Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Untruths best left unExpressed

From where I sit, there is no huge snow drift to be seen outside the window. And unless the thermometer has shown a sudden extreme dip unpredicted by the Meteorological Office, between my writing this page and you reading it, we are not shivering just now in the grip of “a beast from the East”.
We do not seem, at this moment, to be suffering “the coldest week for 20 years”. Yet that, if you were to believe the big banner headlines on the front page of one national newspaper just four days ago, is what we should be enduring.
Readers of the Daily Express are perhaps disappointed not to be experiencing temperatures “colder than the North Pole”, along with the little thrill that always comes with broken records.
Perhaps they are so used to their paper making sensational claims that they don’t notice when they turn out to be untrue.
Perhaps their memories are too short for them to be wondering now why the weather doesn’t seem to have turned Siberian after all.
In the wake of the Leveson Inquiry I spoke up in these pages for the freedom of the press to remain unrestricted – or at least as relatively unrestricted as it has been up to now. But with rights goes responsibility. And the press – especially one classified as “free” – really does have a responsibility to tell the truth as nearly as it can.
That responsibility is far more important, I would suggest, than whether or not a few phone messages are illegally hacked into. Yet it is a responsibility too often ignored by some sections of what I still want to call Fleet Street.
In one genuine cold snap, a couple of winters ago, the Express ran a front page suggesting a few inches of snow on this little island was evidence that global warming was nonsense.
Anyone with half a brain, and a half-decent education, should have known that it was the Express story that was really nonsense.
It was at least consistent, though, with the campaign the paper has kept up ever since to deny the honest and reputable science on arguably the most vital topic of our times.
Last Friday’s “big freeze” story was presumably part of that campaign, though it wasn’t spelled out as such.
But I was surprised the paper’s headline-writers missed their chance to contribute to its other long-running inaccurate and immoral campaign of bone-headed disinformation.
The opportunity was hinted at in that facile “beast from the East” line.
Yet for some reason they failed to come up with what would surely have been the perfect Express heading: “Migrants Bring Their Evil Weather Here”.


Journalists are all told, at the start of their careers, to avoid clich├ęs “like the plague”. Ho ho. How we all chuckle – and how we all spend the rest of our careers glibly ignoring the advice.
Hence the phrase “national treasure” has been applied so loosely so often to so many tedious half-entities of stage, screen and sporting arena that it has lost nearly all meaning.
There are very few occasions when its use does seem appropriate. One of those few is to describe that genuine treasure, that true moulder of the national consciousness, Patrick Moore, who has died aged 89.
If Sir Patrick, as he became in 2001, often seemed like a throwback to an earlier, quainter, form of Englishness, that seems to have been the way he liked it.
His enormous roaming eyebrows, his monocle, his machine-gun way of speaking, everything about his larger-than-life physical presence resembled a cartoon gentleman from a fantasy 1940s.
Which, in a way, having lied about his age and deceived a medical board in order to join the RAF, is pretty much what he was.
Everything about him smacked of the Biggles adventure. And if his attitudes to life on Earth were sometimes excruciating, his enthusiasm for everything beyond the planet infected us all – from Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May to me.
The enthusing of a young Brian Cox must count among the many “services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting” for which he received that rare thing, a deserved knighthood.
The equally engaging Cox brings the subject of space into our living rooms at a much more informative level. But he could not have done so without the earlier example of Moore, the giant on whose shoulders he stands. 


I could go on at length about the tragic and troubling news story that has dominated the airwaves these past few days. But since just about everyone else has been doing so, I won’t.
Except to make two simple points, which ought to be obvious.
1.      The death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha was very sad.
2.      It was no one’s fault.
Now can we just move on, please?



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