4 AUGUST 1984, Page 15

The press

Seasonal tales

Paul Johnson

One can't complain: the silly season is phenomenally late this year, with plenty of stories still knocking around Scargill and his stormtroopers, Maggie-in- Trouble tales, Kinnockian brinkmanship, not to speak of the Olympics in massacre- a-day California. The only Fleet Street figure who may have found the plethora irksome was Kelvin MacKenzie, who brought out the Sun single-handed until his striking journalists caved in last weekend — I salute his remarkable achievement.

All the same, the silly season is here at last, announced by the fact that the trickle of stories about the water shortage has turned into a flood. I have not yet come across the 'Phew, Wot a Scorcher!' head- line, but on Saturday the Times informed me that Ian Gow was now 'the Govern- ment's unofficial minister for drought' (re- member Denis Howell, Harold Wilson's Porky 'Rain King'?), and that is a sure sign. 'Baptism in Sea' roared the Sunday Mirror's front-page splash, announcing that Pastor Howard Chiplin, of the Apos- tolic Church at Cornelly 'in parched Mid- Glamorgan', had been baptising people in the sea in an 'amazing ceremony' which saved hundreds of gallons of precious water' and 'delighted onlookers'. The Sun- da)? Express, characteristically, was more concerned about the bureaucratic wastage and arrogance of the water authorities. Under the headline 'The Costly Drips Who Mismanage Our Water', it pointed out that we are still charged for water even if we are forbidden to use it under threat of a £400 fine. We might be 'cleaning our teeth with champagne,' wrote Alex Lindsay, but 'one thing is certain': we shall `still get that hefty hill and it will not be reduced by a single Penny'. Water board bosses earned £32,000 a year for a four-day week, though most of them are little more than figure- heads', and the North-West water board Paid 'more than £1,000' so its chairman could have 'a personalised number plate for his car'. The industry spends, Lindsay Complained, '£1,872 million plus £747 mil- lion a year capital expenditure', yet 'poor Old rain-sodden Britain always ends up the

laughing stock of the world whenever we get anything resembling a summer'.

It is a fixed belief of Fleet Street that 'the rest of the world' spends much of its time laughing at (occasionally envying) Britain. Certainly there must be a snigger or two, at least in the Kremlin, at Britain's continuing spy scandals. Cloak and dagger stuff al- ways revives as the silly season starts and this year there has been the added bonus of the Mata Hari case at the Old Bailey. 'Spy Row Threat to Maggie' was the Sunday Express headline on a story about the Government's 'mishandling' of the case, giving 'Labour MPs the chance to stir up a major security row'. 'Spy Row: Thatcher Steps In' was the Sunday Telegraph splash; but this was another row, centring on the activities of the former MI5 officer Peter Wright, who has been blowing whistles in an attempt to, get Whitehall to treat Soviet moles or ex-moles more seriously. 'MI5 Chief Faces Carpeting Over Spy Story Leaks' was the Sunday Times headline. `Pressure For Security Check Grows', announced the Observer.

I am now as confused as everyone else about whether Sir Roger Hollis and various other establishment types worked for Russia, and generally speaking find the whole thing tedious. It is kept alive partly by silly season needs and partly by tire- some (though now flagging) competition between the Observer and the Sunday Times as to who can get the more sensa- tional story and which paper 'owns' various leakers.

Nevertheless, I was mildly entertained there's a drought.' by the Observer's second front-page spy story — its splash, in fact — which con- cerned Sir Stuart Hampshire, until recently Warden of Wadham College, Oxford. He had been employed by Sir Harold Wilson, that old spy-story fancier, to investigate the top-secret GCHQ network at Cheltenham, while himself under scrutiny as an alleged Russian spy. Or so the Observer says. I had always thought of old Hampshire as just a run-of-the-mill identikit left-wing don, who had flourished in academia in the way such fellows do. The idea of him being involved in great and murky events was an eye- opener. According to the Observer, 'Sir Stuart was eventually completely cleared'. All the old names cropped up again – Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Goronwy Rees in the latest addition to an upper-middle- class saga which has become as familiar as Coronation Street, and almost as reassur- ing. Hampshire told an Observer reporter that he had interpreted Burgess's attempt to recruit him as a Russian spy as simply 'a plea to take a more Marxist line in literary criticism'. A very natural error.

Fleet Street has also been intensely interested in a new kind of under-cover agent – a sort of Scarlet Pimpernel, in fact – who has emerged to organise miners' resistance against the Scargill tyranny. 'My Week with Silver Birch' was the Mail on Sunday front-page splash, giving Christ- opher Leake's 'exclusive story on a crusade to end pit strike'. Leake reported that, while he and 'Silver Birch' toured the country, the resistance leader 'was never safer from the bully-boys than when he was among his own kind – members of the Miners' Union'. Silver Birch's only conces- sion to security was carrying 'a hefty brass-topped walking stick with a spiked end', but Leake felt nonetheless that 'we were not in Britain, but in some country occupied by a foreign power as we moved from place to place using pseudonyms'.

Sounds like Poland? It's been a rather feeble debating point on the Left to com- pare Scargill's NUM with Solidarity. The Sunday Mirror, in the neatest bit of jour- nalism of the week, shot this down by getting an interview with Lech Walesa on the miners' strike ('Why Scargill is Wrong – by Lech'). He condemned violence and excessive demands: 'The workers should demand the maximum but not at the risk of bankrupting the employer', and he had this warning to Scargill: 'It is forbidden that ambition take precedence over logic. Trade union activists should lock away their ambitions.' As for Thatcher, 'With such a wise and brave woman, Britain will find a solution to the strike'. The Sunday People capped this with another Iron Cur- tain story, about one Peter Chappell, a Manchester United fan, who spent seven months in a Bulgarian jail for theft. It was not 'the brutal hosepipe beating or being kicked by sadistic guards' which 'drove him to breaking point', but a 'constant barrage of propaganda tapes' praising Scargill as 'a Socialist hero'. That was 'the final bloody straw'.