Banks' Notes 10.02.06

Dateline: Malta ABROAD is a fine place to be when a big news story breaks. Abroad and Out of Season is an even better bolt-hole: dislocated from everyday cares, experiencing nothing more pressing than killing time over a beer while waiting for the London papers to arrive.

‘Abroad’ is where you can safely own up to being a journalist without: [A] inhabiting in the minds of fellow travellers a social position two rungs below that of a timeshare rep; or [B] possessing the morals of a "consolidate your debts" company; or [C] exhibiting the IQ of a Celebrity Big Brother contestant.

True, there are downsides to being abroad. There is BBC World, international television’s 24-hour rolling news programming, which used to cackle across the ether like a lame dog limping after expats, hauling in its wake the even lamer jokes of Nicholas Parsons and Just A Minute with a bit of Farming Today to the strains of Lilli Bolero.

Now, clad in a revolting revolving orange logo and presented by young men and women with accents far too perfectly cut-glass to be even remotely British, it is simply a succession of reports of riotous assemblies in which flags are burned, buildings gutted, embassies ransacked and tears flow piteously. Usually from somewhere in the Middle East.

It’s as if the BBC’s collective news resources have died and gone to Damascus.

I’m beginning to believe that the Great News Editor in the Sky was correct in predicting that Fleet Street’s last grand circulation battle would take place on the dusty plains of the Sinai, the last knockings officiated over by a vengeful Robert Fisk and assisted by Orla Guerin and Fergal Keane.

Anyway, Abroad is as good a place to be as any when a big news story breaks. And there have been few bigger stories than the outcry that accompanied the decision by a Danish newspaper to liven up its Middle East coverage with a not-very-good artist’s impression of the Prophet (peace be upon Him).

I don’t propose to go into the rights and wrongs of the case here; my editor has problems enough of his own without waking in a sweat at the idea of a blazing, ink-stained rag being stuffed into the letterbox of his Old Bailey eyrie.

But I am both proud and relieved that British journalism was not tempted to repeat a folly that, while harmless to most, would have been mindlessly incendiary to many.

Anyone seriously doubting the ability of an otherwise rational human being to foam at the mouth over a piece of "harmless"

blasphemy need only have witnessed my liberal Catholic motherin- law’s apoplexy at witnessing a trailer for Monty Python’s Life of Brian 20 years ago, a tight-lipped fury repeated whenever the subject is mentioned.

Finally, if I were Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, I would keep a close eye on the HB pencil that is Steve Bell’s crude missile — don’t dare take a day off, Rusty old boy!

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