ex-private secretary Patrick Jephson (Shadows of a Princess, Harper Collins, 2000). Wharfe is an old hand at slagging off Burrell’s gullibility - The Sun hired him as a spolier to the butler’s Mirror deal last November, despite having accused him of leaving the Queen “hurt and betrayed” three months previously when his own book was serialised elsewhere. Jephson, who obligingly stumped up 400 words on “the many unscrupulous voices that were ready to exploit Diana’s vulnerablity”, was making his first appearance in The Sun since last December, when the paper branded him “Diana’s Judas” for writing about the princess.

Realising that it needed back-up in the face of such big guns, The Mirror wheeled out “Di’s Confidante” Simone Simmons (Diana: The Secret Years, Michael O’Mara, 1998) to back up Burrell’s account of anonymous threats to the princess. Simmons happily obliged - despite having been branded one of the “trusted few who betrayed Diana” by the paper in August 2002 (the paper pronounced itself particularly disgusted by her “astonishing claims that Diana had a passionate fling with and wanted to marry heart surgeon Hasnat Khan”, even though they exclusively reported the exact same thing in 1996). Now, however, Simmons enthusiastically threw her weight behind the Mirror - despite the fact that the paper’s front page claimed to “dispel the myth” that Prince Philip disliked Diana and blamed her for the break-up of her marriage, a myth that was detailed at length in The Mirror last November by… Simone Simmons!

From Private Eye, August 2004
Earl Spencer’s new account of how his great great great great great great great grandfather the Duke of Marlborough’s 1704 victory over the French and Bavarians, Blenheim: Battle for Europe, has received much publicity thanks to the tireless efforts of his PR agent, Stuart Higgins. How nice to see that the two men have made up since Spencer famously withdrew Higgins’ invitation to his sister Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, pointing out that the then Sun editor and his tabloid colleagues had “blood on their hands”.

From Private Eye, June 2005
• “Some will say that this is raking over dead embers, that Diana should be left in peace,” admitted the Sun in an editorial on the day the paper began its serialisation of Simone Simmonds latest book on the princess. “What about the added heartbreak this will cause William and Harry, they will ask? The Sun does not for one moment believe the princes will be hurt by this book. They are not children any more. Their eternal memories of Diana are the joyous years they spent with a devoted mother. What better legacy could she leave them than the knowledge that she found great happiness herself?”

And indeed, what adult could fail to be delighted to learn that their father had “no clue as to a woman’s geography”; that his lovemaking left their mother “uncomfortable and let down”; that she had “the first orgasm she had ever experienced” with a man who “persuaded her to engage in oral sex for the first time in her life”, not to mention that they had been secretly blood tested because their family doubted their paternity? Certainly not the two young men who the Sun declared less than two years ago were “deeply distressed, upset, angry and betrayed” by the “reopening of wounds” when stories appeared about their mother (although presumably that only applied to those which were being published at the time by the Mirror).

• Anyone who doubted that Diana would have discussed such intimate issues with Simmons was invited to call a special Sun phoneline to “hear the tender greetings which reveal the closeness of their friendship”. Opinion was divided amongst those who invested 60p a minute as to which of the three answerphone messages from the late princess best demonstrated the intimacy of the two women – was it the one promising that “I’ll speak to you in the morning cos I think you’re busy”, the one informing her that “I’m in a meeting” or the impressive, “I’m on my way to tennis for an hour, I’ll have this thing switched back on at one, whatever, whatever.”

• Simone Simmons’ claim that in penning two books about Diana she was simply carrying out the wishes of the late princess has been greeted with much scepticism in the media. But one hack who could shed some light on the matter has remained strangely silent.
In the introduction to her first attempt, 1998’s Diana The Secret Years, Simmons revealed that “it was in February 1997, and we she was sprawled on the sofas in her private sitting room at Kensington Palace… She dabbed at her eyes with a Kleenex, laughed again, and ordered me, one day, to write a book and ‘tell it like it is… I want you to tell the truth. It’ll be about time.’ The Daily Mail journalist Richard Kay, one of her other close friends, was with us.”
Curiously, Kay has never commented on this version of events. But then it is possible that, as author of Diana: The Untold Story and innumerable articles about his memories of the princess (and an equal number slagging off those who betray her memory by writing about her), he simply assumed Diana was talking to him at the time.

Declaring an interest: I did my own bit of cashing in in 1999, when I was one of the researchers on Martyn Gregory's superb conspiracy theory-debunking book Diana: The Last Days. An updated version is being published next month. Why not order a copy by clicking on the title of this entry way above?
Oh, and in the winter of 1997 I had a temping job on the orderline for the Daily Mail's Diana Memorial Rose offer, but that's a story for another time...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

2 + 3

There is no 2 + 3.

