Dacre’s triumph, Searle’s survival and poems about microwaves

The Daily Mail was right. Not a sentence you read very often in this column, and I hope its regular captain will forgive me for spending a moment in praise of "Ayatollah" Dacre.

But in February 1997, the Stephen Lawrence case seemed hopelessly stalled: a half-hearted investigation into his killing four years earlier had been stymied by what the Macpherson report later described as "institutional racism" in the Metropolitan Police. Then the Mail did something unprecedented: it named five suspects as "murderers" on the front page, adding, "If we are wrong, let them sue us."

The decision met with unlikely praise from the left. The late campaigning journalist Paul Foot said: "I don't normally think it's right for people to be witch-hunted in this way, but in this case the legal process had run its course and the case against these men was overwhelming." Peter Preston, the then editor of the Guardian, believed it was "a valid way of expressing the extreme anger at the state this case has been left in". It also kicked off a Mail campaign of "justice for Stephen", which culminated on 3 January with the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for his murder.

Now that the law on double jeopardy has been changed - allowing suspects to be retried for the same crime if compelling new evidence comes to light - it is unlikely that the Mail's bold gesture will, or indeed should, be repeated. But the simple fact remains that Stephen was 18 years, seven months and nine days old when he died. It took 18 years, eight months and 12 days for two men to be convicted of stabbing him to death for no other reason than the colour of his skin. No wonder the "Murderers" splash is the only front page Paul Dacre has hanging in his office.

Hurrah for Searle

“If you can imagine something that weighs six stone or so, is on the point of death and has no qualities of the human condition that are not revolting, calmly lying there with a pencil and a scrap of paper, drawing, you have some idea of the difference of temperament that this man had from the ordinary human being." That was the Australian author Russell Braddon's verdict on the cartoonist Ronald Searle, who has died aged 91. The two men were among the few survivors of the Japanese POW camp at Changi in the Second World War. Searle is best known for his later work with Molesworth and St Trinian's, but I hope he will be remembered for the 300 spare, poignant drawings from the camp, which he kept safe from the sadistic guards by hiding them under the beds of cholera patients.

Glamour and Louise

I disagree with Louise Mensch on many things, starting with the Tory party being the best and continuing right down to Count Cosimo Parigi being an acceptable name for the hero of a novel (from The Devil You Know, available at all bad bookshops). But I'm with her on this - female politicians can't win. They are inevitably judged on their looks: they're dowdy frumps (or "unf***able lard-arse[s]", to quote Silvio Berlusconi's charming verdict on Angela Merkel) or kittenish sexpots. And they can't complain about it because then they're whingeing girls who can't play at the big boys' table.
This month, Mensch has been interviewed for GQ magazine. Inevitably, the subject of her looks came up - triggered in part, I'm sure, by the Guardian's decision last year to ask whether she'd had a facelift - and she said it was sexist to "trivialise a woman politician based on her appearance". She also posed wearing a knee-length skirt and a crisp white blouse.

Cue sneering. The Mail said, "Tory MP Louise Mensch has condemned the 'trivialisation' of women politicians who are judged on the basis of their appearance. However, the attack will raise eyebrows given that it came in a magazine interview accompanied by high-glamour photographs of the outspoken backbencher and chick-lit novelist." Just in case you didn't know what a "high-glamour photograph" was, it provided one - one larger than the accompanying text. The Telegraph accompanied a quarter-page photo of Mensch with an epic 93 words.

The media endlessly regurgitate stories about Mensch's appearance, then ask her about them, then get upset that she answers. They then illustrate those stories with whopping great pictures of an attractive woman because editors know that it sells papers. Talk about having your cake and eating it.

Phone of the Baskervilles

On YouTube, there's a video called "No Signal", showcasing the number of times that the phrase is trotted out by film protagonists staring disconsolately at a mobile phone, in order that the plot of a horror movie can proceed untroubled by the question: "Why not just call 999 rather than going into the spooky farmhouse with the goat corpse on the porch?"

I've worried for a while that modern technology means poetry is perpetually stuck in the 19th century - try to imagine a truly moving poem featuring a microwave - and thought it was probably ruining drama, too. Then along comes the BBC's wonderful Sherlock, which not only manages to make a believable detective series in a world where Sir Charles Baskerville could have snapped the hound on his iPhone camera, but makes Watson's blog a proper part of the plot. Now, if only someone would write that "Ode to the Defrost Setting (of My Heart)".

Mitts are off

Mitt Romney seems like the cod liver oil of the Republican Party: they don't want him, but at some point they are going to have to take him for their own good. Now the GOP has alighted on another not-Romney, the former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum (previously known only for having his Google results hijacked to return an obscenity), who trailed him in the Iowa caucus by just eight votes. Poor unloved Mitt.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama