Friday, June 30, 2006

Guilty Pleasures

I have a terrible confession to make. I allowed the DVD rental people to send me the first two discs of the 1956-7 Adventures of Sir Lancelot TV series. And what is even worse, I rather liked them.

I assume that Sir Lancelot was a follow-up to the Richard Greene Adventures of Robin Hood. It does the same spinning round thing with the titles; and it has an annoyingly catchy theme song over the closing credits. "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen..." became a chart hit. "Come listen to my story/come listen while I sing/of days of old in England/when Arthur was the King..." presumably didn't.

I rented the thing because I wanted to see William Russell in some role other than Ian Chesterton. But I was disappointed. Sir Lancelot is in all respects the same character as Ian. He has the same combination of self-effacing modesty and square-jawed resolution. His relationship with Merlin is precisely the same as Ian's relationship with the first Doctor. Lancelot is an endless fount of general knowledge. He not only knows the quote about doing as the Romans do while you are in Rome; he also remembers that it was St. Ambrose who said it.. When Merlin wants to preserve an ancient book by Archimedes, Lancelot is the only knight who has heard of him. When Merlin has the amazingly original idea of using pigeons to carry messages, it's Lancelot who points out that the same thing was tried by Solomon. He imparts this information in a self-effacing but resolute way. One might almost think that in a previous life he'd been some kind of school teacher . He certainly comes across on the jousting field as a patient but demanding cricket master. "It's not enough to be quite good in this game. You have to be very good indeed....". (He pronounces it all as one word, veddygoodindeed.) His relationship with his squire, Brian, also recalls Ian's relationship with Susan. Lancelot always knows best, and won't put up with any nonsense, but he's honest and upfront with the lad. ("Do knights really keep their vows? says Brian. "Some do, and some don't." replies Sir Ian. "You can beat them, can't you?" says Brian when Lancelot is about to fight some anachronistic gladiators. "I don't know Brian" says our hero "I just don't know.")

And as was so often the case in Doctor Who one feels that William Russell is an Actor with a capital A. It is often very obvious that he is "carrying" the rest of the cast. He delivers even the corniest lines with a light, naturalistic touch. He does his best not to upstage the drama-school hams he's surrounded by. But you get a sense he's wondering why he's on children's TV when he really wanted to be a matinee idol.

The world of Sir Lancelot is a world of strange accents and even stranger haircuts. The real star of the show is Sir Kay's false moustache. Squire Brian is introduced as a kitchen-lad; and for the first few episodes, he sometimes remembers to talk in mummerset, but he soon gives up and reverts to RADA posh. ("I shell try orfally hard to be brave" he says, before being dragged off to be tortured by Sir Someone-or-other.)

These are boys stories: about boys, for boys. The Knights of the Round Table are big boys; interested in boyish things like fighting, and – well, fighting, basically. The squires are smaller boys. Apart from Brian, they don't have names; and they go about in a group, rather as if they were the Round Table (Junior Division). The big boys are generally nice to the younger boys; even though they sometimes have to tell them off. When Merlin complains that Brian is playing pranks, Lancelot laughs that that is how boys are, and says that even Merlin must have been a boy once – but he backs Merlin in giving Brian extra chores. King Arthur is the only proper grown-up, and he says things like "I can see from your face that you have been punished enough." Merlin is very old and wise but the boys can go to him for advice. ("I don't mean to interrupt your work" says Lancelot. "Helping knights who are in trouble is part of my work" says Grandfather.) Clearly, Camelot is either a Scout camp or a public school. When William Russell takes a week's holiday and Brian gets a story to himself, the whole thing turns into Sir Thomas Brown's School-days. Another lad dares Brian to sneak into the girls dormitory and steal Matron's nightcap. ("It was only a lark, Sire.") Why there is a girls dorm at Camelot, we never find out.

There are grown up Ladies as well. They are there mainly for decoration. They get abducted by evil knights, in which case Sir Lancelot rescues them -- although they have a disconcerting tendency to admit that they actually quite like their captors. Sometimes, it's Sir Lancelot who gets captured by evil knights, in which case Ladies visit him in his cell and do him unexpected kindnesses, often involving keys. When Lancelot disagrees with Arthur (about one episode in three), Guinevere sometimes says "My Lord, perhaps Lancelot is in the right in this case." Uncouth knights often have gentle sisters who nevertheless love them and can appeal to their better natures. When foreign knights visit Camelot, Guinevere shows them round the castle. There are no nuns or witches. Even female peasants seem to be in rather short supply.

It's rather well staged; it looks like more time was spent in National Trust castles than in the studios. The costumes show signs of having been glanced at by an historical adviser. There are no battles -- it seems to be possible to besiege a castle with two knights and one catapult -- but there are enough extras for fairly impressive skirmishes. On foot, combat is desperately theatrical: swords clash above our heads and then below our waists, before Lancelot pushes Sir Nasty with his shoulder and orders him to yield. Spiral staircases, battlements, and rooms with lots of furniture in them are the best places for a sword-fight. If you lose your sword, you can generally make do with a candlestick; or if that fails, a piece of wood. Sir Lancelot seems to find mounting and dismounting his horse rather difficult, and can look a little awkward in mounted close ups...but as soon as he puts his visor down, he miraculously becomes a rather competent horseman. The jousting is really done very nicely indeed.

The theme song proclaims, a trifle ambitiously that Lancelot has fought a million battles and never lost a-one. This presents problems for the writers, but they show some ingenuity in coming up with plots which challenge Sir Invincible. On St. Stephen's Day, all the knights take a vow not to carry arms, and to do whatever their squires tell them, which is inconvenient, considering that that's the very day Sir Baddy steals Excalibur. Sir Wimp goes off to rescue his Lady's father on his own, although he is no match for Sir Villain; Lancelot must follow in secret and help Sir Wimp beat Sir Villain while keeping his honour. Sir Newbie is a skilled warrior but loses his nerve in actual fights; Lancelot must find a way to give him some self-confidence. And Arthur keeps finding that in the case of this particular urgent and crucial mission, it would make sense for a single knight to go alone.

Connections with any known Arthurian legend are few and far between. In episode 1, Lancelot and Guinevere exchange significant glances. Morgana le Fey gets name checked, but doesn't appear. All supernatural elements are resolutely debunked. Merlin lets the knights think he has magic powers but it's really done with pulleys, levers. semaphore, chemistry and carrier pigeons. Excalibur is nothing more than a symbol. Lancelot spins a yarn about finding his own sword in a lake, and some credulous folk take it seriously.

It is never camp or ironic; it never tries to be clever. It's a series of 25 minutes stories about knights-in-armour and you have to accept it for what it is. In 1955, cameras were clunkier and editing rooms less efficient: actors were presumably given their scripts on Monday and shot the episode on Friday. So there's no scope for visual trickery, no swift cuts or cinematic niceties. Scene follows scene with nothing but simple narrative to carry the day. Something surprising happens; which leads to another surprising thing; which leads to yet another surprising thing – and so on until Brian or Merlin but usually Lancelot comes up with a surprising stratagem to save the day. Arthur puts the crown jewels on display in Sir Someone's abbey. After he has gone, robbers emerge through a trap door and take the jewels! Merlin tells Brian to take his pigeons to Coventry as punishment for another prank. On the way, Brian hitches a lift on a wagon. The wagon is then hijacked by the jewel thieves! Brian finds the jewels, and uses the pigeon to send word to Merlin. The thieves catch Brian, and lock him up in their castle..... Sophisticated it is not, but I kept on watching because I wanted to know what happened next.

I don't know. Lack of sophistication is not automatically a virtue. Black and white photography does not excuse all narrative sins. (The series eventually goes to colour, which is a mistake. You mean Arthur dressed his men at arms in bright pink?) A regular diet of plot-plot-plot would become as indigestible as a regular 1950s diet of meat-and-two-veg. And it goes without saying that I think that Ladies can do things apart from look pretty. Some ladies, any way. Yet in world which sometimes feels 'tired with the weight of too much liberty', there is something very appealing about an age when TV thought that its main task was to tell a story which actually made sense. And there's something naively attractive about the unapologetic boyishness of the whole thing. (I think that "boyishness" is the word I am looking for: male, but in no sense laddish or macho. Finding a gay subtext, particularly in the Lancelot/Brian relationship, would be like shooting peasants in a barrel.) I don't really want to go back to a time when such TV shows were the norm; but then; I don't especially want to live in a world where you solved disputes by sitting on horses and hitting each other very hard with sharp metal objects. I never really enjoyed Scout Camp very much. But it's great fun to imagine that there was a mythical past where such things were so.

"In days of old...when knights were bold...this story's told...of Lancelot!"

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Doctor Who Series 2 Episode 11

I think that may have been the worst episode of Doctor Who I have ever seen.

Doctor Who Series 2 Episodes 4-10

The writer promises plenty of special effects and something very action film-y, but won't say where the action is set. "Even answering that is giving too much away", he says.
Radio Times 13-19 May, p 14

7.00 Doctor Who - Rise of the Cybermen: The Tardis is trapped on a parallel Earth.
Radio Times 13-19 May p 68.

Doctor Who continues to exhaust superlatives.

I can't quite decide whether the one with Satan and the black hole is the best Doctor Who story of all time, or merely the best since the departure Tom Baker. Certainly, it was the first since the re-launch to genuinely feel like an episode of Doctor Who. It stuck very closely to the classic formula; trapping a small group of named characters in some remote location and then having it infiltrated by monsters. And even more importantly, someone got to run down a corridor!

This story put right a lot of what I said was wrong with episodes 1 – 3. The pacing was greatly improved. We were introduced to the crew of the sanctuary base in their ordinary situation – dealing with routine emergencies, eating at their canteen. We paused for breath long enough to find out their names and jobs. So when the horror started, we were able to give a damn. When Scooti fell into the black hole, I felt sad. (When Sir Robert got eaten by the werewolf, I said "Wait a minute, which one was he again?")

The story contained some genuinely scary ideas -- and gave us time to be scared of them. I'm not primarily thinking of Satan himself. The idea of an ancient-evil imprisoned by a long-dead-race is a bit of a cliché even by Doctor Who standards, although the production team milked it for all it was worth. For once, the monster was big enough, both literally and metaphorically, to live up to the build-up. But poor Toby with the alien writing over his face was much more unnerving than the big red horned roary thing. But the psychological stuff was much more genuinely scary: lowering the Doctor into a dark, bottomless pit; making him leap into the darkness; leaving Rose at the top of the shaft, linked to him only by a crackly radio. The pacing is perfect: a five minute scene of the Doctor dangling ten miles underground in the pitch dark, idly discussing the nature of "evil" with Ida gives us time to imagine ourselves in that vertiginous darkness. Would we have had the guts to jump? Any self-respecting kid ought to be having nightmares about this for weeks to come.

The Buffyfication of the story was kept within reasonable limits. Too often, RTD's soap operatics are unrelated to the story in which they are embedded. Here, the Doctor\Rose scenes emerge naturally from the situation. With the TARDIS gone forever (yeah, right) the two of them do have to think about what they are going to do from now on.

Perhaps the ending was a little rushed; perhaps we could have done with two lines of explanation about why the lettering was appearing on people's faces, and why the Ood's communication device suddenly turned into a weapon. Perhaps there is a problem with the Doctor now having complete control over the TARDIS: where he used to be an aimless wanderer, he's now a tourist. But that means he's now sitting on a gigantic plot device: the whole story would have been undermined if he could have used the TARDIS to beam down to the bottom of the hole and then beam up again. So the first ten minutes of the episode had to involve the TARDIS being lost (forever) when only two weeks ago we had it breaking down (forever) – both plot devices shored up by over-the-top dramatic scenes in which the Doctor agonizes about spending eternity as a TARDISless Time Lord.

Oh....and just in case you think that RTD is neglecting the needs of asexual fanboys. In episode two, the Doctor refers to a number of planets where the myth of the horned beast exists. One of the planets he mentions is called Daemos – which is, of course, the home of the eponymous Daemons

But at the other extreme was the one with the Coronation, which could stand as a capsule history of how RTD has buggered up the show. The story had a certain amount of potential. The idea of an ordinary domestic appliance becoming threatening has the right mix of horror and surrealism. The idea of a TV which talks back to you is intriguingly spooky. It was smart to set the thing in the 1950s when TV was a new technology. (Black-and-white BBC accents being beamed out of Ally Pally is very much the milieu in which Doctor Who first emerged.) The pre-cred sequence was distinctly good: the man working late in his TV repair shop; the aerial being struck by lightning; the face on the TV screen coming to life and talking to him; the strange light sucking the man into the screen. It was quite cool to make "Are you sitting comfortably...then I'll begin" into a sinister line, if only because Americans won't get the reference. However nothing in the episode made sense of this prologue; and nothing interesting seemed to follow from it.

The story made no kind of sense to me. The alien is made from radio waves, and therefore can inhabit people's TVs: fine. But were we supposed to think that she was inhabiting individual sets and jumping between them; or that she was somehow being transmitted to every TV in the country simultaneously? The ending, in which she is “trapped” on a video tape seemed to imply the former: but in which case why was it particularly significant that on coronation day, lots of people would be watching TV at the same time? And why did it suddenly become so urgent to stop her getting to the transmitter? The alien in some way feeds on people's brain energy; fine, that's the kind of thing which aliens do. So why did the faces of her victims suddenly start appearing on TVs? And why does having your brain eaten make your face go blank? And why isn't Mr Magpie the shop owner, who's eaten in the pre-cred, one of the faceless people?

If you are prepared to disengage your brain then the story does include some passable swashbuckling – the sequence where the Doctor has to climb the mast of Alexander Palace is quite exciting, although not nearly as good as the previous week's equally vertical Zeppelin sequence. But we never really find out who the alien is or what is motivating her and since we don't know how she works, we can't feel impressed or satisfied by the Doctor's scheme to defeat her. Or even understand what he's meant to have done.

The actual narrative comes in the completely inept Buffy section, which appears to have been the result of ten minutes of brainstorming. What can we remember about the 1950s? Er...Men tended to be quite sexist in those days. And everyone lived in extended families. OK, so we'll have a sub-plot about a family of stereotypes -- smart nerdy young boy, sexist overbearing dad, weak mum, granny living upstairs. This did yield one reasonably funny scene, where Rose tells off Overbearing Father for hanging the Union Flag upside down. Every week, David Tennant gets to do either an Angry speech or else an It's-little-people-who-save-the-world" speech. This week, he pretended to be very, very angry because Rose's brain had been sucked into the alien TV screen – a slight over-reaction I felt – it's not like this is the first time he's ever had to rescue a companion. So his little-people-save-the-world-speech got passed to the Smart Nerdy Young Boy. It seems that when Maureen Lipman ate Granny's face, Overbearing Dad grassed her up to the police, because having a faceless granny in the attic would damage his social position. Or something. When Smart Young Boy finds this out he explains, at some length that he (Dad) had fought the Nazis in order to prevent this kind of thing from happening. The most one can say is that I didn't physically throw up.

The Radio Times, which exists to puff BBC programmes said that episode contained "longueurs". So there you have it: even the most incredibly rushed stories are not fast moving enough for the target audience. Presumably, if you are one of the faceless people who forgot to switch off after having your brain sucked out by Graham Norton, you don't need or expect Doctor Who to make sense. All you want are monsters and chase scenes to distract you while you stare at the big flickery light in the corner. It's only nerdy, studious boys in grey jumpers who think stories ought to have some underlying logic to them. But they're asexual mummy's boys. Maybe we can beat it out of them.

The one with the Cybermen was quite the best TV Cyberman story since "Silver Nemesis". It was derivative, had no real flair, and contained possibly the worst resolution to any cliffhanger ever. On the other hand, it had a nice flamboyant climax, with the Doctor and the Cybercontroller dangling off a Zeppelin (The Doctor has been doing a lot of dangling this year.) There were some tense scenes with Rose infiltrating the Cyberman base; and some well-done suspense as the Doctor and "Mrs. Moore" sneak past the row of inert Cybermen, who are obviously about to come to life. Solid, entertaining, and well-mounted: if we could have this kind of thing every week, I'd stop moaning.

Last season's Daleks are pretty much the Daleks of old with some added chrome – a lot of the energy of the three Dalek episodes depended on the fact that the Doctor had a history with these creatures. This time around, RTD has cleared the decks and re-started from the original premise as if there had never been a Cyberman story before. These are emphatically not the Cybermen of old. Some kind of re-imagining was certainly necessary. Kit Pedler created a rather spooky story about some humans who'd replaced their whole bodies with prostheses; but decades of stories had reduced them into one more race of space faring megalomaniacs -- not something which the Doctor Who universe has ever been particularly short of. The new Cybermen are precisely, word-for-word, the creatures who we were introduced to in 1966. To quote from the novelization of the first Cyberstory:

"Mondas...isn't that one of the ancient names for Earth.”

Yes. Aeons ago the planets were twins. Then we drifted away from you to the very edge of space. Now we have returned... We are called Cybermen. We were exactly like you once. Then our Cybernetic scientists realised that our race was our scientists and doctors invented spare parts for our bodies until we could be almost completely replaced.”

But that means you're not like us. You're not people at all, you're...robots.”

That is not so. Our brains are just like yours except that certain...weaknesses have been removed.”....

Weaknesses? What weaknesses?”

You call them emotions, do you not?"

The only thing which has changed is that the new Cybermen come from a parallel earth, as opposed to earth's twin planet : a distinction that would presumably be lost on the Graham Norton audience.

The, for want of a better word, genesis of the Cybermen has not been shown on screen before; although it was covered in a rather good Big Finish audio by Marc Platt. For some reason, RTD gave Platt a credit at the end, which only served to underline how pedestrian writer Tom MacRae's high-tech future earth was by comparison with Platt's claustrophobic Orwellian Telos. And making the Cyberman the creation of an hubristic nutter in a wheel chair inevitably made us think "Son, you're no Michael Wisher".

As a piece of design, the Cybermen were rather brilliant. Only the handlebars and the funny shaped eyes made them recognisable as Cybermen; but they brilliantly avoided any sense of being "actors in metal suits." I don't really believe that such a high tech world would have to make do with robots which were so literally clunky, but belief could be suspended because they looked so cool.

Do you know what's really cute? The writers of Doctor Who still sometimes try to write, like, stories, with, like, twists and surprising revelations and everything, even though they know that every single member of the audience will have been told the whole plot in advance. Anything the BBC doesn't give away in the trailer will be in Radio Times, and anything Radio Times misses out will be splashed on the tabloids. MacRae constructed his story as if there was a mystery associated with what Lumic was trying to create, even though this was given away in the actual title; and he tried to create a tense build-up to the moment when we first saw the monsters, even though there were detailed schematics in Radio Times and a close up of the face on the cover.

I can't imagine why anyone thought it was a good idea to put Pete Tyler in the story. The Mickey of Earth-2 and his rebels were a promising supporting cast, but their screen time got squeezed out by this very inferior retread of the one with Rose's father in season 1. Again, one can't help thinking that RTD put something cool into the trailer and the pre-cred, but couldn't think of anything to do with it in the actual story.

I don't want to come over all Daily Express here, but did you notice that consecutive episodes offered us

a) the President of an alternative Britain who just happened to be black

b) the only street in the whole of 1950s London where stereotyped black families are fully integrated with the stereotyped white people and

c) the captain of a spaceship in the Far Future (TM) who just happened to be black.

