London's Daily Telegraph is probably best known, at least to press-watchers here in America, as the home base of the infamous Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the paper's Washington correspondent and resident Vince Foster buff, a man whose enthusiasm for baroque conspiracy theories rivals that of Jim Garrison. Evans-Pritchard, a self-described "Tory hooligan" and (anti-) "Clinton crazy" who recently lauded American militia members as "a civic network of Americans with a high degree of political awareness, resisting the apathy and lassitude of an atomized, television society," has been energetically covering the conspiracy beat since 1994. He "has become a hero among the crazies for bringing a certain Fleet Street flair to rumors circulating in Little Rock," Philip Weiss wrote recently in the New York Times Magazine.
But then, the Telegraph brings a certain Fleet Street flair to everything it touches. Indeed, the American fixation on Evans-Pritchard may be distracting attention from the Telegraph's real charm: its almost deliciously sordid coverage of low crimes and misdemeanors. With its parade of "sex pests" and depraved killers, pigeon fanciers and dirty vicars, the Telegraph offers a glimpse into the danker corners of a nation's soul.
The Telegraph is not the first place most Londoners think to turn for the latest on real-life sex and violence: For unadulterated sleaze one is better served by the city's legendary tabloids, filled with breathless reports of scandal and scantily clad girlie pictures, all arranged garishly and haphazardly across page after page of graphic chaos. But the Telegraph brings more than mere Fleet Street flippancy to its crime and scandal coverage. Its reports from the gutter have a truly Dickensian feel.
In the Telegraph (whose electronic version has been on the Web longer than the New York Times), one finds crime victims describing their attackers as "a small band of villains"; one finds an alleged child molester (and a vicar to boot) explaining that it's "a normal thing" to bite young boys' bottoms during bedtime play; one finds a poor Mrs. Bottom helping police "compile an artist's impression" of her attacker and "subsequently pick[ing] him out at an identity parade." The name, of course, is perfect, and even Roseanne and all her multiple personalities would have a hard time keeping up with an "identity parade." It would almost be worth committing a crime just to be part of one.
The Brits are masters at a kind of language that somehow manages to be direct and discreet at once. This is especially the case when the Telegraph coverage turns, as it often does, to matters of sex. Our sexual euphemisms have the ring of the sociology textbook about them. Here we speak somberly and solemnly of "sexual harassment." The Brits, by contrast, complain of bothersome "sex pests."
A recent search of the Telegraph's online archives shows that such pests can show up in the unlikeliest of places. "Millionaire sex pest jailed for six months," one headline reassuringly tells us. "Sex pest played the war hero to impress court," another headline sniffs. "Man from Pru loses sex pest sacking appeal," still another notes, almost sadly. A report from last September ("Husband's sex pest trap was too alarming") reads like a rejected script from "The Benny Hill Show": "A man who set up trip lines and an alarm in his garden to stop peeping toms spying on his wife was confounded -- by cats and stray dogs," the Telegraph reported. "His DIY device was among a list of unusual measures discovered by crime prevention officers in Lincolnshire. Others included growing prickly bushes outside windows, covering window sills with grease, hiding barbed wire in bushes and using tape recordings of dogs barking."
One expects this sort of sniggering prurience from the nation that brought the world both the Puritans and the Page Three Girl. What one isn't quite prepared for is the Telegraph's casually gruesome coverage of violent crime. We Americans like to think of ourselves as the world champions of ambulance-chasing crime coverage -- but we can't hold a candle to the country that brought us Jack the Ripper. The British long ago perfected the ethical two-step that allows crime buffs to slip past their initial shock and horror to a voyeuristic appreciation of violent crime in all its bloody glory. "The tendency to a critical or aesthetic valuation of crimes and murders is universal," British writer and recovering opium addict Thomas De Quincey wrote way back in 1854. "After we have paid our tribute of regret to the affair considered as a calamity, inevitably, and without restraint, we go on to consider it as a stage spectacle."
By these standards, the most spectacular case of recent years has been that of the "Ice Lolly Girl," a poor murdered child whose story, in all of its sordid pathos, could only have been done justice to by the British press. The Ice Lolly Girl was "ginger-haired and bespectacled" Rosie Palmer, age 3, who was lured off the street and killed "within minutes of her buying an ice lolly from a passing van in the Headland, Hartlepool, Cleveland." As told by Telegraph crime correspondent Nigel Bunyan, it is an even more ickily fascinating saga than that of JonBenet Ramsey.
Her convicted killer, 33-year-old Shaun Armstrong, was a man of many peculiarities. The product of an incestuous relationship between his mother and her father, Armstrong slept with his mother even after he was married. He liked to dress up in women's clothing and bragged about his imaginary exploits as an elite naval officer during the Falklands war.
His first wife, a woman with the evocative name of Christine Teat, remembered him as a strange and brutal man. "People told me he was a weirdo," she told Bunyan, "but he was all right in company." Teat first "realized her mistake when, on their wedding night, he pounded her head against the hearth of an open fire because she was reluctant to have sex." Shortly afterwards, Bunyan went on to note, she discovered "him wearing her nightie and dressing gown, and on another [occasion] he was in bed with his mother, Rachael, who has since died of cancer."
In America, the temptation would be to rush all these people onto a talk show, to hand the job of explanation over to some telegenic therapists. But this is a story that demands more than that. Bunyan, for all the awkwardness of his prose, is able to transform his coverage into a kind of literature, laconically piling up the details of a magnificently eccentric and unhappy existence.
If there were any real justice in the world, we would be able to simply export all our most flamboyant criminal cases (from Ennis Cosby to JonBenet) off to Britain, where they would, at last, get the coverage they deserve. "Hard Copy" is a poor substitute, alas, for "Hard Times."