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This sanctimonious whiff of disapproval

On balance, it was probably not a very good idea for Lady Black, in the early days of the trial of her husband Conrad, to call a Canadian TV producer a "slut". Nor was her subsequent characterisation of the entire journalistic profession as "vermin" particularly sensible or well-timed. As Barbara Amiel, Lady Black was once a columnist herself and her husband was a newspaper proprietor. Since he now faces the possibility of spending many years in jail if found guilty, it was, one might think, a moment to cultivate friends in the press rather than trashing them. Admittedly, the Blacks had been on the receiving end of a comprehensive duffing-up in the press. He has been portrayed as a monstrous, overbearing robber-baron while she is presented as the unholy conflation of Lady Macbeth, Mata Hari and Imelda Marcos. But, in a sense, Lady Black was right. There has indeed been...

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Truly daring remarks from a voice of sanity

In the relatively unlikely event of Britain becoming a republic and there being a vacancy for a wise, sensitive, public-spirited person to become head of state, there can surely be only one candidate. He is the man with whom Tony Blair shared a thoughtful podcast last month and to whom, a few days later, Robbie Williams turned for advice on the question of addiction. Prince Charles is said to consult him. He has been in prison, has shared his personal experience of depression in a television documentary and has written a book about how to write poetry. Not only a successful novelist, actor and comedian, he is thought by a startling number of people to have an unusually brilliant brain. Stephen Fry has had two public thoughts this week. First, in unnecessarily lavatorial terms, he proclaimed his disgust at the celebrity skating programme Dancing on Ice. Then he wondered out...

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What is so thrilling about killing a deer?

An exciting new sport is becoming popular in America. Enterprising safari owners have realised that there is good money to be made from the internet and are bringing the joys of hunting animals into the home. A variety of mammals - antelope, wild pig, deer and others - roam in an enclosed safari park where there are a number of rigs with webcams and remote-control .22 rifles. Online hunters can, at a click of the mouse, shoot an animal and, for a fee, be sent its mounted head. It is now possible to be a successful sportsman, with a wall covered in trophies, without actually leaving the house. There are social benefits to the new sport, according to its supporters. By keeping a distance from his prey, man is becoming more evolved and civilised as a hunter, moving from bare hands, to a blade, to a gun and to a...

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If academics can’t think freely, who can?

There is more than a hint of Lucky Jim to Professor David Coleman, as he poses for a photograph, tweed-jacketed, in his book-lined room at Oxford. He looks like a man who would rather enjoy stirring things up and goosing the pieties of the moment. Somehow it is no great surprise to learn he acts as an adviser to the controversial think-tank MigrationWatch UK and has argued that "the net contribution by immigrants to average national income per head was equivalent to about a Mars bar a week." All of which has, unsurprisingly, enraged the Oxford branch of a charitable organisation called Student Action for Refugees, or Star, which exists to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and campaign on their behalf. The raising of awareness in this case would be best served, the Star activists think, by trying to get Coleman, a professor of demography, sacked. They have...

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The sorry state of these latter-day icons

An alarming insight into the minds of the people of Warwick has been provided by the psychology department of the town's university. A study into British attitudes to character, published in the magazine Personality and Individual Differences, interviewed 17,056 adults, 40 per cent of whom were graduates, and a third of whom were managers or professionals. Given a list of 24 virtues and asked which one they most aspired to, the majority of men chose open-mindedness, followed by fairness, curiosity and a love of learning. Women were rather keener on kindness and love. But it was when participants were asked which public figures best represented each quality that the survey became distinctly odd. As symbols of open-mindedness, the men chose Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir Winston Churchill. For women, kindness was best embodied by another unlikely couple, Florence Nightingale and Esther Rantzen. A love of learning? Obviously that would be...

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Enough of this defeatism about the Olympics

So, the great carnival of celebration that will climax in five and a half years' time with the London Olympics is now under way. This week the former rower Sir Steve Redgrave is launching a campaign to find some quite tall schoolchildren who might be interested in playing for Britain's beach volleyball team in 2012. Former 400m world champion Roger Black has been encouraging sport at primary schools in a Radio 4 series. In the background, beyond these initiatives, is the suave, neat figure of Lord Coe. Somehow, as a lead-up to the first global sporting event to take place in Britain for more than 40 years, these pre-Olympic campaigns fail to set the pulse racing. Even if the worthy figures of Sir Steve, Lord Seb and Roger were joined by other sporting stars - Dame Kelly Holmes to encourage girl athletes, perhaps, Zara Phillips to tour pony clubs -...

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Pimp your ride the green celebrity way

There is some good news at last this week for Planet Earth. The writer Iain Banks has announced to the press that he has undergone a major change of conviction about the environment, and is changing his lifestyle accordingly. He will vote for the Green Party. He has bought a wind turbine to put on his roof. All the light-bulbs in his home have been replaced by high-energy ones. "Anyone in the public eye has a duty to behave responsibly," he says. "I've had my fun and now I'm trying to be better behaved." The author's supreme sacrifice has been to sell all his cars, which include two top-of-the-range Porsches, a 3.8-litre Jag, a five-litre BMW and a souped-up Land Rover Defender. From now on, he is to economise with a £40,000 Lexus RX400h, whose sophisticated design reduces emissions and fuel consumption. Heart-warming as it is, this public display of...

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Why do we want marital perfection in our leaders?

As a political leader nears the end of his period in power, he is likely to loosen up in interviews and perhaps even in the way he behaves. He might admit that, early in his career, he was too eager to be liked. Or he could become inappropriately flirtatious with younger women. He might even confess to having had a few mistresses on the side during his younger days. Thanks to Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi and Jacques Chirac, we have recently been treated to a masterclass in the different types of political frankness in Europe. Blair confessed to John Humphrys that, when he first became Prime Minister, he might have been rather too nice for the job. Berlusconi's misbehaviour has been rather more interesting. Last month he made a clumsy pass at a couple of young beauty queens and was subsequently obliged to make a public apology to his wife....

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The dangers of email dependency

How did they feel, the 1.8 million protesters, when this week they received a long email in response to their petition from the Prime Minister? They had logged on to the Downing Street website, a new exercise in online consultation with voters. They had registered their online disapproval of road taxes. Finally each and every one of them was contacted, online, by Tony Blair and thanked for their interest. A few, presumably, will have felt a warm glow of civic pride, a sense that computer technology had brought government closer to the people, but not, I suspect, many. If I were one of the 1.8 million, the idea that all that cybernetic toing and froing had merely allowed Blair to drop a personalised mailshot into my inbox would have enraged me. The protest and its response would have felt like an exercise in futility. But then cyberprotest is to politics...

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For Lent, could we all just calm down a bit?

It is the season for self-mortification with the start today of Lent, one of Christianity's better inventions. There is much to be said for a short, bracing spell in our personal wilderness, without booze or chocolate or fags or TV, and pre-spring, these few glorious weeks of chilly anticipation, is the perfect moment for it. But perhaps it is time to extend the list of Lent resolutions to include less obvious, more emotional indulgences. We might, for a start, deprive ourselves of the heady pleasure of flashing around feelings when what is needed is argument and thought. When, to take a small example, the actor Richard Wilson wanted to express his disapproval of the Government, as he did in an interview this week, he would, during Lent, avoid deploying the term "deeply upset", as if the policies of Tony Blair had made him want to cry. Recently, supporting a view...

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