The BBCs diversity policy is doubtless a good thing, but I am afraid I hear the sound of boxes being ticked. Would anyone take a bet that companion number 2 will be a black girl with a white boyfriend?

Which brings us to the French one and the one with Peter Kay. These are essentially two different versions of the same story. It feels as if this weeks exercise in the Doctor Who writer's workshop was "Write a story in which the Doctor meets the same character at several different times during their lives." Stephen Moffat came up with a tragedy; Russell Davies himself came up with a comedy.

I am rather ambivalent about these stories. There is one part of me which says "These are not Doctor Who stories, but stories which happen to have Doctor Who in them. This is exactly the kind of thing which needs to be done if Doctor Who is going to have any kind of future on TV." The other part of me says "These kinds of stories are a great mistake: they indicate that the new series is on the point of vanishing up its own backside, or more precisely, up the old series' backside." But I don't think I'm nearly as ambivalent about the episodes as they are about themselves.

Both stories ruthlessly break away from the series conventions, which can only be a good thing. The one with Peter Kay is practically the first story since 1963 which takes someone outside of the TARDIS crew as viewpoint character. The idea that the Doctor has left traces during his many travels, and that he could therefore be the subject of study by people who have never met him is very interesting. I almost felt that it was a cop out for the Doctor and Rose to appear in the story at all: couldn't Elton and his friends have defeated the monster all by themselves – say by using a Doctorish stratagem that they'd learned in their studies? I also felt that it was a mistake for the monster to be so obviously ludicrous: given the tongue-in-cheek storyline, it would have been better for the antagonist to have been genuinely menacing.

The French one is slightly more conventional: it has monsters, it begins with the TARDIS materialising on board a rickety old space-ship which may even contain the odd corridor. However, its central theme – of the Doctor making repeated visits to an historical person, so we see them in childhood, youth and middle-age – hasn't really been touched on before. While the story wasn't told from her point of view, we were repeatedly asked to look at the Doctor through Reinette's eyes. And of course, the idea of the Doctor having a romantic relationship with this weeks guest-star is a major breach of taboo.

So: both writers were trying pretty hard not to produce Doctor Who stories. But, with an almost Oedipal ambivalence, both of them were writing quite explicitly and deliberately about Doctor Who: how we remember Doctor Who, our nostalgia for Doctor Who; our 'love' of Doctor Who, the way in which some of us have made a hobby out of studying and analysing Doctor Who; the way in which we associate Doctor Who with our childhood dreams and our childhood nightmares.

This is, in my view, a pretty risky strategy. Yes, for many people who grew up in the 60s or 70s, Doctor Who is charged with the kind of importance we just don't give to any other TV show: more, in fact, than it ever objectively deserved. Yes Doctor Who is a magical character. But for the TV series itself to acknowledge this is tantamount to scrumping from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You lose your innocence and replace it with ironic self-awareness. I don't think Doctor Who can afford that.

The French story was about the Doctor as a character. The brilliant opening scenes, in which the clockwork man menaced the child Reinette in her bedroom was very aware fact that children traditionally watch Doctor Who from "behind the sofa"; that many people's childhood bogeymen were Dalek-shaped. There is literally a monster under Reinette 's bed which the Doctor appears and saves her from it. (Have you noticed, by the way, how few actual children there were in the original series, and how many there have been in the new one?) The Doctor's line about everyone having nightmares about monsters under the bed but the monsters having nightmares about him is a very good, but very self-conscious line. When the Doctor returns, years later Reinette specifically compares him with an imaginary childhood friend. Towards the end, she tells Rose that "the Doctor is worth the monsters". "Monster" is not a phrase which has often been used on-screen before. The Doctor talks about creatures or alien life-forms: it's children watching the programme, and journalists writing about it, who talk about Doctor-Who-Monsters. The fact that Reinette thinks of the Doctor as a childhood dream come to save her from her childhood nightmares indicates that we have, in a complicated way, stepped out of the frame and started commenting on the series itself.

(A very similar thing was done a few years ago in a spoof episode starring Rowan Atkinson, also scripted by Stephen Moffatt. The Doctor is apparently dying, and "Emma's " eulogy is perhaps the best summing up of the magic of Doctor Who that anyone has ever written -- as will as a not very thinly veiled plea to the BBC to bring the show back. "Doctor, listen to me. You can't die, you're too nice. Too brave, too kind and far, far too silly. You're like Father Christmas, the Wizard of Oz, Scooby Doo, and I love you very much. And we all need you and you simply cannot die!...He was never cruel and never cowardly, and it'll never be safe to be scared again. " You may however, think that a Comic Relief sketch is a better vehicle for this kind of thing than a canonical TV episode.)

The Peter Kay story, on the other hand, was primarily interested in the ways in which people are affected by Doctor Who the TV show. The social inadequates who made a hobby out of studying the actually-existing "Doctor" represented Doctor Who fandom. The characters were very likeable; and the plot gently amusing despite the extreme unsubtlesness of the symbolism. It's true that fandom often goes off at strange tangents, so that a member of a Sherlock Holmes society might well be more interested in recreating Victorian menus than re-reading the works of Conan Doyle. However, the idea of a Doctor Who club suddenly listening to member's unrelated amateur fiction or forming an unrelated pop-group isn't really plausible: that's not how hobby based societies tend to work. (Read Dork Tower for an accurate portrayal of the foibles of geek culture.) Still, we get the point: a group of nerdy people get together to talk about the Doctor (bad); but as a result of this common interest they make friends and start having sex (good); but then a bad person comes along and tries to make them study the Doctor more seriously (bad); but as a result, our hero learns that life apart from Doctor Who can still be fun, and ends up with a disembodied girlfriend who gives him blowjobs and lives happily ever after. "I used to be a Doctor Who fan, but I'm all right now": the most extreme example so far as RTDs need to very affectionately stab his core constituency in the back. If I am right in drawing an analogy between RTD's approach to Doctor Who and Blair's approach to the labour party, then this was the Clause 4 moment.

There is a long-standing legend among asexual fans that certain very bad aliens from the black and white era – the Krotons are popular candidates, as are the Quarks – were the results of a Blue Peter Design-a-Monster competition. Blue Peter did indeed run such a competition; and the lucky winner did indeed see his monster brought to "life" by the BBC special effects department; but the monster never appeared in Doctor Who itself. RTD obviously thought that it would be a wheeze to make this fan-legend come true, so the absorbatron really was designed by an artistically inclined kiddie. There is something deeply ironic about having embedded a fan in-joke in a story which is a rather cruel satire about Doctor Who fandom.

Going back to France for a moment: listen very carefully, I shall say this only once. I think that the relationship between the Doctor and Madame De Pompadour was believable and well-handled. However, the point at which romantic encounters between the Doctor and his supporting cast become a regular fixture of the programme is the point at which I will lose all interest in it. Stephen Moffat appears to think that Doctor\Companion relationships have always been based on eros rather than philia, and that I somehow invented the idea that the Doctor and Sarah were mates rather than lovers out of my own asexual head. He is, of course, free to tell whatever revisionists fibs he wants to. He obviously has a bit of thing about the Doctor's sex-life: the aforementioned very good Moffat scripted Rowan Atkinson spoof began with the premise that the Doctor was going to retire and get married, and ended up with the revelation that the sonic screwdriver had a vibrator attachment. But even the highly oversexed Mr Moffat ought to have spotted that, from 1963-2006, the Doctor has been mysterious, distant, alien, elevated, unattainable, awesome, numinous, mercurial and above all, other. This mystique would disperse if he were to transform into a Captain Kirkalike with a girl in every time-port. Once you have removed the Doctor's mystique, what you are left with is a lot of sci-fi cliches and bit part actors in rubber costumes. Note that Moffat doesn't even ask why the Doctor shouldn't fall in love; he asks why, he shouldn't date. For the same reason that Gandalf can't "date".

So, over all, I am quite a happy asexual fanboy. Taken as a whole, episodes 4-10 have been pretty good: four excellent episodes; two interestingly experimental ones; and only one stinker. But still – I can't get rid of the sense that there is something missing.

Series 1, whatever its faults, kept on surprising me. Davies kept wrong-footing us about where he was going. We didn't expect Rose to keep going home and visiting her Mum; we didn't expect Mickey to become an ongoing character; and we didn't expect the series to end on a regeneration – or at any rate, we wouldn't have done if the Sun hadn't told us. We only gradually realized that there was a plot arc going on, and that the drip-drip-drip revelations about Gallifrey and the Time War were much more important than any individuall story. We started out complaining that people other than the Doctor kept on saving the day – and gradually realized that the Doctor's loss of self-confidence is one of the things the season was about.

The relationship between the Doctor and Rose was one of the really good things about Series 1. We had a companion who appeared to be a living human being who was growing and changing as a result of her experiences on the TARDIS. (One of the worst results of RTD's prejudice against the asexual community is that we never got to see Rose's reaction the first time she visited an alien planet.) The Rose who almost stayed behind with Mickey in the one with the autons is a very different woman from the one who decides that "someone has to be the Doctor" in the Christmas episode. The Rose who the Doctor kisses at the end of the one with the Daleks has grown up a great deal compared with the Rose who bought the Doctor a bag of chips on their first "date". But sadly, the first series now looks like a completed story-arc, which resolved Rose's story as far as it can be resolved; leaving series 2 feeling awfully like an un-necessary sequel. Rose is a character out of a soap opera, not a novel. She fancies the Doctor, she is breaking up with Mickey, she misses her Mum, she never knew her Dad. Having used up all her plot hooks in season 1, she seems to spend season 2 flailing around looking for something to do. The only sense of forward motion came in the one with Sarah Jane, where the Doctor appeared to acknowledge that he was having a romantic relationship with Rose, but admitted that it couldn't go any further. The one with Queen Victoria hinted that they might settle into the role of two students, romping through space being vaguely naughty but nothing further came of this.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see how Christopher Eccleston was squirming every time an interviewer asked him how long he hoped to play the Doctor for. He gave evasive answers like "We'll have to see" and "Well, I've already made the equivalent of two seasons", which we now realize meant "I've already turned into David Tennant, but I'm not allowed to tell you because Russell is still innocent enough to think that he might take you by surprise." In the Season 2 Radio Times special, Billie Piper is asked whether she is going to do Season 3. She responds:

"If I tell you about my future than I'll completely ruin the ending of Episode 13. It's so brilliant, so worth waiting for. Watch and see."

and David Tennant says

"We've just about finished this series and I'm fairly certain I'll do the next one...Although we've yet to record the closing seconds of Episode 13 – literally anything could happen. Who knows who's coming back."

Ah. Well that's pretty clear then; particularly with Satan prophesying that Rose will fall in battle and the tabloids telling us that Billie has quit the show. I have some slight hope that RTD is engaged in a complex double bluff, and he's telling us that Rose is going to be killed off so we'll all be really surprised when she survives. But despite the fact that he can write very funny dialogue, I somehow doubt if he's that clever.

Mickey has suffered rather worse. There was was less to him to begin with so his growth, from pure comic relief to actual subordinate hero was more dramatic. In truth all his plot threads were neatly tied up during the one where Downing Street explodes. The Doctor no longer thought he was an idiot; but Mickey himself knew he wasn't hero material. All of his subsequent appearances put him though the same process of "realising" that he could never compete with the Doctor, and that whatever he and Rose had had was basically over. Somewhere between Season 1 and Season 2, someone pressed the "reset" button; and the Doctor – who had wanted him on the TARDIS in Season 1 – started going over the same "Mickey the Idiot" material again. The promising notion of giving him a stint as a TARDIS companion was basically wasted: his only function in the French story was to give Rose someone to talk to while the Doctor was off flirting with Madame De Pompadour. He had more to do the one with the Cybermen, but it turns out that he was only there in order to be written out. It would have been more interesting to have killed off Earth-1 Mickey and taken on Earth-2 Mickey as a companion. But in narrative terms, we have to remain basically sympathetic to the Doctor; and the motr often we saw him flirting with Rose in front of Mickey, the more likely we were to see him as a cad.

The most surprising thing in Season 1 – the thing which makes even the weakest stories worth repeated viewings – was the ninth Doctor. Resolutely un-Doctorish, he kept on surprising us about how much like the Doctor he really was. The tenth Doctor is a perfectly adequate characterization: mixing the zaniness of Tom Baker with the occasional callousness of, er, Tom Baker. He has a very nice line in comic asides; and I really like the way his joie de vivre seems to have been restored. "Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, two Mickeys" is probably the best one liner of the series so far. It would be nice if he could master more than three different emotions; and it would be nice if he could deliver his "big speeches" without making a funny face with his upper lip and shouting. I like him; I believe in him; I could imagine him running down a 1970s wobbly corridor. But he doesn't appear to have any surprising secrets left to reveal. He never does anything unexpected. There is nothing dangerous about his characterization.

When all is said and done, the thing which is missing from Series 2 is, in fact, Christopher Eccleston.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Notes from a parallel universe

Ten things I learned by reading the Daily Express

1: Princess Diana Was Murdered. And somebody is responsible!

On August 31st 1997, the car in which Diana, Princess of Wales was a passenger crashed into a concrete pillar at 110 mph. The Princess was not wearing a seatbelt. The driver was drunk. So what could possibly have caused her death? For nine years, the Daily Express has been trying to solve this mystery. A few months ago, it proposed the theory that she was poisoned.

On Monday, May 8th the paper announced a new breakthrough.

Princess's body was illegally embalmed to cover up pregnancy.

It is worth spending five minutes studying this report, because it provides an excellent seminar on how to create a Daily Express 'news' story.

a: Start with a headline which suggests that something Very Important has happened.

'Diana’s Death: Truth at Last' suggests that the Express has discovered the real circumstances of Diana's death. If this were true (and if it differed from the official story that she died in a car crash) then this would be certainly be one of the most sensational news 'scoops' of all time.

b: Then print a sub-headline which reveals that the news is not quite as exciting as the headline promised.

It turns out that the Express has not discovered the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the death of Princess Di. It has merely discovered one additional fact about what happened to her mortal remains. The sub-headline makes four separate allegations, any one of which would represent a moderately sensational discovery:

a: the Princess was embalmed;

b: this embalming was illegal;

c: the Princess was pregnant at the time of her death;

d: she was embalmed because someone wanted to conceal this.

However, it is going to turn out that none of these is the new 'truth' that the Express claims to have discovered.

c: Make sure that the first paragraph of the story is literally true.


Dramatic new evidence emerged last night that the body of Diana, Princess of Wales was embalmed on the orders of panicking British officials. The controversial process, which broke French law, was carried out just two hours before she was flown back to Britain.

As we will see, all the facts in this paragraph are (if we can trust the Express's sources) quite correct. But anyone reading it would naturally assume that what the headline is claiming to have discovered is the fact that Diana's body was embalmed when under French law this should not have happened until any autopsy had been completed. The revelation that the body of such a high profile celebrity was treated irregularly would, indeed, be a fairly big scandal. However, this is still not the new fact that the headline promised us.

d: Reveal the substance of the story gradually. Bury any actual facts you may have on page 5

In fact, everybody who has been following this story already knew that Diana's body had been embalmed. Page 5 of today’s paper reproduces a headline from nearly two years ago, which had asked: 'Why was Diana's body embalmed....just what are they trying to hide?' So what is today’s news?

The Daily Express has learned that hurried discussions between British and French officials were held to make sure that embalming went ahead before the Princess’s body was flown home. It had always been understood that Diana’s body had been embalmed in the chaotic hour immediately after her death.
So, what has been revealed 'at last' is not 'someone interfered with the Royal Corpse’ but 'someone interfered with the Royal Corpse seven hours later than we thought' or possibly 'English and French officials talked to each other before they interfered with the Royal Corpse.' This new data leads the Express to infer that the officials who gave the order must have had some reason to want the body to return to Britain only in an embalmed state, and that they can only have decided this at the last minute. So the story as stated in paragraph 1 is literally true: the Express does indeed claim to have evidence that Diana’s body 'was embalmed on the orders of panicking British officials.' It’s just that what they are announcing is not 'she was embalmed' but 'the people who ordered her to be embalmed were panicking at the time'.

e: If you don’t actually have any story at all try not to reveal this until the end of the item.

Even the evidence for the panicky-ness of the officials is not especially solid: we can only discover that 'sources close to the investigation' say that the remains were embalmed seven hours after Diana died; and that 'a source' thinks that this revelation 'will increase the pressure on Lord Stevens to clarify what happened that night.'

The 'pregnancy' aspect of the story is even shakier. We are told that unspecified 'experts' say that the process of embalming a body 'corrupts pregnancy tests which may give a false positive reading.' Again 'experts' apparently believe that embalming fluid corrupts DNA tests. the identity of the father of any baby Diana might have been carrying could never be verified.
This is an extraordinarily audacious aside. The main headline claims that Diana was embalmed in order to cover-up the fact that she was pregnant. It turns out that someone unspecified thinks that embalming would ensure that 'the identity of the father of any baby that Diana might have been carrying' could not be discovered. And note the bet-hedging. If she was only slightly pregnant, then the embalming fluid would make it impossible to do a pregnancy test; but if she was very pregnant, then the embalming fluid would make it impossible to find out who the baby's dodi was.

The question which occurred to the paper when they broke this story in 2004 was 'What are they trying to hide?' A number of more relevant questions occur to me. For example: is it physically possible to do a pregnancy test on a stiff? Would such a test be carried out on the remains of a road accident victim? Are there any health and safety laws about whether unpickled bodies can be carried on aeroplanes? And why would British officials, panicking or otherwise, care whether or not Diana was pregnant -- given that, at the time of her death, she had no constitutional position?

The ongoing Diana saga provides a particularly clear illustration of the way in which the Daily Express constructs it's narratives. The text of the news item describes fairly un-sensational events which, so far as I can tell, really happened in the real world. But this text is surrounded by headlines, sub-headlines, cartoons, captions, phone-in polls, readers letters, and op-ed columns -- all of which tell a completely different, and much more dramatic story. On Planet Earth one un-named source says that there is a discrepancy about the time at which a body was embalmed; one or more unnamed experts say that formaldehyde interferes with pregnancy and DNA tests. Oh, and a 'a senior French policeman claims he saw medical papers showing that Diana was pregnant.' But on Planet Daily Express, this has transmogrified into 'Princess's Body was embalmed to cover up her pregnancy.'

2: How to stay eternally young

It's Wednesday, and someone has discovered the Philosopher's Stone. Or the Fountain of Eternal Youth. Or something.

New health secret revealed.

Unfortunately, this new health secret has only been revealed on Planet Daily Express. On Planet Earth 'ground breaking new research' has discovered that exercise is good for you. Astonishingly, it may also help if you quit smoking and eat more fruit and veg.

3: Everyone is incredibly rich

On May 12th, the reality-based community was preoccupied with the report into the July 7th bombings. But on Planet Daily Express, something even more important had happened.

A marketing research company has discovered that people in Britain have an awful lot of money and that they spend it on stuff. Men spend 110% more on clothes 'in real terms' than they did in 1995; and we all spend 21% more on furniture 'taking inflation into account'. Consumer spending is now £37,000 per household in Britain, which amounts to a trillion a year across the whole country. (A trillion is a million million, apparently. Whatever happened to our good old British billions?) Given that the average salary is around £20K, an annual spend of £37K can probably be translated as 'In many households, both partners work, and people are really crap at saving'. On the other hand, the biggest increase in expenditure comes from mortgages ('up 51%'); so it may be that 'people spend more money' equates to 'mortgage rates are very high'. But this is not the spin which the Worlds Greatest Newspaper (And Proud of It) puts on the figures.

