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:

Pssst...it'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 cockeyed.com 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…

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Right. Don't get any ideas. I've got no intention of turning into Iain Dale. I plan to use this blog as a repository for articles I'm particularly pleased with, as well as re-publishing any old stuff that's gathering dust in my cuttings file that I feel deserves an airing.

In other words, it's going to do exactly the same job as the website I've had for the last couple of years (adammacqueen.com), but hopefully be a bit easier to update. Commissioning editors, guest-bookers, publishers and eccentric millionaires please get in touch: as far as everyone else is concerned, I have the same healthily contemptuous approach to letter-writers as my main employer, Private Eye. If it's vigorous debate and inventive swearing you're after, there's plenty of other places on the net for you. And remember, kids, Comment bloody well Isn't Free: it charges by the word like everything else.


We'll kick off with this, from the last Eye (1163). It was the lead in the mag's HP SAUCE section:

The Labour party’s fightback against the cash-for-honours scandal came on the morning after Lord Levy’s arrest, with a full-page advert in the Times signed by such fine and upstanding luminaries as Eddie Izzard, Alex Ferguson Patrick Stewart and, er, Nicky Gavron, proclaiming that “we believe in a Britain where enterprise and aspiration are combined with fairness and social justice… that’s why we’re proud to help fund the Labour party.”

Top of the list was Simon Woodroffe, founder of the Yo! Sushi chain and a bona fide celeb thanks to his appearances on BBC2’s Dragon’s Den. Radio Five Live tracked him down that afternoon to talk about the advert.

Peter Allen (presenter): What was the point of doing it today? Was it deliberately chosen?
Woodroffe: I don’t know, I never heard that.
PA: Leaving aside the timing, you give money to the party, do you?
SW: I’ve never given any money to the party. I have it in my mind to do that, I haven’t as yet.
PA: Are you going to?
SW: You know, as time unfolds, all will become clear.
PA: Awaiting the right offer, are you?
SW: No, they gave me an OBE in the last Queen’s honours list. There was no negotiation involved, ha ha!
… PA: I’m interested to know you haven’t made one, because the press office of the Labour party seems to think you’ve given them a thousand quid. You really haven’t given them anything at all?
SW: As yet, no.

With PR as brilliant as that, the scandal is bound to be forgotten in no time!