The Reader’s Digest has always seemed a fantasy island situated off the wilder shores of human intelligence. A sun-dappled place where it pays to increase your world power, where laughter is the best medicine, and where two out of every three inhabitants are eligible for a prize draw.
The impression that everyone connected with the publication is slightly dotty is reinforced by its obsession with fact-checking. Teams of bright young women are employed to test the accuracy of every dot and comma submitted for publication. Each fact-checker maintains large, yellow-covered research reports, one for each article, and may take a week or more to check a single fact, making perhaps a hundred telephone calls in the process.
Even the jokes in Reader’s Digest are checked. First, against a huge computer database at the magazine’s headquarters in Pleasantville, USA, to make sure they haven’t been published before, and secondly, in the usual gimlet-eyed way, to establish that the facts are right. It is difficult to decide which is the more risible: a scrupulously maintained computer database full of jokes or a well-groomed young woman calling the RSPCA to check whether the chicken did actually cross the road.
These and other facts about the Reader’s Digest are revealed in a recent article in the Sunday Telegraph. The magazine’s editor is Russell Twisk. He is 55, craggy, lean and well groomed in a grey, double-breasted, brushed cotton suit. The leather sofa in his office is blue, as are the walls, the carpets, and his shirt. Psychologists believe that anyone confined in a red room will go mad. Mr Twisk has chosen a different colour but, it seems, with a similar result.
During a working lunch with his three senior editors, when the magazine’s election coverage is discussed, Mr Twisk declares: “There is no room for handwringers who say the Government must do something. We believe the individual has to change his own life. We were Thatcher’s children before Thatcher was born…We believe you can’t be too tough on drunk drivers, smokers, Communists and terrorists.”
It’s no surprise that on Fantasy Island they’re tough on crime. Giving expert commentary on a televised football match the other day, the manager of Coventry City – could a fact checker please find out his name? – said after two young fans invaded the pitch: “I may be out of order here, but I think they should both go down for 20 years.” Bet he reads the Reader’s Digest. What is perhaps a little surprising, however, are the activities Mr Twisk selects as deserving of the toughest sanctions.
True, drunk driving is a crime, though in a great many cases that come before the courts the offence is more technical than heinous. There is a world of difference between being hog-whimpering drunk at the wheel and having consumed three half-pints of ordinary bitter, which is all that is needed to fail a breath test. The more accurate expression is “drink driving”. Fact checkers, please note.
Acts of terrorism are, of course, serious crimes meriting condign punishment. It is as well, though, to bear in mind that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Who in the West, for instance, would not look favourably on law-breaking guerillas who set out to topple Sadam Hussain?
Since the end of the Cold War, communists are something of a phantom enemy. Even so, Mr Twisk may be forgiven for preserving old enmities, given his magazine’s origins in the heartland of US conservatism.
Commie bastards, terrorists, irresponsible drunks, OK. But smokers? On Fantasy Island is it really true that you cannot be too tough on smokers? Mr Twisk, we know, is craggy, lean and well-groomed. Not the kind of man to round up tobacco addicts, line them up against a wall, and avert his eyes as the triggers are pulled. But there is nothing unlawful in smoking. Nor, despite the efforts of bogus science to prove otherwise, are smokers seriously threatening the health of anyone other than themselves. Their offence, it seems, is willingly to have offended the current orthodoxy. They are, then, heretics.
Perhaps Mr Twisk has a New Inquisition in mind. Summary execution is no answer to heresy. What is required is admission of error and a change of heart. Given the nature of the human material involved, the prospects for redemption are promising. Smokers are notoriously weak-willed, so it is reasonable to assume that once you have pulled out their finger nails with pliers, shoved sharpened bamboo sticks up their bottoms, beaten them with rubber truncheons, passed an electric current through their genitals, and compelled them to read back numbers of the Reader’s Digest, they will be ready to forswear the weed. If all that seems hard, ruthless even, remember you cannot be too tough on smokers.
One point, however, remains a puzzle. What has being tough (well, all right, bloody hard) on smoking got to do with Thatcherism? Study the texts and you will find pages on monetarism, privatisation, trade union reform, deregulation, Euroscepticism, and much else besides. But nowhere will you see the requirement to bear down without mercy on 17 million free-born Britons engaged in a lawful pursuit. It is a fact, Mr Twisk, worth checking.