And it's all generated by sheer hard work.

I don't know how the Express thinks that we might have got our hands on a £1,000,000,000,000 apart from by working. Robbed the Tower of London, perhaps, or won the lottery during a roll-over week. Or--just possibly--Britons earned their trillion quid by buying property at the right time and sitting on it. On Tuesday, the Express ran a separate front page story about how over-inflated UK property prices have become, and how it is impossible for people on modest incomes to buy houses -- or, as they put it

The market is already up by a third this year.

A new property bonanza is underway....and that is welcome news for home-owners bombarded with dire warnings of an impending housing crash....
Er...whether or not you regard this news as ‘welcome’ rather depends on whether you already own one of the 'three bedroom semis' that are now worth £200,000 or whether you are hoping that one day you might be able to buy one.

However, it's the 'sheer hard work' which is the point of the Friday story. I would have supposed that any consumer spending boom would apply to single people as much as to married ones: indeed, I thought that gay men were widely thought to have an exceptionally high disposable income. But in fact, the one trillion pounds is coming from only one sector of the population:

Britons have pushed their spending beyond the £1trillion barrier for the first time in pursuit of a good time. The extra money is being created by families' sheer hard work -- and it is being spent on holidays and luxury purchases.
Now, in the lexicon of the Daily Express (and, not un-coincidentally, of Mr Tony Blair) 'hard-working family' is a code word. It means 'good person', 'normal person'; 'one of us' as opposed to 'one of them'. The Express has cleverly avoided using that precise phrase, but it is clear that they have taken a boring set of economic figures and transmuted them into a Calvinist affirmation that 'we' are rich because 'we' deserve to be rich. 'We' have created a zillion pounds by sheer hard work; and 'we' have been rewarded with lots of nice things like electronics, clothes, holidays, houses and (we'll come back to this later) gardens. The implication must be that if you don't have a £200,000 semi and don't go on three holidays a year then you are not 'hard-working', not a' family', not a 'Briton' -- not one of 'us'.

The idea that a 'a trillion pounds has been spent' means the same as 'a trillion pounds has been created' implies a rather shaky grasp of economics.

4: Scotland is Not Part of Britain

The people who have earned a trillion pounds by their hard work are 'Britons'. The Daily Express takes Britain very seriously. The week’s most important event was the decision by Heinz foods to close the factory in Birmingham that makes H.P Sauce and transfer production to Holland. For reasons which are completely unfathomable, the World's Greatest Newspaper (And Proud Of It) has decided that brown ketchup is an important component of British identity. The closure of the factory therefore becomes a pretext for a bout of self flagellation The fact that our sauce bottles will now say 'made in Holland' rather than 'made in Britain' is another example of the way in which ‘we’ are being stripped of ‘our’ national identity. We’ll still be able to pour H.P Sauce on our Fish and Chips, but

One more British icon has bitten the dust. Somehow, it just won't taste as good.

But even worse than the threat which Heinz foods pose to our nationhood is the threat from...Scotland.

Tony Blair is a little bit Scottish; Gordon Brown is very, very Scottish; and there are a number of people from Scotland in the cabinet. But that doesn't matter because the people of England, Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland are all loyal subjects of the Queen and patriotic Britons. Or, as a columnist Leo McKinstry puts it:


....Perhaps unique among Western democracies, England is a country largely governed by politicians from another nation. If anything, Blair's mishandled reshuffled has only strengthened the stranglehold that the Scots exert on our Government.
You may need to read that twice to see where the cards are being palmed. If one democratic nation were ruling another democratic nation that might very well be absurd. In fact, the nation of Britain is made up of four countries. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all send representatives to the national government in Westminster. (Some people think that Scotland and Wales ought to be nations in their own right; they call themselves Scottish Nationalists and Welsh Nationalists.) But Mr. McKinistry deliberately uses 'country' and 'nation' interchangeably in order to advance his absurd fantasy that England is the only country which is ruled by another nation.

We continue:

It is an outrage that control of English domestic policy should be in Scottish hands...What makes the tartan takeover even more unjust is that Scots have had their own parliament since 1998.
Having confused us by saying 'nation' when he means 'country', McKinstry is now trying to get us to associate what he calls 'the tartan takeover' (the fact that Prime Minister and some cabinet members come from Scotland) with the completely separate and extremely boring West Lothian Question.

Try to stay awake: I'll make this as painless as possible. People from Scotland and England elect MPs to Westminster. People from Scotland additionally elect MSPs to Scottish parliament, to which Westminster has 'devolved' certain powers. There is no equivalent English parliament since England is governed directly by Westminster. It follows that Scottish MPs vote on certain issues which affect England (but not Scotland) but English MPs cannot vote on equivalent issues which affect Scotland (but not England.) This is certainly an anomaly and you may think that Tony Blair made a pigs ear of devolution. There is a fair-to-middling case for saying that either England should also its own devolved parliament or else that Scottish MPs should be asked to leave the room when a specifically English issues come under discussion.

But this has nothing whatsoever to do with McKinstry's fictitious 'tartan takeover'. If it's unfair that English MPs don't have a say about who empties the rubbish bins in Balamory, then that would still unfair even if every though every single cabinet minister was an H.P sauce drinking Englishman. If you don't think it matters, then it still wouldn't matter even though the whole cabinet started to put salt on their porridge. (And on no possible view does 'Scottish MPs voting on English issues' amount to 'Scotland ruling England'. Before devolution, if English MPs had wanted to pass a law prohibiting Haggis and Deep Fried Mars Bars, they could have done so, and all the Scottish MPs voting together could not have stopped them. After devolution, it is still impossible for the Scottish MPs to get together and pass a law banning fish and chips and decent beer -- for the very simple reason that English MPs out number Scottish MPs by nearly ten to one.)

Having misdirected us with this sleight of hand, McKinstry is able to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

They voted in favour of devolution because they did not want England running their domestic affairs, yet they believe they still have the right to rule south of the border.
Are you keeping up, here? There are Scottish cabinet ministers; there is a possible constitutional anomaly about devolution. Therefore Scots, in general, believe that they have the right to rule England. It is a small step from here to conflating Labour with Scotland and saying we have a government that hates the English:

It is no wonder that Labour is sinking so dramatically in the popularity in England when it is encouraging such a naked bias and abuse of power. The tartan led Labour government has bent over backward to address every kind of Scottish grievance, no matter how synthetic, but has treated England's identity with indifference and even hostility. They have shown no real love of this country because they are not really part of it.
Again, the writer is very cleverly throwing dust in our eyes. A lot of people have a general sense that Labour is unpatriotic: it doesn't love this country (Britain) sufficiently. Since the left tends to be anti-nationalist and pro-European, there may be something in this. McKinstry turns this general feeling into a specific allegation that Labour doesn't love this country (England) at all, because they are foreigners from Scotland. He then makes general allegations that these foreigners 'bend over backwards' to accommodate Scottish interests, and that they are 'positively hostile' to English identity, without citing a single instance of either of these things happening.

I think we are also over-working the phrase 'tartan army' and 'tartan takeover' a little. I wonder what the Scottish equivalent would be? 'Bowler hat takeover'? 'Morris dancing army'?

But this contempt cannot go on. It has awakened a new sense of exclusively English pride, manifested in the revival of the cross of St George....
Well, the use of the cross of St George as the logo of the English soccer team, at any rate. The Daily Express's own logo has always been a crusader knight with a St George cross on his shield. So much for Us Britons.

....and it will culminate in driving the Scottish elite from power.
If you think that all this is mad, then some of the letters of support from 'readers' published over the next few days were positively scary. One lunatic thinks that there is a 'constitutional issue regarding the handover of power' to Gordon Brown because:

Mr Brown represent a Scottish constituency and cannot therefore legitimately bring forward legislation that does not affect his constituents but does effect the English and Welsh electorate.
Got that? The West Lothian Question means that foreigners from Scotland should be debarred from being Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Perhaps on Planet Daily Express, the Act of Union never happened. (I also like the use of the word 'handover', with its implication of 'surrender' and 'giving up without a fight'.)

Another letter-writer drifts into genuinely fascistic language:

Wake up England, and take back what belongs to us....all English people know of the history between England and Scotland and also the perceived hatred our friends north of the border feel towards us Sassenachs. So why do we sit back and take this abuse of power from our so-called leader Tony Blair....We have had enough. Why is it so wrong to want England ruled by the English?

5: No taxation, just 'no taxation', basically.

Tax is bad. Tax is theft. Tax is a bad thing which bad people do to us out of spite. On Planet Daily Express a malign State comes and takes money from hard-working H.P sauce eating Britons from England and gives it to lazy skiving sponging foreigners and asylum seekers. Some days, I get the impression that it goes into Gordon Brown's personal bank account. None of this tax money seems to go to pay for police-men, soldiers, prisons, schools, hospitals and other things that Britons might think were quite a good idea. The state does things to us; it never does things for us.

On Tuesday, the Express declared victory in its crusade (that logo again) against inheritance duty. As the law now stands, you have to pay 40% tax on any legacy above £285,000. Since good time Britons are enjoying a property bonanza, even quite modest houses can sell for this amount. There is a perfectly reasonable argument that the threshold for inheritance tax should be modified up and down in line with the property market. But you will not hear that argument here. Tax money is money stolen from you by the government, and nothing more need be said.

The latest inheritance tax smash and grab....the devastating tax raid....Mr Brown's inheritance tax-grab
But because of all the taxi-drivers putting 'Property Tax is Theft' stickers on their cars, the tax has been abolished and you won't have to pay it any more. Well, perhaps on Planet Daily Express. In the real world, something rather more boring has occurred.

