Saturday, May 19, 2007


Asked for her views on British reporting of the disappearance of four-year-old Madeleine McCann in the Algarve, a Portuguese journalist who has lived in London for fifteen years, said that once the tabloids had written off the local police as useless foreigners, they then condemned the search dogs as equally useless because they too were foreign.
It was a light hearted comment on the reporting of a story in which there has often been very little to report.
The coverage, which has almost ignored the fact the child would not have disappeared if her parents had not left their very small children home alone, has been a spin doctor’s dream.
A great deal of credit must go to Alex Woodfall, the top PR man seconded to the Mark Warner holiday village by the Bell Pottinger Group, whose boss, Lord Bell, was Margaret Thatcher’s PR guru when she was Prime Minister.
Day after day there have been relentless, sympathetic, upbeat reports of sightings of suspicious white vans, a man taking pictures of children on a beach, two men and a mystery blonde talking to a child near a supermarket, a lurking man with dark skin and finally a suspect – though there is not enough evidence to charge him.
At times the pictures have seemed almost straight out of Hollywood - with long shots of Madeleine’s parents walking hand-in-hand alone on a deserted beach, the camera crews at a discreet distance.
Sky News devoted the child’s fourth birthday to a ‘day of special coverage.’
Condemning the secrecy of the Portuguese police on one hand, reporters have interpreted it as a sign of hope on the other.
It took a reporter from The Times, in a phone call from the distance of London, to the get the head of the local Portuguese police to admit they had got nowhere and there were no suspects - before Robert Murat became an arguido. This, as Sky’s crime correspondent, Martin Brunt, admitted, left reporters hot on the story on the ground feeling deflated.
But they have not been alone. Criminologists, retired detectives, psychiatrists, psychologists, a bevy of politicians, sports celebrities like David Beckham and people who have only a remote connection with the McCann family have all got in on the act and on the telly.
Breaking the Foreign and Commonwealth Office habit of being unhelpful to Brits in trouble abroad, our man in Portugal, John Buck, has twice shown up at Praia da Luz and FCO have sent a press officer to help the McCanns.
Labour Party Leader and PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown, who one day condemned the cult of celebrity, joined in the celebrity sympathy the next and has since said he will do anything he can to help.
Sometimes it has almost seemed as if people in the public eye were afraid not to be seen joining in the global publicity.
Now, in the continued absence of concrete information from the stonewalling Portuguese police, the coverage has become largely reports on the promotional efforts of the newly launched brand, Team McCann – an assortment of the lawyers, PR people, family and friends led Kate and Gerry McCann to keep Madeleine’s media profile high.
To date, though their web site has had a reported 75 million hits, the team has received less than £100,000 in contributions to the ‘fighting fund’ to pay for their expenses and the McCanns prolonged stay in Portugal.
With the seas of flowers, yellow ribbons, posters, cards, pictures on T-shirts and cuddly toys, there has not been such a display of media and public emotion since the death of Princess Diana a decade ago.
The same spiritual and emotional vacuum which existed when Tony Blair became Prime Minister is still there as he leaves.
As builders will not finish the conversion work on Tony Blair’s house in Connaught Square for several weeks, the reason he is clinging on at 10 Downing Street until June 27 may be just to keep a roof over his head in London. But at least he has a home to go to – unlike poor old former French President Jacques Chirac, who has swapped the splendour of the Elysee Palace for camping in a rent free apartment on the Quai Voltaire until he can get a place of his own. Perhaps the view over the Seine of the Louvre will help to compensate him for the loss of grandeur.
Copyright © Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 13, 2007


