In a landmark decision that has disturbing implications for us all, a man was jailed for four years at Exeter Crown Court last week for holding up an off-licence with a Twiglet.
Anthony Newton, 57, who turned himself in five days after stealing £500, had pretended the snack food item was a weapon.
In analysing this extraordinary case it is difficult to know where to begin. Had the licensee not seen a Twiglet before? That seems unlikely since most off-licences stock snack foods. Was he so terrified by the awful aspect of the 57-year-old raider that he was prepared to believe that this was no ordinary Twiglet? That it might be loaded?
What made Newton think he could pull off a stick-up with a notoriously friable sort of biscuit? What made him choose a Twiglet and not, say, a bread stick or a packet of chocolate digestives? And having pulled off a coup against the odds, why did he turn himself in? Was he overcome by guilt and remorse? Or had he proved a point and was satisfied?
What of the judge? Armed robbery is a serious crime, but by what legal twist might a Twiglet be construed as an offensive weapon? Four years seems harsh and, given that Newton had given himself up, what sort of sentence might he have received had the Devon Constabulary been forced to hunt him down and seize his Twiglet?
My theory is that Newton was a spin doctor intent on proving that there is no known limit to human gullibility, the premise upon which all techniques of persuasion are founded. He chose the Paignton off-licence as the scene in which to enact the ne plus ultra of his art.
If I am right, he was not alone last week. Others were embarked on similarly audacious projects.
Take the BBC, which apologised to ITV over claims that the first £1m winner of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was rigged to spoil the audience figures for the last episode of One Foot in the Grave. ITV chiefs were “deeply offended” by the allegation – an entirely credible suggestion given the delicate sensibility and refined sense of propriety which are hallmarks of independent broadcasting.
The BBC insisted it did not believe there had been any “manipulation” or “fixing” and said any such suggestion did not represent its “official view”.
In a fine example of Newtonian best practice, the corporation explained away reports that it had cried foul by saying a misunderstanding had arisen because of an “overzealous press briefing” that had “invited some journalists to draw the inference that this might be more than a coincidence”. So the journalists had, figuratively speaking, mistaken a Twiglet for a gun, and who in the circumstances could possibly blame the BBC for such a foolish inference? (In defence of the journalists, though, it should be pointed out that, since the BBC has printed 3,000 guides explaining to its staff how to get through a revolving door in Television Centre, it is reas onable to assume the people who work for the corporation, including those who organise its press conferences, might charitably be described as challenged.)
The next raid on popular gullibility came from Beverley Hodson, managing director of WH Smith Retail, who announced that the company had had second thoughts about reintroducing soft porn magazines. Less than two weeks earlier she had robustly declared: “We are trying to get away from the old WH Smug image – trying to be more flexible and modern we are confident the majority of our customers will not be offended.” Anyone who mistook that verbal Twiglet for a thinly disguised appetite for the profit to be made from the top shelf was plainly a cynic.
Ms Hodson’s next public appearance was to explain: “We have decided not to extend the sale of adult magazines to our high street stores following feedback from our customers, who have strong views about the subject We take that feedback seriously.” Anyone who mistook that sharp change of direction for a desire not to lose the profits to be made from retaining customers who might otherwise boycott the stores was also a cynic.
“We are not in the least embarrassed about this,” she said, absent-mindedly cocking the Twiglet and pointing it at her own head.
Of course not: why should anyone who is forced to eat their words in public and announce that what was formerly black is now white – but in truth was white all along – feel the slightest trace of shame, shyness or guilt?
But the Anthony Newton prize for never underestimating a sucker goes to trade secretary Stephen Byers for his announcement that the Government will legislate to give drinkers the right to a full pint, excluding froth, by next Easter. Anyone who points out that this will be just in time for the next election campaign – and that there is nothing more populist and condescending than sucking up to beer drinkers – is unfit to run an off-licence in Paignton.