Treasury officials were last night said to be having second thoughts about the devastating tax raid that would leave millions of Britons facing huge tax bills.'

'A spokesman for Association of British Insurers said a meeting with Treasury and Revenue officials had produced some results.'
So: an un-named person had a meeting with another un-named person, and thinks that as a result of it, the government might be thinking about changing their mind about something. On Planet Daily Express, this equates to 'Cilmbdown On Death Tax'.

And it isn't even the £285,000 tax threshold about which someone thinks that someone else may be thinking of changing their mind. What might be happening is that some rather technical changes to the laws on trust funds (or, on Planet Daily Express: 'new rules hidden in March's budget') may not being going forward. These changes might have meant that some people might have had to change their wills. If ten million people had done so, and if their lawyers had charged them each £250, 'that would cost Britons up to £2.5 billion.' Leaving them only £997,500,000,000 a year to spend on their gardens.

6: The state is at war with the citizen

But the foreigners from Scotland who run the country are doing much more sinister things than hiding laws about trust funds in the Budget (the last place that an accountant would think to look for them.) It has declared war on people who own houses; it has declared war on people who drive motor cars; it has a sadistic desire to punish gardeners; and it is going to use spies and surveillance satellites to prosecute this war.

On Thursday, the front page announced

Big Brother satellite will charge you £1.34 a mile and will know if you are speeding.

while the internal sub-headline was simply

War on the motorist.

It seems that the government has decided to charge a toll on road use, and to use a satellite tracking system to enforce the toll. The satellite will be able to tell exactly how far you have driven, and will then bill you at a rate of £1.34 a mile. Some of the implications are even more sinister. As a pull-quote explains

This control-freak government will now be able to track us wherever we go.
Of course, as we cast our eyes down page one, the assertion that there will be a satellite tracking system for cars, and that you will be charged £1.34 per mile becomes more and more hypothetical

...critics warned that the technology could be used to snoop on the private lives of citizens was revealed that the system could be used to check if drivers were speeding the spy in the sky could work
...this system could be used to track people's movements everywhere they go
The most frightening thing of all is that could in time also be used to enforce speed limits
Because everybody on Planet Daily Express agrees that the idea that people might be expected to stick to the speed limit is

Just like Big Brother and typical of this control freak government.
It turns out that behind all these could-bes, might-bes, and can't-be-ruled-outs is a letter from the Prime Minister to the Minister for Transport, asking him to look at the feasibility of having a tax on road usage instead of (not in addition to) the present tax on vehicle ownership. The idea being floated is that 'you' would be charged £1.32 if 'you' made use of the busiest roads at peak times. If 'you' used quieter roads at off-peak times you’d be charged 2p per mile.

But 'Someone has floated the idea that you might perhaps be charged a road toll of tuppence at some indeterminate time in the future' would not be as interesting as 'Control Freak Government Declares War on Motorist', would it?

The government's other war is the one against home-owners. On Monday we were warned about:

'The pets and garden tax: Astonishing plot for a stealth raid on homes'.

Apparently 'council tax snoopers' are soon going to be 'peering over the fence for a furtive glimpse into your back garden.' Why they would peer over your fence furtively is never tackled: one would have thought that it would be easier for them to knock on your front door and say 'Hello, I am a government tax inspector.' They could even use the government's spy-in-the-sky satellite, if not for the fact that it doesn't actually exist.

The reason for this snooping is that if you add 'a fish pond, rabbit hutch or just that humble old vegetable patch' to your garden, you are going to have to pay tax on it. This is described as 'the latest punishment for people trying to build a better life'

Local taxation has always been a very contentious issue in the U.K -- presumably because you actually have to write out a cheque to the council each month, whereas the Inland Revenue takes money straight out of your pay cheque without you ever seeing it. Mrs. Thatcher's attempt to replace the old system of Rates with the barking mad Community Charge actually precipitated riots and brought down her government. Under the present system of Council Tax you are taxed a fixed amount annually based on the value of your home. The theory behind the Daily Express's 'pets and garden tax' is that if you build a rabbit hutch or plant a rose bush in your garden the Sheriff of Nottingham may decide that your house is worth more today than it was yesterday and plonk you into a higher tax band.

The major problem behind this theory is that it's bollocks. The Express admits that it's bollocks almost immediately. At the top of the report, there are pictures of a pond, some flowers, and a bunny rabbit, with captions that read:

This water feature could lead to you being soaked for higher council tax
A colourful display might cost you a pretty packet
Even the children’s rabbit might catch you on the hop
At the bottom of the page, we asked to cast our vote on today's phone-in poll 'Are you fed up of being fleeced by Labour' (99% of us are, surprisingly.) There is also risible op-ed column which runs:

Now is a great time of year to add a few attractive touches to your garden -- but you may come to regret it. Push the boat out even more and invest in a whole new vegetable patch or some floral borders or perhaps a rabbit hutch or fish pond and there could be an even bigger price to pay. Scary? You bet, but that is what happens when Labour is in charge...How else do you explain that everyday improvements to your garden could put your property in a higher tax band...There's talk about anything that adds value being taken into consideration. In other words a garden tax should not be ruled out as Labour continues its war against Middle Britain picking pockets at every opportunity....To punish homeowners for making the best of what they've got is not just unfair - but plain nasty.
Actually, what I find plain nasty is the paranoia which the Express slips into at the drop of a gnome. The state is out to get you -- you personally, out of sheer maliciousness. The imaginary garden tax is part of a war on the home owner. The imaginary scheme for road-tolls is part of a war on the motorist. The op. ed column sees the fictitious tax as a 'punishment' for people who want to improve their homes; the news story sees it as 'the latest punishment' for people 'trying to build a better way of life.' Yes, only the latest such punishment -- although the details of all the previous punishments aren't actually mentioned. This is indeed nasty, because it sets out to make people who own houses with gardens and people who drive motorcars -- that is, us, hard-working Britons from England -- feel that we are victims. Someone is snooping over our fence; someone is watching us from a satellite; someone is stealing our inheritance; someone is taking away our H.P Sauce. And this is the same State that is run by England hating foreigners from Scotland; the same State whose officials are colluding to protect whoever-it-was who murdered The People's Princess.

The significance of the phrase Middle-Britain (as opposed to Middle-England) is left as an exercise for the reader.

The actual basis of the garden tax story would seem to be a parliamentary question asked some months ago by one Caroline Spelman (John Prescott's conservative shadow). According to Hansard, it went like this:

Mrs. Spelman: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether the presence of an (a) orchard, (b) vegetable patch, (c) fish pond and (d) attractive flower arrangement influence the Valuation Office Agency's assessment of value significant codes GG, GN, NA, PS and PL when conducting a council tax valuation. [30837]

Mr. Woolas: The valuation of a domestic property is based on the valuer's estimate of what the capital value of the property is.
According to the Express, Spelman interprets this answer to mean that

They are actually refusing rule out whether they'll be taxing you on your vegetable patch or animal hutch. Is this Labour's latest stealth tax -- a tax on pets?'
'Stealth-tax is' yet another code-word. Tony Blair boasts that, unlike previous Labour PMs, he has not increased income tax. However, according to some people, he has made up the shortfall in less obvious ways -- for example, by increasing the range of goods on which V.A.T is payable -- meaning that we actually pay more tax over all. But the phrase has been cast pretty widely, so that the charge for replacing a lost passport, or the cost of a digital box for your TV might well be described as 'stealth taxes.' It is hard to think of anything less stealthy than receiving a letter headed '2007 Council Tax Bill.'

The way in which the Daily Express spins Mr Woolas parliamentary answer deserves some kind of award:

In its reply, the government admitted only that the valuation of a domestic home is 'based on the valuer's estimate of what the capital value of a property is
'Admitted only.' Mrs. Spelman asks a rather silly question. The relevant minister gives a straightforward answer: nothing has changed -- a valuer decides the value of your property and you are taxed you on that basis. And the Express, instead of saying 'The government said clearly that they weren't taxing vegetable patches' says 'They admitted only' that the tax was based on a valuer's estimate of what the property was worth. Which isn't much of an admission: it's the way that Council Tax has always been assessed; it's the only way in which it could possibly be assessed. The op. ed column glossed this as '(you can't) get a clear answer about this from the office of the deputy prime-minister.' It seems like a pretty clear answer to me; but they got an even clearer answer from 'a spokesman for the Valuation Office Agency' and printed it in the body of the article:

A fish pond or rabbit hutch isn't going to cause an increase in council tax band. It's all about scale. If it as an ornamental lake in a large property with rolling acres, it might increase the value of the property.
So: the 'garden tax' is a pure, paranoid fantasy. But this point is evidently lost on the inhabitants of Planet Daily Express. On Wednesday a letter appeared on the letters page under the headline: 'Ditch this daft garden tax'. (Do you see what has happened? Yesterday, the Daily Express made up the phrase 'garden tax' out of their own heads: today, readers are demanding the abolition of this non-existent tax.) The writer explains:

So, Prescott et al are going to penalise us for beautifying our homes.
No, they aren't. The news story made this quite clear.

If, after tax, you choose to spend what little is left...
'What little?' I thought we all had a trillion pounds in our pockets, and houses that were becoming more valuable every day?

...on going out, a holiday, or some electronic bauble, that's OK.
I thought it was more than okay, I thought it was part of a year long party that hard working Britons from England were enjoying?

...But woe betide you...
I had a junior school teacher who used to use that phrase as a euphemism for 'I'm going to hit you'. I didn't know that it was still in use on Planet Earth.

..if you spend it on some plants to make your home pretty. You will be rewarded with increased rates...
No, you won't. You'd have to put up some stables or an ornamental lake. The news story said so.

...How utterly wrong that is.
Wrong in the sense of 'incorrect' or 'not true'..