‘With hand on heart, I swear I did it all for England and St George…For this sceptred isle, set in a silver sea, and a people who are the greatest in the world, I did it my way…’
No parody of Tony Blair in Shakespeare or Sinatra mode can wholly sum up his self-justifying ‘farewell’ performance at his local Labour Club in Trimdon when he finally announced his resignation as Prime Minister on Thursday.
In fact it was an inaugural performance, a curtain raiser to the global tours he plans over the next six weeks to lay the foundation for his future career on the world stage.
Already he’s been to Paris to say au revoir to the retiring French President, Jacques Chirac, and bonjour to his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy. But as his programme is more like a rock star’s or opera diva’s concert schedule, his appearances would be really better suited to the Comedie Francais and Broadway than the Elysee Palace and the White House.
Without doubt Blair is the finest actor of his generation. His performances can make Kenneth Branagh and Sir Ian Mackellan look like amateurs. And, as his appearance in a Comic Relief sketch with Catherine Tate revealed, he really should have played himself opposite Helen Mirren in The Queen instead of Michael Sheen.
Like all great actors, when Blair gets into the part and his eyes light up with a look that says his heart is moved and he feels the emotion, he believes the words he utters.
At that moment he speaks he is as sincere as any Oscar winning star. But when the moment is over and gone, he moves on to his next role.
That is why so many people who have taken their troubles or causes to him and been convinced he was sympathetic and understood them and would do something to help, have felt let down afterwards when he did nothing.
When he told the House of Commons Saddam Hussein had non existent weapons of mass destruction which could reach the UK in forty-five minutes, by his own lights he did not think he was lying or misleading anyone; he was simply giving a powerful performance. Listening to intelligence reports, he may well have imagined a clear picture of a UK devastated to the point of extinction by nuclear explosions.
Convinced this could happen, he gave a performance in which all reality was suspended. Blair also has the supreme survivor’s talent for turning misfortune to his advantage.
Though the attempted coup to force him from office immediately last September failed but has meant he is leaving Downing Street sooner than he wished, the shabby exit meted out to Margaret Thatcher is not for him.
Instead he is the first British PM to turn his leaving into a triumphal progress from one world to the next.
And although he has long admired and yearned to join the mega rich, which book and lecture circuit deals will enable him to do, money alone will never be enough to satisfy Blair. At fifty-four, he is at an age when many men are only embarking on leading their nations.
It is also unlikely that simply joining the ranks of ex world leaders who flog themselves around the world as roving ambassadors or mediators will be enough for him for long.
Blair will still hanker after power and may already have his eyes on the day when the revised new European Union constitution is finally agreed and a new President has real power.
He may even believe it is only right that he should become the first really powerful President of Europe.
Copyright © Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved

Saturday, May 05, 2007


Despite objections by his neighbours, Prime Minster Tony Blair this week got permission from Westminster City Council to redevelop his retirement home in Connaught Square.
Blair’s plans to knock his £3.65 million house and the £800,000 mews property he recently bought at the back of it into one have caused consternation among residents.
They fear that he might hold ‘disruptive’ parties on a planned roof terrace and cause a ‘nuisance’ in summer. They also object to the prospect of smells from barbecues, slam his intended solar panels as nothing but a ‘fashion accessory’ and fear security measures to protect him might disturb the peace of the square.
Though people who attended a recent meeting of the Hyde Park Residents Association at which his lawyer wife, Cherie, appeared, describe her as ‘not nearly as bad as expected,’ the question which remains on their lips is: why did they have to come here?
Though Westminster City Council is Conservative controlled, they obviously felt they could not refuse a soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister, even if some of his terrible friends might disturb the peace.
Perhaps they felt intimidated. Or took the view that there could be no better base for an ex-Prime Minister who reportedly plans a global role, combining an envoy’s job in the Middle East and Africa with a string of non-executive directorships and multi-million pound book and American lecture circuit deals.
The House in Connaught Square sounds like the title of a Henry James novel or one in an historical family series by a modern saga writer.
Despite its location just behind the Arab Quarter in the Edgware Road and closeness to the hub of Oxford Street (made even busier by the recent opening of Primark at Marble Arch), the Georgian square exudes the tranquillity of a bygone age.
Centuries-old plane trees gracefully drape their branches over the gardens where residents and their families hold summer garden parties and, despite showbiz and media people being among them, the atmosphere is quiet and conservative.
But Connaught Square will not be as pleasant once the Blairs move in. This peaceful oasis will become a front line fortress in the ‘war on terror’ in which Blair has played such a leading role.
There is word that a security gate will be erected at the entrance to the mews in which the second house is situated and through traffic may be banned from the square.
But perhaps the presence of the Blairs may inspire a 21st century saga or soap opera called The House In Connaught Square.
Ask any ordinary Briton who has ever faced problems abroad about the help they got from the British embassy and they will answer zilch.
The campaign for the release of Alan Johnson, the BBC correspondent in Gaza, has been led by his employers, not the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The one time they acted quickly was when some of their own vanished in Ethiopia earlier this year.
The prompt arrival of the ambassador to Portugal, John Buck, on the Algarve to assist the parents of the kidnapped three-year-old Madeleine McCann is something new.
Let’s hope it marks a change in attitude towards the people the FCO are supposed to look out for and help in foreign parts. Copyright © Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved