The traditional summer “silly season” finally arrived in Fleet Street Friday when most British papers chose as their top news story a claim that sunbathing is good for you. A report published in the British Medical Journal by a team of Bristol epidemiologists infuriated cancer charities by saying there is “evidence that the potential benefits of exposure to sunlight may outweigh the widely publicised adverse effects on the incidence of skin cancer.” The report, which led the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph and made the front pages of the Times and the Independent, said that sunbathing could protect against heart disease and multiple sclerosis and that more people would die from keeping out of the sun than from being in it. The report also made the banal observations that “people find lying or sitting in the sun enjoyable and relaxing” and that “this subjective sense of well-being may be important in itself in improving the quality of a person’s life.”
An even sillier “silly season” story, appearing the same day on the front pages of the Times and the Financial Times, concerned the British government’s decision to establish a task force to study the threat of an asteroid hitting Earth and destroying all life on the planet. The FT said that a plan to avert Armageddon has been demanded of the government by an opposition member of parliament named Lembit Opik, whose Estonian grandfather Ernst had an asteroid named after him. Asked whether the proposed establishment of a Near Earth Object Task Force wasn’t rather a limp response to such a cataclysmic threat, a spokesman for the Science Ministry said defensively, “It’s not as if there are asteroids hovering above the earth.”
Other prominent stories in the British press included Thursday’s $90 million record-breaking sale at Christie’s in London of a famous art collection looted by the Nazis from the Austrian Rothschilds in 1938 and recently restored to their American heirs, and the news that fox hunting is almost certain to be abolished in Britain now that Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he will support legislation against it.
The Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, and the Independent ran editorials Friday about Britain’s re-establishment this week of diplomatic relations with Tripoli following Libya’s belated admission of responsibility for the 1984 death of a British policewoman who was killed by shots fired from the Libyan Embassy in London. The FT said this was the right decision, not because Muammar Qaddafi was now “a Jeffersonian democrat” but because “he has started to come into line with international law enough to justify a policy of engagement rather than isolation.” The Telegraph, however, said that behind this decision and an earlier one by Britain to exchange ambassadors with Iran lay “an unwillingness to stand up to terror-sponsoring regimes that have large commercial contracts in their gift.” The paper said Britain’s current cozying-up to Libya, Iran, and China distances it from the United States and “exposes the Government’s proclaimed Atlanticism as increasingly questionable.” The Independent, on the other hand, supported the Libya decision on the opposite ground–“that by establishing dialogue, we are differentiating ourselves from the US.” It said, “Britain too often comes across as an American cat’s-paw.”
A report in the Guardian Friday from Tehran said that conservative clerics have struck a blow at Iran’s reforming President Mohammed Khatami by closing the newspaper Salam, which helped his rise to power. There were now fears that two other progressive Iranian newspapers, Sobh-e-Emrouz and Kordad, will be closed down. A bill that the clerics pushed through parliament Wednesday restricting press freedom is expected to compel journalists to reveal sources and to bar many opposition writers and editors from “any form of press activity,” the Guardian said.
The Guardian led its international section Friday with accusations that the Pakistani government executed hundreds of suspected criminals before they were brought to trial. In Punjab, the home province of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, more than 850 people have been shot by police since he came to power two years ago, according to a Punjabi paper, the News. The police explanation of these killings is often that the suspects died “in cross-fire” during street battles with criminal gangs, but Pakistani lawyers and human rights groups say the killings are deliberate and authorized by Sharif’s government, the Guardian said. It also quoted what it said was a recent U.S. State Department report on Pakistan saying that “the police committed numerous extra-judicial killings and tortured, abused and raped citizens” and that “there is no evidence that any police officers were brought to justice.”
The same Sharif promised President Clinton that he will hand over Osama Bin Laden to U.S. authorities at the earliest opportunity, the Indian daily Asian Age said Friday. In its main front-page story, the paper reported from London–where the prime minister stopped to meet with Tony Blair on his way home from Washington–that this was one of Clinton’s conditions for brokering a peace deal between Pakistan and India over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Another was the early withdrawal of Muslim mujahideen guerrillas from Kashmir, whose incursions there are the cause of the latest India-Pakistan military conflict. Bin Laden, accused by the United States of masterminding the terrorist bombings of U.S. missions in East Africa last year, is hiding in Afghanistan under the patronage of the Pakistan-supported Taliban regime, Asian Age said. The United States has demonstrated its seriousness about getting its hands on him by announcing simultaneously with Sharif’s arrival in Washington that it is freezing trade with “all territory under Taliban control or influence.”