Don't take this as a sign that I had a life in the summers of 2001 and 2002 though. Quite the opposite. I remember voting for Helen, and being deeply disappointed when Spencer went out to Alex. It's just that I was at the Big Issue at that point, and not doing much in the way of TV reviews...


From Eye 1084, July 2003

Week seven in the Big Brother house, and the show continues to provide page after page of newspaper coverage, largely devoted to how no one is interested in it any more.

But for all the doom-mongering amongst credulous hacks with a hotline to the Channel 4 press office, ratings remain consistent with last year’s series, and considerably above those of the first two. Its average audience, around the five million mark, is double what Channel 4 usually expect even for their most popular programmes, and on June 30th the show even drew level with ITV during Saturday night prime-time.

What is causing panic at Horseferry Road is a massive down-turn in the number of people who can be bothered to “interact” with the show by voting contestants out. Last year newly installed text facilities, alongside the usual phonelines and digital voting services, pulled in a profit of some eight million quid for the station. This year there have been on average 40% fewer votes cast in the weekly evictions - and the bank balance is looking considerably less healthy.

The obvious reason for this is that the viewing public are suffering from interactivity fatigue: post-Pop Idol, every second programme from This Morning to Tonight now demands participation in a viewer poll, competition or other premum-rate scam, and the great British phone bill-payers have simply had enough. But to admit this would mean confessing that almost every programme “concept” that has been comissioned in the last two years - many of which haven’t even appeared yet - has been a horrible, greedy, short-sighted mistake.

So instead Channel 4 has blamed the housemates, and instructed producers Endemol to inject a bit of life into Big Brother in any way possible. Enter Lisa, a welsh wannabe who declares her “ultimate dream would be to be a soap actress”, whose mother claims she would do anything to get on television, and who is quite happy to claim to be transexual in the knowledge that the tabloids (encouraged by the programme’s PR team) will go wild. In other words, exactly the sort of fame-seeker that Channel 4 instructed producers to avoid like the plague this year, claiming that it was time for the programme to go “back to basics”. Enraged Endemol staff have lost no time in pointing out that the only reason the show has been so boring this time around is that they delivered exactly what they were asked for.


Now that I'm back in the office, for the sake of completeness:

From Eye 1113, August 2004

Richard Desmond’s mission to conflate his Daily Express, Star and OK! magazine into three differently-designed versions of the same product may have run into problems with journalists (the Express sports desk is currently up in arms over his plan to force them to file copy for both papers), but it has given him enough bargaining power to sew up the market when it comes to Z-list celeb stories.

The £200,000 he spent on the two Big Brother contestants who had sex in the house gave him exclusive rights not just to their newspaper and magazine interviews, but also to TV appearances - hence the recent series of ubiquitous ads in which the two lovebirds pledge to tell all, “Only in OK!”. As a result Big Brother itself was contractually obliged not to show feature them in the same shot during the post-eviction interviews in the final week of the show - despite being the show that put them together and made them famous in the first place!

A nice story about a sheep

Today's story about the Health and Safety Executive and the excuse it's given everyone to dust off those stories about goggles for conkers, hanging baskets and the like, reminded me of this, which I wrote for the Eye back in March (issue 1154, fact fans).

Halley’s comet, Peter Mandelson resigning, Ulrika getting dumped and Tim Henman getting knocked out of Wimbledon: some stories can be relied upon to turn up regularly in the papers with only the tiniest alterations required to bring them up to date.

One such is that which reappeared in the Sun, Mail, Times and Mirror, and most spectacularly, emblazoned across the front of the Daily Express last week: “Political Correctness goes mad at the nursery: NOW IT’S ‘BAA BAA RAINBOW SHEEP’.” “Teachers at a government-backed school were ordered to change the lyrics of the classic Baa Baa Black Sheep,” stormed the Express. “The idea was to ‘avoid offending children’ and keep in line with ‘equal opportunities’.”

This tale – wherein a politically correct administrator insists that children remove all references that could be considered racist from ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ – first surfaced in February 1986, when the Daily Star and Sun declared that “loony left-wing councillors” had banned children at Hackney play groups from singing the rhyme. It was not true then either. Neither was it true in October of that year, when the Daily Mail claimed play leaders on a Haringey council racism awareness course had been told to stamp out the song, nor in 1987, when Islington Council went to court to stop an SDP party political broadcast which falsely claimed they had imposed a ban, in 2000 when various papers relocated it to Birmingham, nor in 2005 when the Mail on Sunday moved it all the way up to Aberdeen.

For the record, the charity Parents and Children Together, which runs the two play groups at the centre of last week’s outbreak told the Press Association that “children at the two family centres sing a variety of descriptive words in the nursery rhyme to turn the song into an action rhyme. They sing happy, sad, bouncing, hopping, pink, blue, black and white sheep etc. This encourages the children to extend their vocabulary.” Curiously, this explanation went unreported by any of the national papers.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


And way back when it all began, from the Big Issue first published on July 17th 2000.

(I went to the press launch and got to go round the camera runs looking in at the house. I was very excited to see they had the same sofa as me...)

Something happened to British television at 8.27pm on July 23 1998. Susan Dukes saw her new dining room transformed into a palace of tat by top-cropped pop-fop Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen on Changing Rooms, and burst into tears. It was the moment we had been waiting for since the home makeover show began. Neighbours who love their new skirting-boards are all very well, but there’s nothing we love more than watching something really unpleasant happening to someone from the comfort of our sofas.

The Germans have a word for it – Schadenfreude: the malicious enjoyment of another’s misfortunes. Think of Castaway 2000, the BBC’s experiment in Lord Of The Flies-style social engineering with 40 volunteers pitched on to the remote Scottish island of Taransay and left to sink or swim. Or the Channel 4 version, Shipwrecked, where an island in the South Pacific played host to 16 teens and twentysomethings, selected as much for their beautiful bodies as for their emotional immaturity – all the better for whinging and arguments. Or the recent run of Can You Live Without, which consists of removing something someone is emotionally reliant upon and then laughing at them? Or even last year’s Victorian House, which saw the Bowler family move into a no-mod-cons turn of the century home. Yes, it was an interesting experiment in interactive history, but it was also a national sweepstake on when the mum would next lose her rag over the mangle.

The genre reaches its logical conclusion this week with the first broadcast from an East Berlin-style bunker near the Millennium Dome. Channel 4’s much-trailed Big Brother puts ten volunteers in the flat-share from hell. Although they can’t see them, they are sharing the house with 27 cameras, a production crew and millions of television viewers. “It’s a sealed TV hothouse,” says Big Brother’s commissioning editor, Liz Warner.

“Programme makers at the moment rely on just two or three tricks, and these voyeuristic programmes seem to be one,” says the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries. “The Family in the 1970s was the first real-life soap opera, following an ordinary working class family over several weeks, but the cameras didn’t go in the bathroom or the bedroom. And even that was so intrusive that in the end the couple split up.”

But the intrusion of Big Brother does not end there – it’s also the first programme to be directed by its audience. Each week, the audience will vote for one member of the household to be evicted. They also vote on pointless tasks for the housemates to undertake. In other countries’ versions, these have included keeping a bonfire burning for seven days, or memorising post codes, although Warner claims the British challenges will be “more psychologically purposeful.”

Executive producer Ruth Wrigley seems to be taking the threat of emotional damage seriously. “We’ve almost been trying to discourage people! They’ve all been read the riot act and forced to consider all the potential consequences of taking part.”

Furthermore, “there will be a psychotherapist available on request – counselling will not be filmed. There’s also support for occupants once they have left, if requested.” Participants may well book a session just to get away from the cameras, which will follow them not only to the shower, but to the toilet as well. “The number of audition tapes I got of people on the toilet!” says Wrigley. “It was quite sad really. We’re not interested in endless shots of people having a dump.”

So what are they interested in? “Bringing people together, force them to talk, and work together as a group,” says Wrigley. And if they want to do a bit more than work together, no one will complain. In the Dutch version, two contestants, Bart and Sabine, were filmed having sex. Infra-red cameras and microphones above all the beds in the British house will ensure we don’t miss any action.

But it was here that the schadenfreude instinct kicked in in Holland – at the end of that week viewers voted Sabine out of the house, much to Bart’s frustration. Even more tellingly, when Bart’s pushy attitude resulted in his housemates pleading for his eviction, a quarter of the population voted for him to stay.

“These shows deliver real emotion,” says Tim Hinks from Bazal, the company behind several of the latest crop of TV traumas. “Viewers can’t get enough of it at the moment.” His latest is Flatmates on Channel 4. The show follows a group of existing house-sharers as they search for an occupant for their spare room. We see them interview the nervous applicant. And then we watch them mercilessly tear his or her personality apart. Just like we do at home when we watch people on TV.

“It’s spine-chillingly embarrassing,” admits Hinks. “Usually people would avoid the rejection scene, but we’ve made them say it face to face. It’s riveting to watch.” He compares it to Blind Date – and let’s face it, what’s kept that show going so long is not the stage-managed post-holiday bitchiness, but the very real abuse we hurl at the participants from the other side of the screen.

So where next for the television of cruelty? In a decade we’ve moved from laughing with Clive James at Japanese endurance shows to prime-time psychological torture. Can we go any further than the all-seeing eye of Big Brother?