Does the great Labour levelling machine want everyone to live in slummy ghettos?
Another example in the genre of 'Very Interesting Questions To Which The Answer Is No'. (There is also the point about 'ghetto', which generally means 'the part of town where foreign people live' being used in conjunction with 'slummy', but we'll leave that to one side for the moment.)

Rather than taxing those who try to make Britain a green and pleasant land it should do what the Dutch do and penalise those who allow their properties to become derelict junk heaps.
So. In three days, we've gone from 'Your council tax is based on the value of your property' via 'Labour is going to tax rabbits' to 'Labour wants everyone to live in a slum.'

The Express have rather a thing about gardens. On Sunday, there is an impenetrable story which manages to go from 'new homes may be built on urban brown field sites' to 'Labour are going to take your garden away and build houses on it'; and concludes with a phone in poll to find out whether readers think that 'garden grabbing' should be allowed. But on Saturday, we dealt with the subject closest to Daily Express readers' hearts. Yes, even closer than H.P Sauce..... Privet hedges.

7: There is insufficient police brutality

This is the story of the week. This is a story so important that normal typography can’t cope with it. Upper case is not enough. Upper case underlined is not enough. Today, we must resort to upper case underlined and printed in red.

Judge says police are RIGHT to give yobs a clip round the ear

A bobby convicted of clipping two yobs round the ear was cleared yesterday after a judge ruled that he acted in the best traditions of the police force.
I wonder if this is remotely intelligible to readers from outside the UK -- or, come to that, under the age of 30? 'Bobby' is a slang term for police officer which no-one on Planet Earth has used for decades. (Neither do we say 'Peeler'. Even 'Copper' is pretty old-fashioned.) A 'Clip' is a light cuff or slap. 'A clip round the ear' means literally 'to slap the side of a child’s head'. In practice, clip-round-the-ear is a portmanteau phrase meaning 'mild, informal corporal punishment'. ('My school had banned caning, but we did get a clip-round-the-ear occasionally.') A 'yob' is a badly behaved youth, possibly backslang for 'boy'.

But the three terms are three more ideological code-words. 'Bobby' is nostalgic and affectionate: it doesn’t mean 'policeman', but 'good, old-fashioned police-man on a bike who knows the names of local people'. If I say 'British Bobby' you will hear 'Both you and I agree that the British police force is honest and incorruptible' or perhaps 'the Police were much better in the 1950s.' Similarly, if I say 'clip-round-the-ear', you will hear 'Both you and I agree that corporal punishment is an acceptable way of disciplining children.' We are all against cruelty to children, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't give kids a clip-round-the-ear now and again… And of course, Prime Ministers since John Major have said that What Is Wrong With Britain Today is something called 'yob-culture.' So 'The days when bobbies could give yobs a clip round the ear' is code for 'you and I agree that nowadays, young people have insufficient respect for authority.' Or perhaps just 'things were better in the olden days'.

It is very doubtful whether there was ever a time when police officers on Planet Earth were permitted to administer on-the-spot corporal punishment to badly behaved children. What is certain is that, for the past 25 years, any teacher who administered a clip-round-the-ear, either literally or metaphorically, would be guilty of criminal assault; and that the law has become progressively less supportive of parents who slap their own children -- on the ear or anywhere else. Maybe in 1906, a policeman could have been considered in loco parentis and done to a naughty child whatever a reasonable parent or teacher might have done in the same circumstances; that certainly isn’t the case today.

So: the first thing to say about Saturday’s headline is that it is irrelevant. You, me or Judge Adrian Lion may very well think that police should give yobs a clip round the ear. We may for that matter think that Teach should give them a good slippering or the Witchfinder General should burn them at the stake. But neither you nor I nor Judge Lion can arbitrarily re-write the law of assault on a personal whim. The Judge's opinions are neither here nor there.

The second thing to say about Saturday's headline is that it is obviously and transparently untrue. The main headline: 'Judge says police are right to give yobs a clip round the ear'; the internal sub-header: 'At last, a judge who says yobs deserve a clip round the ear from police' the phone-in poll: 'Should police give yobs a clip round the ear', and the leading article: 'he was right to overturn P.C Mullaney’s ludicrous assault conviction for giving two trouble-making yobs a clip round the ear' -- all come from Planet Daily Express. If you bother to 'turn to page 17' you will discover that what happened on Planet Earth was almost the exact opposite.

PC Sean Mullaney, 38, was arrested and suspended 18 months ago for confronting the teenagers who terrorised his neighbours and taunted him after damaging his hedge…The court heard how the boys, aged 16 and 17 had been terrorising PC Mullaney’s neighbours in Hindley, near Wigan, Greater Manchester, leaving them 'frightened to death.' The officer told how he had been forced to move the pair on more than 50 times from outside his house and had lost count of the number of times they had damaged his £200,000 semi. The problems came to head in December 2004 when he took firmer action after he realised they had wrecked his privet hedge.'
The value of P.C Mullaney's house is crucial to the story. He owns a £200,000 semi. He has a share in the one trillion pounds generated by sheer hard work. He has a garden. He is a Briton. He is English. He is hard working. He has a family. He lives in Middle-England. He is very probably a Motorist. He may even put H.P Sauce on his rabbit hutch. He is precisely the sort of person against whom the Government has declared war. He is, in short, one of Us.

So. On this side, two yobs. On the other, an expensive suburban house. Separating them -- a privet hedge. What better symbol of Middle-England (against whom the State is at war) could there be? (Consider where J.K Rowling locates the Durselys.) Everything which the Daily Express believes is encapsulated in this scene. And what do the Out of Control Yobs do to the Ordinary Hard Working British Bobby? They damage his hedge. They damage his privet hedge. Tear down the wall! Tear down the wall!

And now it comes:

Although the louts, who cannot be named for legal reasons, claimed PC Mullaney went outside and slapped both of them across the head….
'Claimed'. Pause. Savor the moment.

….the officer insisted he had only pushed one after he was called a 'prick'.
And in a flash, the whole story vanished. The judge who says yobs deserve a clip round the ear; the Judge who says police are right to give yobs a clip round the ear. Total fantasy. What actually happened -- what the Daily Express admit happened -- was that two young men were vandalizing the property of an off-duty Bow Street Runner. The Bow Street Runner came out and remonstrated with them. The young men subsequently accused the Bow Street Runner of having assaulted them. The other Rozzers decided that he should be charged with assault -- they take this sort of thing seriously, do the Rozzers: if he had really hit a suspect, then Mullaney would no longer be a British Bobby -- he would be a Bent Copper. The Magistrate believed the youths; but he gave the Bow Street Runner a very mild punishment: a two year conditional discharge. However, this was still a very serious matter for the Bow Street Runner, because it meant that he was almost certain to lose his job. So the Bow Street Runner appealed to a higher court. And this time, the Judge believed his version of events. Listen to what the judge said:

There is no doubt the officer acted properly and appropriately in standing up to these young people who were seeking to wind him up. He did so in the best traditions of the police force....It is the essence of a police officer that he can control his anger in circumstances that to other people would be highly provocative
That is: he acted in the best traditions of the police force by not hitting the teenager when someone else might have done. He acted properly and appropriately in the sense that hitting a teenager would have been improper and inappropriate. Another Bow Street Runner, P.C Schofield is quoted 'Sean is a gentle giant. Any situations I have been in with him he has always been composed and calm' -- that is, not the sort of person who would give a clip-round-the-ear to anyone at all. (Schofield is Mullaney’s beat partner. Under the circumstances, I think we can assume this means: 'The officer who accompanies him on patrol' not 'the officer who helps him beat people up.') In case you doubt this, then I recommend you pick up the Daily Telegraph and read what Mullaney himself said.

They knew what I do for a living and disliked it. That was the cause of it all. One of the boys called me a prick. He clearly wasn't frightened of me and came into my personal space. I felt threatened and pushed him away. I certainly didn't thump him around the ears. That's not the way I conduct myself.
And once again, the original statement was literally true. 'A bobby convicted of clipping two yobs round the ear was cleared yesterday after a judge ruled that he acted in the best traditions of the police force.' He was indeed cleared, and the clearing did indeed happen chronologically after the judge said he acted in the best traditions of the police force. But 'Policeman denies hitting teenager; Judge believes him' has somehow become 'Judge says policemen should be encouraged to hit teenagers.' This would make about as much sense as translating 'Man found Not Guilty of Murder' as 'Judge says murder perfectly all right' -- which come to think of it, is not that far away from the Daily Express’s reporting of criminal trials.

8: England has legalised murder

On Planet Daily Express, people are literally getting away with murder.

'Widows fury as husband's callous killer gets just four years in jail',

explain a headline.

Naturally, the Worlds Greatest Paper has a solution to this problem. A more-than-usually prominently displayed phone in poll asks the magnificently unbiased question 'Do you agree that hanging should be brought back'. In the first paragraph of the news item, the grieving widow expresses the opinion: 'If the prisons are so full, they should bring back hanging.'

Perhaps they should. Perhaps they should bring back hanging, drawing and quartering and transportation to Australia, while they are at it. Or perhaps we should use those nice lethal injections that Tony's friend George Bush is so enthusiastic about. But even if 'they' did, it would have made bugger-all difference in this case because no-one was actually convicted of murdering anyone. Rather boringly, what actually happened was that one man, Alan Fessey, became involved in altercation with two other men David and Christopher Ratcliff. Mr. Fessey was hit with a crash helmet and a broken bottle; he subsequently died. Both men said they didn't intend to kill him. The younger admitted 'grievous bodily harm with affray'; and was sentenced to three years in jail; the older man admitted manslaughter and got four years. No-one, absolutely no-one at any point suggested that they got a comparatively light sentence because there was insufficient space in prison. (Is the Daily Express seriously proposing that we should execute people convicted of manslaughter, or, come to that, of juveniles convicted of serious assault?)

