Alexander Chancellor's Week

Party Time
Jan. 31 2002 3:09 PM

Alexander Chancellor's Week

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Luckily I was asked to a dinner party last night in fashionable Notting Hill, for while I was absent from my home in rather less fashionable Hammersmith, a gun battle was taking place in a street nearby. The Uxbridge Road is about 10 minutes away on foot, and various members of my extended family live immediately around it. It must have been quite alarming for them, for today's Evening Standard records in a front-page splash that gangsters burst into Nando's chicken restaurant and started firing away, killing one man and wounding a waitress in the arm. More people were hurt during a bungled getaway in which a car doing 60 mph, with a wounded man at the wheel, crashed into the window of an estate agents' office. Scotland Yard says it believes that the incident involved rival Jamaican gangs known as "Yardies", which is rather worrying for us west Londoners, as up till now we had thought that "Yardies" carried out their gang battles far away south of the Thames. London seems to be getting more and more like New York in the 1970s, with street violence spiralling out of control all over the place. The police had earlier posted notices around the Uxbridge Road area, warning muggers to refrain from mugging because they were being watched. They might have done better to post notices warning nonmuggers that they were likely to be mugged.

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I am hardly ever invited to a dinner party, so it was pretty exciting to go to one—especially to one at which almost everybody else was roughly half my age (which is 62). The oldest other person there was a woman seated on my left who turned out to be a well-known costume designer, entitled to vote in this year's Oscars. I asked her for what films she had recently designed the costumes, and she mentioned Saving Private Ryan. She said she had had 4,000 uniforms made for the cast. That must have been quite easy, I thought, wondering why Stephen Spielberg hadn't simply bought or rented the costumes from army surplus. But they don't do things that way in Hollywood. On my right sat a glamorous young piano teacher, who also accompanies singing stars when they appear on television. One of her regulars is the blind Italian tenor, Andrea Bocelli, whose classical recordings outsell many pop CDs. She revealed to my astonishment that they usually record the music beforehand, with her playing the accompaniment on a nasty little clapped-out upright piano. Then they do it again for the cameras, with Bocelli miming and her performing on a splendid Yamaha grand—but with all the strings taken out of it. It seems very extravagant of the BBC to buy a Yamaha grand, only to remove its strings. The explanation escapes me. But maybe television is by now so hooked on illusion and trickery that it can no longer do anything in a straightforward way.

The news on the car radio today is that Lord Wakeham has stepped down—only temporarily, he says—as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). A former Conservative energy minister and a qualified accountant, Lord Wakeham reportedly earned £80,000 ($113,000) a year from Enron as a nonexecutive director and a member of the board's audit committee. In a statement, Lord Wakeham said he was stepping aside "as a matter of honour" in order to co-operate with the Independent Investigating Committee on Enron in the United States. "As chairman of the PCC for the past seven years, I am only too aware of the damage that can be done to individuals and institutions that are thrust into the public spotlight. Since the collapse of Enron, I have been unable to make any statement or undertake any interviews on the subject for legal reasons. I am conscious that some see this position as incompatible with the chairmanship of the commission." Some do, indeed. And some also think it was high time he went, even without the collapse of Enron, in which I cannot bring myself to take an interest. It's all too complicated, and I don't even really understand what Enron actually did. I know that it gave large financial contributions to both the Labour and the Conservative parties in Britain, and that the British Government is suspected as a result of looking indulgently on its purchase of Wessex Water (which some people think it ought to have referred to the Monopolies Commission). But why was an "energy" corporation wanting a water company in the first place? I look back nostalgically to a time when telephone companies sold telephone services, electricity companies sold electricity, and gas companies sold gas, instead of all competing with each other to sell all three.

The PCC, established as a supposedly tough self-regulatory body to avoid government restraints on the excesses of the press, started off quite well, issuing rebukes left, right, and centre to newspapers that harassed people or intruded on their privacy. But Lord Wakeham soon became suspected of special concern for the interests of the royal family and of other establishment grandees, like the Blairs. For example, the PCC upheld a royal complaint about innocent press photographs of Prince William on an outward bound holiday in Chile, crossing rivers and doing other vigorous things, on the grounds that Prince William was not in a place where photographers would normally have been and must, therefore, have been a victim of "persistent pursuit", which the PCC's Code of Practice forbids. This week the PCC upheld a complaint by Tony and Cherie Blair against the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail for publishing the information, taken from a public university notice board, that their 17-year-old son Euan was applying for a place at Trinity College, Oxford. Compare these rulings to its finding against the television newsreader Anna Ford when she complained about being photographed with a long lens as she sunbathed in her swimsuit with her American astronaut boyfriend David Scott on the beach of a Majorca hotel. It rejected her complaint because the hotel beach in question was accessible to the public, and therefore not private. The same could presumably be said of Chile.

The news that Guy Black, the director of the PCC, lives with Mark Bolland, the deputy private secretary of Prince Charles, and that they are both close friends of Rebekah Wade, the editor of the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch's most scurrilous tabloid, did not enhance the Commission's reputation for independence and impartiality. But its fall from grace can really be dated from the preposterous party it threw last year in Somerset House to celebrate its 10th anniversary. The 600 guests included Prince William, Prince Charles, Camilla Parker Bowles, and a host of television soap opera stars. You don't expect a public body dedicated to the cause of maintaining ethical standards in the Press to be dazzled by glitz and the celebrity culture. But everyone seems to be nowadays, as the National Portrait Gallery showed again this week. And although I was a press columnist in a national newspaper at the time, I didn't, of course, receive an invitation from the PCC.

Alexander Chancellor is a co-editor of Slate UK.

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