In the late 1980s, during an August bereft of big news, an exceptional heatwave hit Greece. At the Independent's editorial conference, it was suggested that this story should lead the paper. The acting editor thought for a while. "No," he said, "it's not an Independent sort of story. I do not see any policy issues." How times change. Nobody now finds difficulty giving a natural disaster a political twist.
The press always wants a narrative, preferably with heroes and villains. In the hurricane of 1987, the fall guy was the BBC weatherman Michael Fish, who had assured viewers the previous evening that there would be strong winds, but no hurricane. The press - particularly comment-page pundits - struggled for a while with the Asian tsunami until somebody remembered that all weather events are supposed to be acts of God. Sure enough, a spate of articles demanding to know what the hell God thought He was doing duly followed.
For Hurricane Katrina, George W Bush is cast in the Michael Fish role.
Hard luck, Dubbya; you had it coming to you. But I feel the teeniest, weeniest smidgen of sympathy. If Bush was slow to grasp the scale of the disaster, so were sections of the press. The hurricane struck on Monday 29 August but the Daily Mail, for example, did not have it on the front page until the following Thursday; it rated 24-hour drinking, Kylie, the killer nurse and Ken Clarke as more important. By Friday the Mail had an angle: it was a law-and-order story, which probably required Asbos to be slapped on everybody still in New Orleans. "Law of the gun", proclaimed its headline. "Snipers fire at rescue teams." The lugubrious Anthony Daniels (who also writes as Theodore Dalrymple) was wheeled on to explain that "humans are, at heart, vandals and looters" and "civilisation is but a veneer".
It was several days before even the more liberal papers seemed to understand that there were no rescue teams to speak of, that the poor had stayed in New Orleans because they had no transport, rather than because they had chosen "to ride out Hurricane Katrina" (Guardian, 31 August), and that people were "looting" mainly because they needed food which, if left alone, would have just rotted in abandoned shops.
The first columnist to spot that the great majority of people trapped in New Orleans were black, and that this was largely a story about racism, poverty and social injustice, was, I think, Mary Dejevsky on Thursday in the Independent, a paper that kept ahead throughout.
By the weekend (3/4 September), the papers were agreed that the story was Bush's incompetence and America's inequalities. By Monday, the Guardian could write of little else, with three columnists - Jonathan Freedland, Gary Younge and Peter Preston - weighing in. On the internet, controversy raged about two similar photos, one from Agence France-Presse, the other from Associated Press, both shown on Yahoo! News.
The first, according to the caption, showed "two residents" wading through "chest-deep water" after "finding bread and soda". They were white. The second showed a "young man", also "chest-deep" in water, after "looting a grocery store". He was black.
The Daily Telegraph didn't care for the drift of the New Orleans story at all. Normally big on the weather, it confined its coverage on Monday to a below-the-fold story on the front and an understated spread on pages 10 and 11. A leader pondered "Hobbesian disorder", censured "the small, but significant, proportion of New Orleanians" who decided "to stay in the city and to loot it", and concluded that the message to America was "to heal its underclass", which is Tory code for cutting welfare benefits.
No policy issues? We're chest-deep in them.
As a lifelong cricket fan I have probably been more excited about this Ashes summer than most people. But my pleasure was tempered by the nonsense that has rippled, like a Mexican wave, through the newspapers. The press's problem is that, because nobody cares about county cricket, there are only two teams and 22 players to write about. Only two are injured, one or two more are suspected of sexual hanky-panky and none has put in a transfer request or a demand for higher wages. So, between Tests, there's not much to report.
This may explain why the Independent allowed the former Somerset captain Peter Roebuck, who was convicted in 2001 of caning young players he had been coaching, a double-page spread on 3 September to consider "cricket's cultural revolution". This turned into a rambling, quasi-political history of Britain since 1981. During this period, we learned, "England became an inward-looking land", "comedy and creativity suffered" and "education collapsed". All this was relevant because "sporting success depends on a supreme gathering of the will".
As Geoffrey Boycott might say, my mum could have done a better job, writing with a cat's tail dipped in coal dust.