Perhaps there’s a hint in Hinks’ explanation of how he got the idea for Flatmates. “I was watching that film Shallow Grave, with the scene where they’re doing interviews, and it struck me that everything in that film would translate to TV. Everything up to the point where the guy gets killed.” He pauses, and I swear I can hear a sales pitch forming in his head. “Mind you,” he muses, “you never know these days…”


And here's my review of last year's BB, also from Private Eye on August 5 2005:

Five summers ago, ten young men and women who were only marginally less famous then than they are now moved into a house in east London, and everyone predicted the end of civilization as we know it.
For the most part, however, the first Big Brother housemates just sat around and chatted. They asked questions about each other's lives. They worked their way through the two books each of them was allowed to bring into the house, before swapping and discussing what they thought of them. One of them occasionally strummed a guitar, and she wasn't even the one that was looking for a record contract.
This, according to then executive producer Ruth Wrigley, was what it was all about : "Bringing people together, forcing them to talk, and work together as a group." And they did. When it emerged that one of them was not only plotting to win the game show they had all forgotten they were playing but had also fabricated the tragic life story they had spent their first night in the house avidly discussing, their feelings of betrayal and wounded solidarity made for one of the most riveting hours of television ever broadcast, a piece of genuine drama beyond the reach of any scriptwriter.
Well, obviously that wouldn't do. The denouement didn't arrive until the fifth week, for goodness' sake. By the time series two's big story, the chaste romance between two contestants, even reached its apex of hand holding the show was nearly over. It was reality TV all right, but the time scale was just too, well, realistic.
Fast forward to this May, when the sixth crop of housemates entered the Big Brother house. The books are long gone (too much mental stimulation, not enough entertainment). The psychologists who used to provide a weekly commentary on body language and patterns of group behaviour are gone (they took up time that could have been filled with more footage of nihilistic shouting). But most disturbingly, the conversations are gone as well. Producers managed to select 16 housemates without the slightest interest in finding out anything at all about each other when they could simply shout about themselves instead.
They were utterly selfish, stupid and incapable of working together even on the rare occasions where they tried. Their only skill lay in starting arguments, about anything at all their right to eat each other's food, to have sex with whoever they wanted in the presence of anyone they wanted, to get leglessly drunk or not be condemned for such "good craic" as putting scabs in each other's food, hurling faeces at one another or sticking wine bottles up their vaginas. Most of the time, they simply argued about the fact that they were arguing. All of which, as far as Channel 4 was concerned, made perfect telly.
Big Brother in its 2005 incarnation has gone far beyond Reality TV. It, and the dozens of other shows upon which Channel 4 quaintly continues to bestow that title, are something else, a genre in their own right. Confrontation TV, perhaps. Or ASBO TV Since foul mouthed mother of eight Lizzie Bardsley was rewarded with celebrity status for behaving in a manner that would be deemed unacceptable in an autistic five year old on Wife Swap two years ago, the commissioning process at Channel 4 (which last month gave us the Nightmares Next Door, a kind of Wife Swap Cubed which piled individually vile households on top of each other until they reached critical mass) seems to consist of "never mind the quality, listen to the shouting".
Station bosses virtuously assure anyone who will listen that this is simply a case of snobby television critics failing to recognise the reality of working class life; but to write off an entire section of society as either yobs or fishwives is as disingenuous as to assume that Derek Laud is a fair representation of all Conservatives, or his fellow housemate Craig the distilled essence of gays.
Of course, none of this matters to anyone save the contestants' families so long as the programmes deliver the ratings. But this year's Big Brother doesn't appear to have done even that. Despite the fact that this summer's series ran for longer, had more housemates than ever before, and featured the tabloids' holy grail of on screen intercourse not once but twice, audiences have been significantly down. With none of the housemates actually capable of communicating with one other, let alone forming relationships, there was no chance of an overarching storyline to encourage repeated visits. You could see Craig throwing a hissy fit at Anthony on Day 21, and he was still at it on Day 74.
As the producers of EastEnders are belatedly discovering, week after week of shouting with no character development does not make for a loyal audience. What Channel 4 seems to have failed to ask itself is this: if these people's only selling point is that they are nightmare neighbours, why on earth would viewers want to keep on inviting them into our homes?


As it draws to an end, here's my review of the current Big Brother, from the current issue of Private Eye...

(oh, and incidentally, OMG!!!ASH 2 WIN!!!ROFL!!!!DERMOT U R SO LUSH!!!!NIKKI OUT!!!!!!!!!)

What is it with Channel 4 and shows with the word “Big” in the title? Not since they decided the way to recapture the glory days of Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin on The Big Breakfast was to give their jobs to children’s entertainer Rick Adams and swimmer Sharron Davies has a show been as comprehensively and cluelessly mis-produced as the current run of Big Brother, which limps to a close this Friday after more than a quarter of a year on air.

