Disappearing in a puff

The item “Homer’s sexual mystery” on The Times news editor’s conference list was just the kind of thing certain to cause a stir in the corridors of erudition and high education.

The best historians and classicists in Oxford and Cambridge would have, no doubt, been needed by features, the researchers would have been poised to invade Europe’s top museums and the Athens correspondent ready to scour the horizon for any ancient-looking sailing vessels plying the Aegean. The picture desk would have been ready to rouse the world’s agencies with instructions to find Homer’s descendants, arrive at their house and clear all the snaps from whatever is Greek for sideboards.

Imagine, then, the collective cerebral depression when they all discovered that this “sexed-up” Homer was not the seminal 2,800-year-old travel hack, poet and Trojan war correspondent, but the fat, balding, belching, bungling TV cartoon character of mythical Springfield, USA – one Homer Simpson.

Yet The Times devoted the whole of page five of its “comic-pact” edition to the stunning revelation that one of the cartoon’s long-term characters is to come out of the closet and there will be a same-sex marriage.

Now I do not consider myself Homer phobic. Some of my best friends are Greek, if not strictly Mycenean. But, despite such a politically correct storyline, was this really the best use of the fifth news page of The Times? One cannot imagine the equivalent happening in The Times under the editorship of a man such as John Thadeus Delane, who was at the helm of “The Thunderer” in the mid 1800s, or in the days of the three Williams in the 20th century – Casey, Haley or Rees-Mogg.

The Times’s scholarly sub-editors must have pushed aside their Debrett’s People of Today and Burke’s Peerage to make way for the Simpson Concordance where they might check names such as Comic Book Guy, Springfield’s resident nerd, or Waylon Smithers, the obsequious aide to the nuclear power plant boss, Montgomery Burns, who employs the cartoon’s hero, Homer.

Imagine their overwhelming temptation – which they professionally resisted – to slightly misspell the name of the series creator, Matt Groening, as Groaning.

So, was placing this screen-shattering news ahead of page leads such as “Chief Medical Officer attack on smoking chic”, or “3,000 more on sex crimes register”, or “Trains will run late for next five years” an exercise in political correctness? Was it the new Labour, all-inclusive script that sent instructions to the same subs to produce a sidebar referring to other “Camp Scamps” from the cartoon world? The Times told us that other cartoon characters are gay icons in America, such as Sponge Bob Square Pants, who promotes everything from lunch boxes to thongs, and then, spuriously, it dragged in Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and Tinky-Winky from the Teletubbies.

Drawing comparisons with the boss: Rupert Murdoch guest stars opposite Homer in The Simpsons

Readers must have been “flobadobbed” to have realised there were such yawning gaps in their knowledge of 21st century cartoon culture.

No, perhaps the real point of the story was in the last two paragraphs (not a place most news editors want to see the salient facts). “The Simpsons earns an estimated $2.5 billion from international syndication. The cast recently went on strike for a pay rise and now receives an estimated £4.4 million for the 22-episode season.

“The Simpsons is owned by America’s Fox television network, part of News Corporation, the parent company of The Times.” So, in cartoon speak, that’s all folks.

Page five was little more than an “advert” to urge us to watch The Simpsons, thus donating to that other Rupert annual, News Corp’s end-ofyear accounts.

But can we blame Rupert Murdoch? After all, The Times and The Sunday Times lost £28.65m in the year to June 2003 – more than enough for half a dozen new character voiceovers.

Aglance at last week’s Guardian tells us that the battle of the full and part-broadsheets is clearly hotting up. In it, the Telegraph Group’s sales director, Chris WhiteSmith, launched a counter-attack against The Times.

“The comments in the Evening Standard by the editor of The Times represented a low point, as I read a roll call of abuse,” White-Smith said. “To me, it smacked of desperation from a man with no more tricks in the bag.”

We have seen the Wapping revolution replaced by the Whopping revolution as a huge upsurge in pagination possibilities followed the new technology and now we are witnessing the Lopping revolution as The Times chases The Indy to compaction.

In my Fleet Street odyssey, I think I may be unique in having news edited The Sun and The Times. And as a newsman of some experience, I can’t help being concerned that it is not far from page five to page one, where The Times once carried nothing but adverts.

Revolutions, by their very nature, mean what comes around goes around, whether you agree or disagree.

As Homer said: “Praise from a friend or censure from a foe are lost on hearers that our merits know.”

Oh, and the other Homer added: “Doh” (at $5,000 a word).

Incidentally, with due deference to Private Eye, has anyone noticed the resemblance of The Simpsons’ Mr Burns to one Mr Murdoch? 

Charles Garside is consultant managing editor of the Daily Mail. He was editor-inchief of The European and deputy editor of the Sunday Express. He has also been an executive on the London Evening News, The Sun, the Evening Standard and The Times.

He owns Cumbria’s Miller Howe Hotel.

by guest columnist Charles Garside

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