The Grey Cardigan 09.02.2007

TEN THINGS, they taught us. Just 10 things we could mention in a story once charges were thought to be imminent if we wanted to avoid being hauled before the beak for creating a substantial risk of serious prejudice (my italics).

It was one of the most fundamental lessons of a trainee journalist's life. Apart from a horrendous and costly libel case, falling foul of a judge for contempt was the worst thing that could possibly happen to you — a certain career-stopper.

I only came close once. Subbing the splash on a downmarket tabloid, I over-egged the pudding when it came to applying a suitably evil nickname to a suspected IRA terrorist. It turned out that he wasn't known as Mad Dog Maguire at all and, once challenged by the defence to support this nomenclature, I couldn't find a single cutting naming him as such.

The judge wasn't impressed and I spent a sleepless week expecting to be held responsible for queering a lengthy and expensive trial before everyone suddenly agreed that the bastard had done it anyway and the quicker he was convicted the better.

Now I must have missed it, but it appears that Section 8 of the Magistrates' Court Act 1980 no longer applies to national newspapers. That is the only conclusion to be drawn from their reckless reporting of the recent terrorism arrests in Birmingham. (Can I even say "terrorism" there? I doubt it.)

The alleged beheading plot, the 20-strong hit list of Muslim squaddies, the front-page pictures of Ken Bigley, the attribution to Al Qaeda, the allegations about the "radical" bookshop, the ludicrous (alleged) quote from an (alleged) senior policeman about "Baghdad coming to Birmingham" … none of this stuff can possibly be permissible. (And if you've got a copper prepared to say things like that for free, why bother paying for all those lunches with CID?)

I'm on dodgy personal ground here. I really don't want to be a grass on "there but for the grace of God" grounds, but there is something seriously worrying about the way contempt laws are now routinely ignored. Perhaps it will take the failure of a high-profile trial, with Her Majesty's Press firmly to blame, before common sense — and simple justice — will prevail.

ANYWAY, ENOUGH of this right-on hand-wringing. Regular readers will be aware of my concerns regarding the current fashion of allowing pregnant television weather girls to linger on long after they should be at home resting their varicose veins.

Not only is it unfair to Wales, the residents of which receive no weather news at all during the third trimester, but it also causes widespread confusion. Take the woman reading the weather on GMTV at the moment. Now is she pregnant or is she just fat? It's an awkward question to ask, I know, but one that wouldn't be necessary if they didn't insist on parading their fecundity in front of my toast and jam. Don't blame me; blame them.

FORMER BBC arts correspondent Rosie Millard makes no secret of the fact that she's broke — that's broke apart from the buy-to-let property empire that she writes about in the Sunday Times, of course. But was it really necessary for her to resort to taking her clothes off for money? I refer to her first-person piece of last weekend in which she confessed to posing, at the age of 41, as a nude model for a life drawing class in Florence at £6.50 an hour. Given the accompanying nipple-flashing if carefully-lit picture, and some unsavoury details about personal barbering, I do hope the Sunday Times paid her a lot more than that.

You can contact me, should you be minded, at

Northcliffe Newspapers

A particularly bilious recent article in this column may well have offended journalists working at Northcliffe Newspapers. It was suggested that their titles are “no longer proud representatives of their community” and therefore, by inference, that the journalists working on those titles are not providing a service they can be proud of. We would like to withdraw those comments and apologise to our colleagues at Northcliffe for any discomfort they have suffered.

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