Mistake number one may have been to fill the house with contestants more in need of emergency intervention from social services than exposure on national TV, but that long since ceased being an issue for the channel which has for several years clogged up its schedules with docuscum programmes like Supernanny, Wife Swap and How Clean is Your House. To make the combination so unbearable that three of them walk within a fortnight – even if you disguise one departure as an expulsion, “punishing” a housemate who has spent two days begging to leave by throwing them out – is more problematic. But changing the rules every five minutes in a blatant attempt to manipulate the outcome and still managing to screw things up looks like carelessness.

First twist came with the Golden Ticket, an exciting sponsorship cash-in which allowed an “ordinary viewer” to enter the house – a wheeze obviously inspired by the inclusion of Chantal in the last series of Celebrity Big Brother, with no one apparently noticing that the point was that that time her fellow housemates weren’t ordinary viewers. Frantic trading on eBay saddled the producers with a choice of 35 desperadoes, most of whom had already been rejected as unsuitable for the show at at least one audition. The winner – Susie – had the papers shrieking “set-up” until it emerged that she was exactly as dull, level-headed and determined not to embarrass herself as you might expect any member of the public plucked at random (as opposed to carefully cultivated through several rounds of auditions) to be.

Then came the House Next Door, so obviously dreamed up in a last minute panic that it had to be crammed into the tiny amount of unused square footage on the studio lot and constructed in full earshot of the housemates, who swiftly and unexcitedly deduced that they were to face the same “surprise” twist that had been sprung around the mid-way point of the last two series. This introduced Jayne, a repellent slab of vileness even by Big Brother standards, whose burping, rulebreaking and thoughtless offensiveness swiftly reduced both housemates and viewers to a state of teeth-grinding misery. Having watched their biggest characters (for which read most obnoxious bullies) get voted out one by one, producers were determined to take no chances with Jayne, and safeguarded her residency by putting everyone else up for eviction, confident that this would sift out one of the boring ones – only to watch spoiled brat Nikki, relentlessly pitched as the show’s one bona fide star, get turfed out by an ungrateful public. Berlusconi-like, producers insisted that this clear democratic choice made from a full field of candidates could only mean that the public wanted to see more of Nikki, and threw the entire principle of the show away in favour of “allowing” viewers to make good their mistake and spend even more of their cash voting her back in. Nikki, carefully groomed by her new agent and inculcated in the relative value of magazine deals for loving couples as opposed to singletons, duly declared her love for Pete on re-entry - at the same time as phoneline watchdog ICSTIS announced an official investigation whcih could result in the programme losing its premium-rate facilities and having to refund every viewer able to point to a wasted vote on their phone bill.

So, what did Big Brother achieve in 2006? Well, it proved that someone with Tourettes has just as much right to humiliate himself on television as anyone else, and that reality stars with disabilities can look forward to a future of being treated like small cuddly pets by fellow contestants and media alike (not that this seems to bother Pete himself, who has long since discovered that this is a very effective way of getting girls with big jubblies to let you cuddle them). It also disposed of the widely-held myth that Tourettes is characterised solely by uncontrollable swearing by housing Pete alongside Lisa, a woman so potty-mouthed she induced feelings of nihilistic despair in all viewers over the age of 17. Having done wonders in the campaign for homosexual equality by launching Brian Dowling on a kids TV presenting career, it clawed back much of the ground gained by presenting us with “Paki poof” Shabaz and “Sexual Terrorist” Richard arguing over who was the biggest embarrassment to gay men. It proved that Davina McCall was not just having an off-month when she presented her BBC chat show (quizzing Grace, a noxious bully who had inspired such hatred that the public had actually been gathering at the studios to chant for her eviction for several weeks, she hit her with the Paxmanesque inquiry “where did you buy your shoes?”). It proved that you cannot pad a few minutes of material out to an hour every night, and still have enough left over for spin-off shows – Big Brother’s Little Brother, Big Brother’s Big Mouth, Big Brother’s Medium-sized Idea Stretched To Breaking Point. And it proved that, like the Big Breakfast before it, this is a franchise that has outlived its time, lost its way and squandered the innovation it once possessed. Last week another broadcaster announced that they planned to bid for the format, which comes up for auction this autumn. That sums it up really: Big Brother – So Bad These Days It Could Be on ITV.

A Ferris Bueller and Scooby Doo reference in the same piece? My proudest moment...

Tony Blair finally flew out to Barbados last Tuesday, having delayed his hoiday by four days because, in the words of his official spokesman, "he will be continuing his intensive diplomacy with world leaders from Downing Street, trying to achieve a UN resolution" on the Lebanon crisis.
Curiously, he seemed to fit in a lot of other work, too. On Monday 7 August, when he had been scheduled to be attending a sun lunger by Sir Cliff's pool, the prime minister managed to launch a new environmental initiative to give subsidised carbon audits to homeowners ("A lot of it's about information to people, because I think people kind of want to do the right thing, but they kind of look at climate change and think: this is so enormous and it's global, how the hell can I do anything about it?"), address the National Black Police Association in Manchester and urge the Senior Salaries Review Board not to grant too large a pay rise to MPs.
He did so in the form of a taped interview with Radio One, a video message and a letter rleased to the Commons. Not content with gagging John Prescott and locking him in his office, Blair appears to have tried, Ferris Bueller-like, to leave enough pre-recorded material behind to convince people he hadn't gone anywhere. And if it wasn't for those pesky terror arrests two days after he skipped the country, he might have got away with it...

A busy week last week.

Ian Hislop was away. Francis Wheen was away. I was covering bits of both their jobs.

Which means that in the edition of Private Eye published this morning (1165), I wrote (deep breath):

The top two stories on page 3, the Number Crunching and Joined-up Government boxes, the "contempt of court, shurely" By Royal Appointment feature on page 4, as well as one of the Street of Shame pieces, How Journalism Works, Number Crunching and Healthwatch: The Daily Mail on page 5, the TV review on page 8, plus one of the Media News pieces, a couple of pieces elsewhere in the paper, and edited the letters page.

Here are a couple of them.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

How odd.

I was interviewed by Chris Evans this afternoon.

Sat in the Eye office, going through the post, and a producer phoned up and said 'one of our listeners has asked us a wierd question about William Lever, the founder of Unilever.'

'I can answer that,' I said. 'I wrote a book about him.'

'Can you come on air?' she said.

So I did.

You can listen to it on the page you get to by clicking the title. It's about 90 minutes into the show, at 6.30pm.

They said the name of the book twice. Three hours later, the hardback had gone up 198,000 places on the Amazon sales listing.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

And a quick look through the Eye's archive turns up this, which I wrote in September 2002 for Eye no. 1063:

No one really expected the papers to keep to their anguished promises five years ago to never use intrusive paparazzi shots ever again, but one might have expected them at least to pretend to keep to the new PCC rules about children that were introduced to protect Princes William and Harry.

“Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion”, the revised code stated, and went on “where material about the private life of a child is published, there must be justification for publication other than the fame, notoriety or position of his or her parents or guardian.”

Still, rules were made to be stretched beyond all recognition, and over the last few weeks several titles have looked more like the Mothercare catalogue than newspapers.

10 September: BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce said she didn’t want to present the evening bulletin because she’d miss her kids – so here’s a full page of pictures of her four-year-old son and ten-month-old daughter in the Daily Mail, courtesy of the long-distance photographers Noble/Draper!
Meanwhile in The Sun, the world’s greatest showbiz columnist Dominic Mohan unveils an exclusive picture that proves Madonna’s five-year-old daughter Lourdes looks a bit like her mum.

9 September: “To his legions of fans around the world, Eric Clapton is Slowhand, rock guitar legend. But to his little daughter Julie Rose, he is simply Daddy.” This page 3 scoop in the Mail is illustrated with four pictures by king pap Jason Fraser. Meanwhile over in The Sun Ken Goff provides a pic of Madonna going for a walk with her son Rocco. He doesn’t look all that much like her. But then he’s only two.

4 September: Both The Sun and Mail have the shock news that 13-year-old Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry Potter, has grown in the last year. Scientific proof is provided by a picture of him walking near his home with his mother, courtesy of Trevor Adams and the Matrix agency.

3 September: Princesses Beatrice (14) and Eugenie (12) arrive home from a summer holiday with their parents to be greeted at the airport by, yes, Jason Fraser. While the Mirror, Sun and Mail all use the picture, only the Mail follows it up with a full page of speculation on “what this picture really tells us about their ‘perfect divorce’”. So snide is the piece that it prompts a letter to the paper from Sarah Ferguson pointing out that the real reason she was looking so angry and her daughters so upset was that they didn’t appreciate having cameras shoved in their faces.
Meanwhile both the Mail and Sun feature several pictures of
Lourdes pushing Rocco in a pushchair. They look a bit like each other. Madonna isn’t even there.

29 August: This time it’s the turn of six-year-old Tiger Lily, daughter of Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence, to go for a walk, and an unnamed photographer is in attendance for The Mail. “Constantly grinning and giggling… the image contrasts poignantly with that of her troubled parents,” gushes showbiz correspondent Nadia Cohen. So nothing to do with the “fame, notoriety or position of his or her parents or guardian” then.

19 August: It’s the turn of the child all this was set up to protect - The Sun has pics from agency Big Pictures of Prince Harry, still one month short of his eighteenth birthday, smoking a cigarette with a friend. The caption is careful to point out that the picture was taken at Beaufort Polo Club in Gloucester. Naturally, if it were taken on the polo fields at Eton College, it would be in blatant breach of the PCC code (“Pupils must not be approached or photographed while at school without the permission of the school authorities”). And that would be disgraceful.

While we're on the topic, I wrote this for The First Post back in May:

The press goes prince-hunting

When Diana died, they promised to leave ‘her boys’ in peace. They lied, says adam macqueen

A couple stand on the deck of their sun-drenched yacht. Her curves are the subject of speculation, appreciation. Her companion is more paunchy, his hair thinning, but the papers still say he is a "hunk". "Onlookers", we are told, believe the royal half of the couple "has never looked so relaxed and happy."
The Caribbean in 2006, or the Med in 1997? The similarities between last week's long-lens snaps of Prince William and girlfriend Kate Middleton, and those of his mother and Dodi Fayed - which sold for record fees a month before their deaths - were startling. Both were sold by one man: Jason Fraser.
If the pictures kick sand in the face of the Press Complaints Commission code, they trample all over the following: "the proprietor of the Daily Mail announced that he will not in future purchase pictures taken by paparazzi"; "the Mirror will work quickly with the PCC to protect her boys from intrusive paparazzi"; "the Sun refuses to use intrusive royal shots". All of them trumpeted their promises after Diana's funeral. All of them printed the pictures of William last week.
This isn't new, of course: newspapers kept Fraser on speed-dial even as they were putting the final touches to their 'Princess of Hearts' specials. But in February, when a French court ruled that three of the photographers who pursued Diana and Dodi were guilty of criminal offences, the flower-laying mob who had bayed for their blood nine years before were silent. These days, when Prince Harry comes out of a nightclub and tries to punch one of the people whom, he read as a child, had caused his mother's death, it's taken as evidence of his unsuitability to do his job.
When pictures of Kate Middleton on a bus were splashed all over the papers recently, her family called in the lawyers. One day soon it may be a car, and perhaps she will ask the driver to put his foot down...

Plus the Eye's by now traditional round-up of summer paparazzi action:

As the ninth anniversary of the tabloids renouncing all paparazzi pictures in the wake of princess Diana’s death approaches, it is good to see that they are only breaking their promises when it is justified by a really vital news story.

So last week we learned that many celebrities like to wear swimming costumes when they are swimming (David Beckham, Sarah Harding, Madonna, Penelope Cruz, Gisele Bundchen and Frank Lampard in the Mail, Sun, Mirror, Express and Star); when not on the beach, they tend to choose clothing appropriate to the prevailing weather conditions (Sienna Miller in the Sun and Mirror, the Countess of Wessex and princess Louise in the Sun and Mail). When on honeymoon they tend to be accompanied by their wives (Ant and Lisa McPartlin, People); on holidays many take their children along as well (Thierry Henry in the Sun, John Terry in the Star). Couples sometimes kiss one another (Prince Harry and Chelsy Davy, Mail, Mirror, Sun; Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake, Mirror, Star; Nadine Coyle and Jesse Metcalfe, People, News of the World), while those who are single sometimes talk to members of the opposite sex (Jenson Button, Mirror, Express, Star and Sun, Jason Statham, Craig David, Star). Eating ice-cream is a popular seaside activity (Nancy Dell’Olio, Sun, Kerry Katona, News of the World). Sometimes they walk down the streets in which they live (Charlotte Church, Mail. Eva Longoria, Star) or streets near where they are staying on holiday (Posh and Becks, Sun); some have been known to visit shops (Prince Harry, Mail, Chelsy Davy, Star). Once they reach their fifties and sixties, celebrities tend to have less impressive physiques than they did when they were in their 20s (Jack Nicholson, Twiggy, Mail; Cheryl Ladd, Sunday Mirror). Some female celebrities may be pregnant, or possibly have just recently eaten (Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Mirror, Express, Star).

The Pope’s religious affiliation is as yet unknown, but as soon as long-lens photographic evidence emerges, readers will be the first to know.

And on the same day, the lead story in the new Eye. Woohoo!

Lest Tony Blair be in any doubt as to the importance attached to him by George W. Bush’s administration, this is a copy of the president’s full itinerary for July 28, as issued to the White House press corps last week:

Friday, July 28, 2006
· President Bush meets with & holds a joint press conference with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair.
·President Bush participates in a Photo Opportunity with the Top 10 American Idol Finalists.
·President Bush participates in a Photo Opportunity with the 2006 Boys and Girls Nation [a national youth debating championship] Delegates.”

A nice front-page puff in today's Times for this:'s Bilbo here. D'you wanna buy some Viagra?
Adam Macqueen
Why is your inbox full of offers for pills? Our correspondent finds the answer in The Hobbit

Bilbo Baggins tried to sell me some Viagra last week. It was a surprise: J.R.R. Tolkien never recorded hobbits’ pharmaceutical pleasures as extending any further than a pouch of tobacco, but nevertheless, there he was in my email inbox alongside an offer for “CIjALIS, AMBjIEN, VALjIUM, VjIAGRA”. “When they had dried in the sun, which was now strong and warm, they were refreshed, if still sore and a little hungry,” one Mokosh Bauder wrote to inform me. “Soon they crossed the ford (carrying the hobbit), and then began to march through.”

