This week has seen a head-on collision between two institutions that truly deserve each other: the British Royal Family and the British tabloid press. If you live in Britain, you'll hardly have been able to avoid knowing all about the story. If you don't, you may find it hard to believe.
Sophie Wessex, alias the Countess of Wessex, public relations consultant and wife of Prince Edward, has been the victim of an undercover operation by the 'News Of The World' - a publication long renowned as the UK's most shamelessly salacious Sunday scandal sheet.
The 'NOTW' sent an undercover reporter to talk to the Countess and her business partner Murray Harkin.
The reporter claimed to be a businessman from Dubai, and said he was interested in employing the services of RJH Public Relations, the Countess and Harkin's PR firm. He led her into a lengthy discussion in which she expressed her thoughts on the leading lights of British politics and on the family into which she married, often in unflattering terms. Harkin was also taken in by the 'NOTW' ruse, and admitted to enjoying the occasional line of cocaine.
The story dominated the British news media for a week. The full transcript of the interview was published last Sunday, and its impact was shattering - for the Countess and Harkin, at least. Both felt obliged to resign from their positions in their PR company.
Meanwhile, Buckingham Palace announced plans for new guidelines about what sort of employment might in future be considered suitable for the minor Royals. Over the last weekend, the British news media was full of earnest discussions about the devastating effect this scandal might have upon the institution of the monarchy. There were even those who suggested that this might spell the end of the Royal Family as we know it.
In fact, it all turned into a tale reminiscent of the famous fable of the Emperor's New Clothes. The key points of the Countess' New Revelations can be summarised as follows:
- She disagrees with the UK Government's plans to outlaw hunting with dogs. She believes that these plans demonstrate that Prime Minister Tony Blair has no understanding of the countryside and those who live there.
- She was unimpressed with the Budget recently unveiled by Chancellor (finance minister) Gordon Brown, feeling that the changes Brown introduced were 'pap' aimed at pleasing the electorate before the anticipated UK General Election.
- She thinks that William Hague, leader of Britain's Conservative Party, is intelligent but 'speaks like a puppet'.
- She thinks that Prince Charles is a nice, unfairly-maligned guy.
- Er... that's about it.
In short, Sophie Wessex has just the sort of views that you'd expect from someone in her social position. Given that indulgence in blood sports is pretty much part of the job description for the Royals, it's scarcely a great shock that she feels compelled to defend them; and her view of Blair as a city-dweller who misunderstands the countryside merely parrots the rhetoric of the Countryside Alliance, the main pressure group fighting the hunting ban. Of course Brown's Budget was aimed at winning votes - he's a politician with an imminent election to fight!
The comment about Hague was the nearest she got to an original observation, and I'm not sure quite what she meant - off-hand I can't think of a puppet that barks soundbites in a nasal Yorkshire accent like Hague does. But the Conservative leader's manner irritates plenty of people, so even this observation is a minor variation on a familiar theme.
And she likes her brother-in-law. Wow.
We shouldn't forget Harkin's part in the tale, especially as the 'NOTW' have claimed that the original aim of their operation was to 'expose' his lifestyle - but even here, the 'revelation' is that a man in the PR industry allegedly snorts coke. Well I never! If they could find a PR person who's 100% clean and sober, then I'd really be shocked.
To think I even took a look at CNN's website to try to get an American perspective on it all! Of course there was nothing there, because in truth there was nothing to report - and yet the British media was swamped by the story.
Someone expressed some rather banal, predictable opinions, and a nation behaved as if the sky was falling in. Why? Because the 'someone' was royal, and we British are taught from birth to revere the Royal Family as the source of all stability.
Isn't it time we realised that they're just a group of fallible humans who act out rather archaic, absurd roles in our society; and isn't it time for those roles to be re-defined for the 21st century?
A pointless exorcise
The News Of The World's scoop on Countess Sophie may have caused a sensation, but it seems even more mundane when compared to the remarkable news one Croatian paper, 'Vecernji', broke last week.
'Vecernji' is normally a pretty sober and sensible journal, concentrating largely on politics. But last week it solemnly reported to its readers that around 100,000 people in the city of Zagreb are possessed by the devil, and that the local Catholic church is desperately trying to recruit enough exorcists to cope with the crisis. It also warned that 3,000 Satanists will be meeting in Zagreb later this month in the hope of persuading their horned friend to put in a personal appearance.
The good citizens of mainly Catholic Croatia have reacted in a variety of ways to the story, with some taking it seriously and others treating it as a joke. One man reportedly ran into a bar in the centre of Zagreb screaming:
and ran into a woman's arms, to general laughter.
But 'Vecernji' has insisted that it is serious about the story, and has gravely advised its readers to
'make a thorough confession'
and repent their sins if they fear that they too may be playing host to Old Nick.
Here's the bit that worries me, though: the paper says that the symptoms of demonic possession include 'nausea and tiredness'.
I often feel a bit like that on a Sunday morning! The beer in my local pub must be Beelzebub's Best Bitter!
How did (or do) you like your school days? Personally I couldn't wait to get out. So I have some sympathy for the 11-year-old New Yorker who recently faked his own kidnapping in order to avoid a maths exam.
The boy, whose name has not been disclosed, rushed up to a police officer in Manhattan and claimed that he'd just escaped after being abducted by a man in a van - a story that initially seemed highly plausible, as there had recently been a spate of kidnappings in Brooklyn involving the kind of methods the boy described.
When the officer asked the boy to describe the van, he pointed to a green vehicle stuck in traffic nearby. The unfortunate driver was detained for several hours before the boy broke down and confessed the truth.
The lad's sister later told the 'New York Post':
'He's sorry it happened. Sometimes the kids in school can be a little too harsh. He was just afraid to go to school.'
On the other hand, some people just can't get enough of school. Like, for instance, Treva Throneberry, who has just left the aptly-named Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Washington State, at the age of 31.
Throneberry convinced the school authorities that she was a homeless teenager named Brianna Stewart. She now faces theft and fraud charges, since the state authorities paid for her tuition and foster care.
Showing a gift for understatement, her lawyer Kathleen McCann has commented:
'There is a whole history of confusion with her identity.'
The case comes to court on May 23. I hope the ingenious Throneberry doesn't get kept in detention for too long. It sounds like she could have a bright future as an actress.
The Satanic Pikachu
In a move which many parents around the world may well applaud, religious authorities in the United Arab Emirates have issued a fatwa against Pokémon.
The Research and Fatwa Administration in Dubai has condemned Pokémon because, they say, it
'...clearly contains gambling, where one side loses to the benefit of the other side.'
They also believe that the game promotes violence, and object to the 'evolution' aspect of the game. Pokémon, they say
'...is based on the theory of evolution, a Jewish-Darwinist theory, that conflicts with the truth about humans and with Islamic principles.'
Nintendo, the perpetrators of the Pokémon phenomenon, have staunchly defended their global goldmine, insisting that the fatwa is based on a misunderstanding. They say that their game is not meant for gambling, and has no religious significance.
I can believe that. I can also believe that Pokémon is one of the most cynical child-exploiting crazes ever, turning kids into compulsive collectors. For 'Gotta catch 'em all', read 'gotta buy 'em all'. The fatwa is right about one side losing to the other's benefit. It's hard-pressed parents who are losing, and Nintendo who are winning.
Still, it all makes good business sense, eh?
Socceroos sock it to 'em
Soccer is some way down the list of sporting priorities in Australia, a land more interested in rugby, cricket and its own creation, Australian Rules Football. But the national soccer team - the 'Socceroos', as they're known to their fans - are making a spirited bid to change all that.
On Monday, they took on Tonga in a World Cup qualifying match - and the scoreline broke the world record for a competitive international. Australia won 22-0.
The record lasted for two days - until Australia's next World Cup match, against American Samoa. From the Samoans' point of view, the good news was that they stopped Australia scoring for eight minutes. The bad news was that once they scored, the Socceroos kept on scoring. Their striker Archie Thompson set a new individual record by scoring 13 goals. His team-mate David Zdrilic managed a relatively feeble eight. Final score: Australia 31, American Samoa 0. Afterwards, the American Samoa coach Tony Langkilde admitted that it had been difficult giving a half-time team talk to his side when they were already trailing 16-0.
'It is very hard to pick your players up when they are so far behind at the interval,'
'The crazy thing is our goalkeeper had kept the score down with a magnificent display.
We will get better by the match. Some of the players have never played a full 90 minutes before this game. But despite what some people say, I refuse to accept that we are the worst team in the world. We have to move on. My plan for the next four years is to groom a team capable of qualifying for the World Cup in 2006.'
Such unquenchable optimism is truly admirable. Come on you Samoans!
I'm moving on myself for an old-fashioned English seaside holiday next week and The Post takes a break the week after, so see you in three weeks!