Anyone reading the headline and not studying the text would get the impression that four years in prison is the going rate for offences that fifty years ago would have earned you a very brief meeting with Albert Pierrepont. This is, of course, nonsense. But these kinds of headlines give the inhabitants of Planet Daily Express the impression that we live in a country where hardly anyone is ever punished for anything (apart from building rabbit hutches, of course.)

9: Human Rights are a bad thing and should be abolished as soon as possible

An English football fan is currently serving a sentence for murder in a Bulgarian jail. Some people think that he may be innocent. One British official went so far as to express grave doubts about Bulgaria's justice system. On Monday, the Express published a reader's letter that appeared to argue that it doesn't matter if a British person is being punished in a foreign country for a crime he didn't commit; because foreigners in this country are sometimes not punished for crimes they did commit. At any rate:

If my guess is correct, the whole British nation has grave doubts about our justice system. Anything connected with the Home Office is in freefall, police detection rates are lamentable, sentencing is derisory and a sad joke, prisons are thin on the ground as serious crime rises; and the immigration system is in chaos and puts the indigenous population in danger.'
Mr. Atkinson doesn't say in what way the immigration system is putting people in danger. He doesn't need to. Weeks and months of Daily Express headlines has made 'immigration' and 'asylum seeker' synonymous with 'foreign criminal' and 'terrorist'. The writer says 'the immigration system is in chaos' and we hear 'there are lots of foreign terrorists, murderers, and rapists roaming the streets.'

I would have thought that if you let an actual foreign criminal into the country, then he would be a danger, not only to the indigenous population but to everyone else as well. If he was a terrorist, then he might not only kill members of the indigenous population, but also any tourists who happened to be travelling by tube at the time. And course, the terrorists who actually did kill a lot of people (indigenous or otherwise) on July 7th were born and brought up in Britain, and, indeed, England. Are British Muslims part of the indigenous population, we ask ourselves, or are they, like Scotsman, not Britons at all?

In another letter, printed under the headline 'find the courage to boot out these foreign thugs' one Mr Flynn explains that

Asylum seekers and immigrants should be told that they are expected to conform to our laws and that if they commit a crime they should expect to be deported.
He explains with enthusiasm that last year, Norway deported 1,500 'foreigners who had committed crimes', and are going to extend the law so they can depart even those who commit minor offences 'because they believe that their public has a right to be protected'.

Alongside this letter is a picture of a not very indigenous looking person, with the caption: 'SUSPECT: Somalian Mustaf Jama was not deported.'

This is rather clever. The letter gives the impression that, as a matter of policy, the UK does not deport foreign criminals, and contrasts it with Norway, which does. But as a matter of fact, the UK does have a policy of deporting foreign nationals who have been convicted of serious crimes. The whole furore over deportation of foreign criminals blew up because the Home Secretary -- who was subsequently sacked -- admitted that due to an administrative error a number of foreign criminals who, according to the law as it now stands should have been deported were allowed to stay in the UK. There are a small number of hard cases, of the kind that make bad law, where we have decided that we can't deport someone because they might be tortured in their own country. Mustaf Jama -- who is suspected of murdering a police officer -- is one such: at the end of long prison sentence, a decision was taken to let him stay in the UK because it would not have been safe to send him back to Somalia. This may or may not have been a good decision. But it has somehow been transformed into a general policy of allowing, even encouraging, foreign criminals to come to this country; which in turn means that the whole idea of 'immigration' is putting white, sorry, indigenous people at risk.

But there is a solution to all of this:

Mr Flyn asks

Why is it that in this country our rights are deemed less important those who would come here for the sake of committing crime
Mr Atkinson concludes

Before we accuse Bulgaria, let us see some root and branch changes at home, starting perhaps with the abandonment of the ridiculous Human Rights act.
Ah, 'Human Rights' -- currently hated by Daily Express readers even more than the 'Political Correctness Brigade.' On Planet Daily Express, 'human rights' is only ever used to mean 'the rights of criminals and immigrants'. So far as I can tell, such people do not really have any rights at all -- at any rate, the word rights is generally printed in quotation marks, or spelt 'so-called human rights.'

A news story on Thursday makes the point pretty clearly:

Maniac freed to kill because his 'human rights' were more important than ours.

A sex attacker who killed a mother had been freed from prison because officials placed his human rights above protecting the public, an official watchdog ruled yesterday.
Well, up to a point. Anthony Rice had indeed served 16 years of a life sentence, and did indeed commit murder while on a Life Licence. Everyone agrees that something went badly wrong with the system. What the Daily Express calls an official watchdog, and everyone else calls Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Probation summarised their findings in the following boring and careful terms:

We find evidence to conclude that on balance Anthony Rice should not have been released on Life Licence in the first place, and once he had been released he could and should have been better managed....This principal finding arises from our analysis of a complex picture where a sequence of deficiencies in the form of mistakes, misjudgement and miscommunication at all three phases of the whole process of this case had a compounding effect so that they came to amount to what we call a cumulative failure.
They go on to say that it was 'often not clear who was in charge of the case' which led to 'diffusion and discontinuities in lead responsibility for the case, and we consider that these were key contributing factors to the cumulative failure.' They say that the Parole Board did not know enough about the inmates previous behaviour; they were given over-optimistic reports of his progress; they were allowed to think that the fact that the inmate had transferred to an open prison made it more or less inevitable that we would be let out. And they also say

The whole process is additionally complicated by the human rights consideration in each case which have grown in importance follow a series of court judgements...It is a challenging task for people who are charged with managing offenders effectively to ensure that public protection considerations are not undermined by the human rights considerations.
There is a problem in the way in which the human rights act is being applied; it is complicating the process of paroles; and some lawyers may be applying it more widely than it should be. A footnote on page 36 of the report points out that according to the human rights act as it now stands a persons right to privacy and family life are not absolute; and that according to the present law, interference with both of these rights can be sometimes be justified.

What has happened is that a long, detailed report which says, among many other things, that human rights laws may have caused problems in this case has been spun into an unequivocal statement that this man was let out 'because his human rights were more important than ours ', This would give anyone reading the story the impression that a parole board said 'Oh, he'll probably murder someone if we release him, but what the hell, his human rights are the most important thing' -- which is, of course, total fantasy. And the suggestion that we may want to look again at the way in which the human rights law is being applied to parole board hearings turns into an even more general feeling that the human rights act must be scrapped, abolished, dumped, banned, got rid of.

On Saturday, we have a headline about Conservative Leader David Cameron:

'Human rights laws must go' says Cameron .

Cameron is actually quoted as saying 'We will reform, replace or scrap the human rights act' but the qualification have vanished from the headline. In the same report Anne Widdecombe says 'If we have a review, we can show that (the act) does not work, and scrap it.' And abandoning actual quotes from real human beings, the story continues

Privately many Tories are now convinced that that Human Rights Act is beyond reform and should be scrapped immediately. It is being blamed for the 'rights' of hoards of offenders being upheld while the suffering of their victims is forgotten.
As ever, there is a perfectly sensible debate to be had about how you take a nebulous idea like 'human rights' and turn it into a workable law. You could even have a philosophical discussion about the whether there is any such thing as a 'human right' in the first place. (Maybe we should forget about my right not to be tortured, and instead talk about my obligation not to torture you?)

But once you have framed the question in terms of a conflict between the human rights of the criminal and the human rights of the victim, you've guaranteed that that sensible debate is not going to take place. It is certainly true that we would like the state to do as much as it possibly can to stop us from being murdered. For example, we would like some of the money that it steals from us in taxes to be spent on bobbies who could arrest murderers, or failing that, clip them round the ear. But to cast this aspiration as a 'right not to be murdered' and to set it in conflict with a criminal suspect's right not to be detained without trial, or to be kept in human conditions if convicted is not much more than a pun. We're using the same word ('right') to refer to two quite different ideas.

Those of us who spend a few minutes each day on Planet Daily Express may get into the habit of conceptualising the question in these terms. And if we can only ask the question in the form 'What is more important -- the human rights of the terrorist, or the right of indigenous people not to be blown up?' then there's only one way for us to answer the question.

10: Doctor Who is rather good at the moment.

If you want to give a group a sense of identity, then tell it that that identity is being taken away. If you want to make a group pull together, make it believe that it is being threatened from the outside. And if you want to make a group of people do something very, very stupid, then allow them to believe that they are helpless.

The Daily Express has convinced itself that the mainstream of British (or at any rate, English) society -- the car driving, home owning middle-middle classes -- are a marginal, persecuted sect; ruled by a despotic foreign government which hates them and which uses high tech surveillance and low tech spying to prosecute a war against their traditional values. But have they convinced the people who buy their paper? Do millions of my fellow Britons believe that the real world resembles Planet Daily Express? And if so, what are they going to do about it? I find the idea of a radicalised middle-class declaring a jihad in defence of their vegetable patches and privet hedges far more frightening than any number of yobs, louts, immigrants, asylum seekers, thugs or Scotsmen.

But I don't want to create the impression that everything in the Daily Express is paranoid rubbish. On Monday, the TV reviewer said that he thought "The Girl in the Fireplace" was quite a good 'Doctor Who' story.

It was.

Vox Pop

Should we ever pay criminals? Yes 1% No 99%
Should HP Sauce only be made in Britain? Yes 98% No 2%
Should Tony Blair quit immediately? Yes 92% No 2%
Are we fed up of being fleeced by Labour? Yes 99% No 1%
Should Prescott lose all his perks? Yes 96% No 4%
Should hanging be brought back? YES 97% No 3% (The actual question was 'Do you agree that hanging should be brought back?')
Should all foreign criminals be deported? Yes 99% No 1%

Andrew read the Daily Express from Monday May 8th to Sunday May 14th, but he has since made a full recovery.