Intrigued, I started paying more attention to the dozen or so spam emails that plop uninvited into my inbox every day. It wasn’t long before the Shire’s most famous son returned. Another pill offer was accompanied by the unlikely news that “it was in this way that he learned where Gandalf had been to; for he overheard the words of the wizard to Elrond. It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and,” while an intriguing message from an attractive young lady who was planning on visiting my area suggested she would be accompanied by a green-hooded dwarf by the name of Dwalin. At this rate I’ll have all 317 pages of The Hobbit by the end of the year.

The first “Hobbit spam” was sent in late May by a “zombie network” of some 150,000 virus-infected PCs which were taken over by a mystery spammer, and have since been used to send out hundreds of millions of drug offers while their owners remain oblivious. This particularly sinister method of distributing spam is increasingly popular – industry sources estimate that over 80% of all spam circulating in June was sent by remotely controlled PCs, a jump of 30% from 2005, a direct result of internet service providers cracking down on the formerly popular method of setting up multiple “disposable” accounts using false contact details and stolen credit cards. Earlier this year a 21-year-old Californian hacker was sentenced to five years in prison for running a network of half a million zombie computers around the world. He wasn’t even sending the spam himself – just renting his system out at 100 dollars a time. You probably got some of his mail. Even worse, you might have sent some of it yourself.

So where does Bilbo Baggins come into this? Well, he’s the latest ingenious method that spammers have found of bamboozling security software which does its best to filter out the estimated 68million spam emails which are sent in the UK every day before they reach their destination. This used to be a relatively simple matter – software just looked out for suspicious words and phrases like “porn”, “free investment”, “reverses ageing” and anything that sounded a bit rude, and dumped them straight into the virtual waste paper bin. Determined spammers soon found a way round that by throwing away their dictionaries and inventing words like “pron” “secx” and the aforementioned “VjIAGRA”, which someone with too much time on their hands at the website has worked out can be spelt 600,426,974,379,824,381,952 different ways while still remaining recognizable. This being a tit-for-tat (or possibly a t!t-for-t@t) kind of affair, software developers hit back by trying to second-guess the spammers, with the result firstly that the Horniman Museum in South London spent much of 2004 unable to get any of its emails delivered, and secondly, that a new front was opened on the spam war – one that would ultimately see Mr Baggins and his dwarfish friends fighting a rearguard action against an eighteenth-century Presbyterian minister from Tunbridge Wells.

When his Essay Towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances was published in 1764, it is probably fair to say that the Reverend Thomas Bayes did not foresee its use in the battle against unwanted penis extensions and Russian pornography. In 2002, however, internet giants Google and Microsoft both decided to adopt Bayesian Probability as the basis for the filtering techniques in their software, giving us all a reason to be thankful to the good reverend. Briefly, rather than singling out individual words, Bayesian filtering works on the principle that if the majority of words in an email are ones that are commonly found in spam, it is probably a spam email. Mr Bauder’s simple core message – “CIjALIS, AMBjIEN, VALjIUM, VjIAGRA” – would instantly be identified with a 100% hit rate. Add 37 words of bedtime reading, however, and the dodgy word-rate goes down to a mere 9.8%, well within Bayes’s acceptable score.

It’s not just The Hobbit, of course. Spammers can get round Bayesian filters by attaching strings of random words, giving rise to the phenomenon of “spoetry”, lovingly collected by bloggers worldwide. An English graduate friend of mine recently swore blind she had been emailed by Gerard Manley Hopkins when she received a Viagra offer accompanied by the verse “serpent melon ready-beaten five-figure/
horn chestnut self-occupied two-stream/ Non-Archimedean co-option black-visaged/
pier dam death-divided quinine herb”. But The Hobbit is at least an appropriate choice. The book documents how Baggins, proud to be one of the “plain, quiet folks with no use for adventures” is approached by a mysterious stranger, the wizard Gandalf, and offered a place on a treasure quest which promises to be “very good for you, and profitable too, very likely”. Despite initially rejecting the opportunity (“I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today… Nasty, disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!), he takes a chance and ends up not just a changed hobbit but the recipient of a generous share of a dragon’s hoard, gold, silver and jewels “quite as much as I can manage.” There’s the small matter of a magic ring that will require an entire other trilogy to clear up, of course, but as far as the spammers are concerned, Tolkien’s message is clear. Click here, hand over your credit card details, and let Gandalf worry about the details…