Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Clockwise from top left: A car in snow, Barack Obama, Russell Brand, Karen Matthews and closing down sales

A look back at the stories that proved the most popular of the year, from the serious to the quirky.

A few were momentous, some were tragic and many were uplifting, but all were read by thousands.


January was dominated by tragic tales and gales.

BBC children's presenter Mark Speight was quizzed by police over the death of his fiancee, Natasha Collins. She was found dead in his flat after an apparent drug overdose, leaving him "absolutely distraught" by his loss.

Attention turned to Britney Spears who was carried out of her home on a stretcher and taken into custody after police were called in a dispute involving her children.

And then there was the death of Heath Ledger. The Australian actor was found dead in his Manhattan apartment, prompting a global outpouring of emotion among his many fans.

Heath Ledger as The Joker
Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs

Just before leaving the show business theme, January was also the month when Jeremy Clarkson lost money after publishing his bank details in his newspaper column.

January was also a big weather month, with stories about flooding, snow and storms.

And the first signs of the coming recession started to become apparent.

The year's bizarre story offerings started with the incredible tale of allegations that twins adopted by separate families as babies had married without knowing they were brother and sister.


In February a number of our most-read stories were about the US election campaign, setting the scene for what was undoubtedly one of the biggest stories of the year.

The ugly side of sport and politics took centre stage when Avram Grant received anti-Semitic death threats at Chelsea. Also in February, Manchester United clawed its way up Deloitte's Football Money League to second place behind Real Madrid.

Prince Harry's stint in Afghanistan came to an abrupt end after news of his secret deployment leaked out. He spent 10 weeks serving in Helmand Province, before flying back to the UK amid concerns for his safety when a news blackout deal over his tour of duty was broken by foreign media.

Prince Harry in Afghanistan
Prince Harry was rumbled in the media while on active service

Showbiz is never far from the headlines, and February is synonymous with Oscars. But you were more interested in who wore what than in who won what.

Also in February, a story about the Bank of England's rate-setting committee cutting interest rates to what now seems like a positively stratospheric 5.25% from 5.5% attracted a lot of interest amid signs of the slowdown in the UK economy.

No month is complete without its quirky favourite, and a tale of an Argentinean girl who gave birth to female triplets for the second time caught your eye. The girl had her first set of female triplets aged 15, having first given birth to a son when she was just 14.


March was money month with the budget, markets being rattled by worries about the banking system and Heather Mills' £24.3m divorce settlement with estranged husband Sir Paul McCartney.

A trader in the New York Stock Exchange
Worries about the banking system started to appear in March

A story that Mills gave evidence that was "inconsistent, inaccurate" and "less than candid" attracted more readers than one about her settlement.

Also much read was the tale of a small Cessna plane that crashed on a house in Kent, killing the two pilots and three passengers.

On a lighter note, the story about BBC Radio 4 news reader Charlotte Green suffering a fit giggles was very popular, and prompted a flurry of calls asking for the clip to be played again.

Staying with newsreaders, and the sad story of Carol Barnes taking seriously ill with a stroke generated interest and concern among readers. She died in hospital a few days later.


Some of the most-read stories were around the arrest of Karen Matthews over the disappearance of her daughter Shannon, the arrest of Shannon's stepfather on porn charges and the announcement that Karen Matthews would face trial on kidnap charges.

Also making news was the disturbing case of Josef Fritzl, the 73-year-old Austrian man who confessed to imprisoning his daughter in a cellar for 24 years and fathering her seven children. He also admitted burning the body of a baby that died at the house in Amstetten, Lower Austria.

Josef Fritzl
Josef Fritzl locked his daughter in a cellar for 24 years

Following on from January's stories about the death of actress Natasha Collins, her fiance Mark Speight was found dead after writing suicide notes.

April was true to form with showbiz stories being among the most-read. Perennial favourite Kylie Minogue attracted a lot of eyeballs by discussing the misdiagnosis of her breast cancer.

And the obligatory quirky story was supplied by Brazilian football star Ronaldo. He was alleged to have picked up three prostitutes, only to find they were in fact transvestites.


The most-read stories this month had a serious feel, with British politics dominating the agenda.

The poor showing by Labour in local elections prompted an admission from Gordon Brown that he was disappointed in the party's performance. David Cameron, on the other hand, hailed the end of the New Labour era.

Boris Johnson made headlines around the world by by becoming the London Mayor. Also adding to Labour's woes was a protest by truck drivers over the level of tax imposed on fuel.

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson became the Mayor London

May also saw violence, with Rangers fans rioting in Manchester and Harry Potter actor Rob Knox killed in a street fight in London.

Also well read in May was the jailing of Premier League footballer Joey Barton for assault and affray.

Then there was a tale of space travel, about a Nasa spacecraft sending back historic first pictures of an unexplored region of Mars.


Another month, another political row in the headlines. Tory MP David Davis resigned as an MP, promising to fight to regain his seat on a platform of defending "British liberties". There was much less interest in him winning his seat back .

The other dominant issue of the month - as far readers were concerned - was the quality of broadband services in Britain. A story that included a test to establish the speed of your broadband connection rated through the roof. As did the follow-up giving a breakdown of the results of all those speed tests.

Wayne Rooney and Colleen McLoughlin
Colleen McLoughlin became Mrs Wayne Rooney

The traditional, summer silly season struck early in June with a rash of unusual stories grabbing your attention. There was the story of a baby put up for auction in Germany, a man with 13 people in his Volvo car and the 50 management speak expressions you love to hate.

It was a month of mixed fortunes for footballers. Wayne Rooney got married, but Gazza was sectioned for a second time. Professional footballer Luke McCormick was arrested after two boys were killed in a crash on the M6 in Staffordshire.


July's most-read story appeared late in the month, when a huge fire destroyed the historic Grand Pier at Weston-super-Mare.

The fire on the pier - picture by Penny Broomhall
The fire on the pier - picture by Penny Broomhall

A table we prepared on changes to car tax and how much they will cost you also proved exceptionally popular, along with its corresponding story that the changes will affect many millions.

There was a run of tragic stories in July about violent crime. A newly married British doctor was killed and her husband critically injured after they were shot in their Caribbean honeymoon hotel cottage.

And earlier in the month two French research students were found stabbed to death following a flat fire had been tied up and suffered what the police called horrific injuries.

But there was a lucky escape for several hundred people on board a Qantas 747 which made an emergency landing in the Philippines after a large hole appeared in its fuselage.

In offbeat news, back-from-the-dead canoeist John Darwin and his wife Anne were jailed for more than six years each for fraudulently claiming £250,000, and a teenager apparently found a bat asleep in her bra.


Most read this month was news that convicted paedophile Gary Glitter was ordered to sign the sex offenders' register after arriving back in the UK.

There was an undeniably sombre tone to the other stories that dominated the headlines: Many dead in Madrid plane crash,Big Brother star Goody has cancer and teenager shot dead in supermarket.

Then there was the fire that gutted the family home of millionaire businessman Christopher Foster in Shropshire. Police searched the burnt-out wreck of their home and eventually found the bodies of the family.

Yang Peiyi (L) had the perfect voice, but Lin Miaoke had the perfect face
Yang Peiyi (L) had the perfect voice, but Lin Miaoke had the perfect face

The Olympics also loomed large, notably the spectacular opening ceremony and the revelation that the star of the show mimed her way through her performance.

It was also the month that Barry George was found not guilty of murdering BBC television presenter Jill Dando outside her London home. He was first convicted in 2001 but an Old Bailey retrial was ordered after doubt was cast on the reliability of gunshot residue evidence.


Fears were high the world was going to end, with the start of the Big Bang experiment.

The Large Hadron Collider might not have caused the earth to disappear into a black hole, but there were definitely plenty of black holes elsewhere as the global economy started to unravel.

The Large Hadron Collider
The Large Hadron Collider hasn't yet caused a black hole

Lehman Brothers bank filed for bankruptcy in the US, and in the UK HBOS entered into merger talks with Lloyds to prevent its collapse.

Banks were bailed out, but still their shares fell. Stamp duty was axed on houses below £175,000 in an effort to resuscitate the faltering property market. And there was stock market volatility amid the uncertainty.

Fuel prices were still high in September, which was blamed as a factor in the collapse of the airline XL, which left thousands of people stranded.

The high fuel prices also contributed to the utter chaos at a north London service station which gave away £20k of petrol in a publicity stunt.

Another major story was the case of a gunman who killed 10 people at a college in Finland before shooting himself.


The BBC hit the headlines this month, with the suspension of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand over a prank phone call.

And then the BBC apologised to actor Andrew Sachs for the "unacceptable and offensive" content of the calls made during a pre-recorded radio show.

Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross
Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross sparked a row over taste and decency

Unsurprisingly the financial collapse which dominated the news in September continued in October, with a number of stories among the most read of the month.

Central banks cut interest rates, bank shares took a pounding, US stocks slid to a five year low and UK banks received a £37bn bailout.

The US election started to make its way back up the list of most read stories.

Also getting high-profile coverage was the jailing of death crash footballer Luke McCormick, concern over Kerry Katona's behaviour on television and a plane wreck found that was confirmed as that of adventurer Steve Fossett's.


This month was all about votes - Barack Obama winning the US Presidential election and John Sergeant quitting Strictly Come Dancing despite strong public support.

John Sergeant and  Kristina Rihanoff
John Sergeant's departure from Strictly caused a stir

The financial situation continued to attract attention, with the chancellor unveiling his public borrowing plans, UK interest rates being slashed to 3% and a blow-by-blow account of the Pre-Budget Report.

Also avidly read was the tragic unfolding of events in the Mumbai attacks.

As ever, a weather story was also very popular with icy conditions and snowfalls prompting many clicks.

And the maxim that sex sells was borne-out by the popularity of a story about model Karolina Kurkova and her missing belly button. Needless to say, it was illustrated with pictures of said model strutting the catwalk in her undies.

The year also drew to a close with a familiar theme - Jeremy Clarkson in trouble. Details of a joke he made about truck drivers murdering prostitutes did brisk business on the site.


With all the talk of recession and job losses, a story about a Glasgow family where no-one works struck a nerve. As did news that interest rates were being cut to a 57-year low.

Karen Matthews
Karen Matthews was convicted over the kidnap of her daughter Shannon

A bizarre and tragic story about a drink-driver who killed a father and son in a motorway crash while performing a sex act on himself attracted a lot of attention.

Odd stories about an actor cutting his throat on stage (he survived), and a young Chinese woman left partially deaf following a passionate kiss from her boyfriend proved very popular, and were e-mailed all over the world.

The conclusion of the Shannon Matthews saga drew a large number of readers, with her mother Karen being found guilty of kidnap.

And finally, a challenge we posed and which many of you rose to - could you pass the 11-plus exam?


A Zimbabwean judge has ruled that 16 activists accused of organising military training to topple President Robert Mugabe must remain in jail. The group includes human rights activist Jestina Mukoko, who went missing for three weeks before being brought to court last week.

The police had initially denied they were holding Ms Mukoko, who was seized from her home by a group of armed men.

The abduction and arrests have raised doubts about a power-sharing deal.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed a deal to join a unity government in September but this has never been implemented. He says he will pull out of the deal unless the abduction of opposition activists stops.

Magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe declared: "This matter remains to be decided in the Supreme Court and the accused cannot be released." He did not rule on the charges themselves.The 16 will appear in court next Monday for a bail hearing, Reuters news agency reports.

The opposition, human rights activists and lawyers all took part in a high-profile campaign for Ms Mukoko, a former state television news-reader, to be taken to court amid fears for her safety.

Some of those detained say they have been tortured while in custody and a judge has ruled that they be allowed to see doctors of their choice. Some first went missing in October, says the AFP news agency.

Last week, a High Court judge ruled that they should be freed but the state appealed against this ruling.

Earlier this week, five more opposition activists were charged with acts of terrorism.

These allegedly included breaking into a police station and bombing the kitchen and then blowing up a nearby toilet.

Opposition Movement for Democratic Change spokesman Nelson Chamisa told the BBC the charges were trumped up as an excuse to crack down on the opposition.

"You can't have a political agreement on one hand and the other you have a cat-and-mouse relationship... trumping up charges against those people you are supposed to be working with in government," he said.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Donald Moffat's bank statement
Mr Moffat said he had been offered £10 compensation by the bank

A student from Ayrshire was left in a state of shock when his online banking statement showed him to be overdrawn by almost £100bn.

Donald Moffat, 38, from Irvine, said that on Tuesday morning his Barclays account was showing two separate withdrawals of £50bn.

The bank said a "technical error" was to blame and apologised.

Mr Moffat said Barclays also offered £10 in compensation for the phone calls he had to make to resolve the error.

The full-time student, who is also a part-time care worker, e-mailed a copy of his bank statement to BBC Scotland.

It showed a debit balance on 30 December of just under £100bn.

Mr Moffat said on Tuesday morning his wife had noticed "a major discrepancy of two £50bn debits" being taken out of his account.

"We knew we still had quite a bit left in the account as we checked last night before we went out," he said.

"This morning I went out to get a few things, then, when I came back, my account was overdrawn by that amount."

Mr Moffat said he had "been passed from pillar to post" after making the error known to Barclays.

He also said he was looking for the bank to up its offer of compensation for the level of stress he had been put under in trying to resolve the situation.

In a statement Barclays said: "Earlier today a technical error caused some customer accounts to be incorrectly debited.

"The problem was immediately identified and corrected within less than an hour, and all affected customer accounts are now showing correct balances.

"No customers will be financially impacted by this error. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused our customers."



Radovan KaradzicJohn SergeantJosef FritzlUsain BoltJohn CowardRafa NadalHenry ConwayDavid AxelrodNathaniel RothschildMax MoselyJay-ZDamian Green

Some of the men who have made the headlines in 2008, clockwise from top left: Radovan Karadzic, John Sergeant, Josef Fritzl, Usain Bolt, John Coward, Rafa Nadal, Damian Green, Jay-Z, Max Mosely, Nathaniel Rothschild, David Axelrod and Henry Conway.

Click herefor the women of the year.

The former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, was finally apprehended after 12 years on the run. He faces 11 charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. They include genocide relating to his orchestrating the mass murder of tens of thousands of Bosnians, mainly Muslims, during the civil war in Bosnia, which ended 1995. Karadzic initially evaded capture by surrounding himself with sympathisers and flitting between farmsteads, monasteries and caves. He never used a mobile phone for fear of being detected by the US intelligence services. Later, he adopted the disguise of a new-age faith healer called Dragan Dabic, with long white flowing locks. He was arrested on a Belgrade bus.

John Sergeant is "normal" in that he is a bloke who can't dance. This ought to have been a huge disadvantage since he took part in the BBC's highly popular TV show, Strictly Come Dancing. Week after week, the judges poured scorn on his pedestrian, uncoordinated routines. Yet, week after week, the public voted for him to remain in the show at the expense of more talented contestants. Arguments broke out as to whether this was a dance show or simply an entertainment spectacle. Then, halfway through the series, Sergeant pulled out saying that "there was a real chance I could win and that would be a joke too far". His partner, Kristina Rihanoff claimed the judges had driven him out. One judge, Craig Revel Horwood, dismissed this and accused Sergeant of being "cowardly".

Retired electrical engineer Josef Fritzl was arrested for a crime that shocked the world. He confessed to holding his daughter Elisabeth captive in an underground bunker for 24 years in the provincial Austrian town of Amstetten. What's more, he repeatedly raped her and fathered seven children by her. The case only came to light when Mr Fritzl allowed one of his children to seek hospital treatment. Mr Fritzl was formally charged in November with murder, rape, slavery, incest, mental torture and false imprisonment. The murder charge relates to one of the incest children who died as a child. Mr Fritzl told police he destroyed the corpse by throwing it into his heating furnace. Three of his offspring were allowed to live with Mr Fritzl and his wife as "normal" children in their home upstairs, while the others stayed with their mother.

The 6ft 5in Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt left Beijing flying high after becoming the first man to win the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay at a single Olympics since Carl Lewis in 1984. He was also the first man in history to set world records in all three at a single Olympic Games. His 9.62 seconds 100m record would have been even better had he not begun celebrating before he crossed the finish line. Bolt then smashed Michael Johnson's 200m world record that had stood for 12 years, in a time of 19.3 seconds. Finally, he and his three Jamaican teammates took the Olympic gold in the relay in a time of 37.10 seconds. Not surprisingly, he earned the nickname Lightning Bolt.

Despite his name, John Coward is anything but cowardly. He was at the controls of a Boeing 777 when it was coming in to land at Heathrow airport on a British Airways flight from Beijing. Without warning, the plane stalled. He said later: "I thought this is going to be a catastrophic crash. This is it." However, Mr Coward managed to keep the plane's nose up, clear the fence and maintain the aircraft in a straight line until it shuddered to a halt. Investigators believe the engine failure was probably caused by ice restricting the flow of fuel. One airport worker said of Mr Coward: "The man deserves a medal as big as a frying pan."

Rafa Nadal's victory over Roger Federer at this year's Wimbledon men's final is regarded as a classic. The Spanish player had been threatening the Swiss's status as world number one for many months. But the manner in which it was achieved left every tennis fan breathless. The gruelling five-setter ended in near darkness prompting one leading sports columnist to declare it as "the greatest sporting event I've ever seen". Even John McEnroe agreed that it had eclipsed his epic 1980 final against Bjorn Borg. With his rippling biceps, his rocket forehands and his never-say-die attitude, Nadal had defeated arguably the most complete tennis player ever in Federer. Nadal went on to take the Olympic gold in Beijing, though knee problems hampered his progress in later tournaments.

The son of the now-disgraced Tory MP Derek Conway first came to the public's attention when it was revealed he was receiving £32,000 a year of taxpayers' money for being his father's "research assistant". In fact, there was very little "research" being done. His father and younger brother Freddie, who was also on the payroll, kept a low profile after the scandal broke. However, the self-styled "Queen Sloane" embraced his notoriety and partied his worries away. He became known for his flamboyant dress sense and arrived at one nightclub in a horse-drawn carriage dressed as a Regency dandy. He was forced to give up his "job" in politics and is now reportedly planning to be an interior designer.

Known as "the Ax", David Axelrod was the mastermind behind Barack Obama's victory over John McCain in the race to be the next US president. He had previously orchestrated Obama's meteoric rise from small-time community organiser to Illinois senator and his victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. A 53-year-old former journalist on the Chicago Tribune turned political consultant, the heavily moustachioed Mr Axelrod first met Obama during a voter-registration drive in Chicago in 1992. The two became close friends. By constantly honing the message of "change", studying voter analyses and by using the internet as a major campaigning tool, Mr Axelrod and his team helped persuade the American people to elect their first black president, something most African-Americans thought would never happen in their lifetimes.

It was "bad manners" that got Nathaniel Rothschild hot under the collar and in the headlines. The banking heir was furious when his old university friend, shadow chancellor George Osborne, leaked comments Peter Mandelson had made to him in private about Gordon Brown during the summer, aboard a yacht in Corfu. Mr Rothschild, who was also a guest on the yacht, was furious and thought Mr Osborne had broken an unwritten rule of friendship by snitching. In retaliation he wrote a letter to the Times revealing that on the same yacht Mr Osborne had discussed soliciting a donation to Conservative Party funds from their host, the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Accepting money from a non-UK citizen would have broken election rules. Mr Osborne eventually had to admit he had made a "mistake" by getting involved in discussions about a possible donation. He was probably struck off Mr Rothschild's Christmas card list too.

The president of FIA, the Formula 1 body, Max Mosley, also suffered a blow to his reputation but kept his job. The News of the World published on their website secretly filmed excerpts of a sadomasochism session Mr Mosley took part in. Some of the women involved wore striped uniforms and one scene was played out in German. But Mr Mosley successfully sued the newspaper for libel and invasion of privacy. He was awarded £60,000 in damages, after persuading the judge that his actions were consensual, had no Nazi theme, and were of no public interest. Mr Mosley is the son of former British Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley. The verdict inevitably raised the issue of press freedom.

A volley of criticism surrounded the decision to choose rapper Jay-Z to headline the 2008 Glastonbury Festival. American, Jay-Z, real name Shawn Carter, is widely regarded as the world's greatest hip-hop artist. "Jay-Z? No chance," complained Noel Gallagher of Oasis. To Gallagher Glastonbury was built on a tradition of guitar music. "I'm not having hip-hop at Glastonbury," he continued. "It's wrong." Jay-Z's inclusion was blamed for initial poor ticket sales, but eventually the festival was sold out. As the rapper took to the stage, giant video screens played images of Gallagher's criticism. Then Jay-Z began his performance with a tongue-in-cheek version of Oasis's hit, Wonderwall. His fans loved it.

Leaks are at the centre of a political row that continues to rumble on at Westminster. The Conservative Party's immigration spokesman, Damian Green, was arrested in November following leaks to him of classified information from the Home Office over a two-year period. The police are investigating whether or not Mr Green may have encouraged these leaks. The MP was later released on bail but not before anti-terror police officers were allowed to search his office at the House of Commons and seize his computer. Conservative politicians are incensed, believing it to be the right of any MP to highlight misdeeds and cover-ups in government and that the police action had been heavy-handed.

Compiled by Bob Chaundy.



Five Zimbabwe opposition officials have been accused of bombing a kitchen in a police station and a toilet in the capital Harare, state media reports.

They were charged with terrorism, sabotage and malicious damage at Harare Magistrates' Court on Monday.

The five - who include an ex-police superintendent and journalist - were remanded, said the Chronicle newspaper.

They allegedly sneaked into Harare central police station on 2 August and used explosives to blow up a kitchen.

They were also reportedly accused of blowing up a men's toilet near the Harare headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Department on 17 November.

Three days later they bombed Harare central police station again, says the prosecution. All the alleged attacks reportedly resulted in minor damage.

The prosecution also claims the accused detonated two bombs which blew up a 60cm stretch of rail track at Norton, near Harare, on 21 August.

The five are reportedly members of Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

They include Emmanuel Dhlamini, a former police superintendent, who the Chronicle says is MDC's head of security and intelligence and Gandi Mudzingwa, a personal adviser to Mr Tsvangirai.

The Chronicle reported that the court had allowed the five to be medically examined after they claimed they had been tortured in police custody.

Zimbabwe has been crippled by stalled power-sharing negotiations between the MDC and ruling Zanu-PF, as well as a cholera epidemic which has spread quickly amid the country's economic meltdown.

Mr Tsvangirai has threatened to pull out of talks on power-sharing unless the abduction of MDC officials stops.




Chicago police have arrested a man who allegedly robbed a bank using a threatening note written on the back of his own pay cheque.

Police say 40-year-old Thomas Infante walked into the bank and gave a staff member a note saying, "Be Quick...Give your cash or I'll shoot".

He got $400 (£270), but left behind half of his note as he fled.

Detectives found the rest of the slip - complete with his name and home address - outside the bank's front doors.

Mr Infante was later arrested at his home in Cary, Illinois. If convicted of bank robbery, he faces up to 20 years in prison.




Josef Fritzl
The trial of Josef Fritzl is expected to begin in March 2009

An Austrian woman allegedly held as a sex slave by her father for 24 years has left the clinic where she had been recovering since being freed in April.

Elisabeth Fritzl and the six children allegedly sired by her father had moved into their own house, her lawyer said.

Josef Fritzl faces trial in early 2009 on charges of kidnapping Elisabeth, now 42, when she was 18 and holding her captive in a bunker in his back garden.

He is also charged with slavery, rape and the murder of one child.

That child - his seventh with Elisabeth - was born in the underground chamber in Amstetten, west of Vienna, but died in infancy.

Mr Fritzl is alleged to have refused to call for medical help after the baby was born, despite knowing the child could die.

Mr Fritzl, 73, has been in custody since the case came to light in April, when Elisabeth's eldest daughter, Kerstin, was taken to hospital suffering from kidney failure.

Three of her surviving children grew up in the cellar, without ever seeing daylight, while the three others were brought up by Mr Fritzl's wife.

Austrian prosecutors say the charges against Mr Fritzl carry a prison sentence of 10 years to life.



General Motors' troubled car loan arm, co-owned by Chrysler's owner, Cerberus.

The move - to encourage GMAC to offer funding to would-be vehicle buyers - is the latest aimed at easing the severity of the economic downturn.

Earlier this month the White House agreed a $17.4bn bail-out GM, Chrysler and Ford to help stave off collapse.

GMAC recently gained approval to become a bank holding company. This gave it access to emergency government funds offered to other financial institutions. Under the terms of the rescue, the US Treasury will buy $5bn in shares in GMAC, and will increase a loan to one of GMAC's co-owners, GM, by an extra $1bn.

This increased loan will help fund GM's purchase of shares as part of GMAC's reorganization as a bank holding company, and comes on top of the bail-out for the car industry.

The Treasury said it was dipping into the $700bn financial bail-out fund which was approved by Congress in early October to fund this rescue.

GMAC's solvency is considered crucial to GM's own survival.

The car loans firm has lost $7.9bn over the last five quarters as the credit crisis has raised its borrowing costs sharply and the value of many of its assets plunged.

GMAC has traditionally provided the bulk of financing for car buyers at GM dealerships and the loans that dealers rely on for their inventories of GM cars and trucks.

But its ability to provide both kinds of financing has been sharply limited over the past several months because of the broader credit crisis and as GMAC's ability to borrow has lessened.

GM's US sales plunged 41% in November and the carmaker said the squeeze on GMAC's own financing was on reason for the downward spiral in sales.

GM said earlier this month, that while GMAC had been able to provide financing to nearly half of GM car buyers just a year ago, that share had dropped to 6% now.

In a statement, GMAC said it intended "to act quickly to resume automotive lending to a broader spectrum of customers".

GMAC agreed to restrictions on dividend payments and executive pay as part of the equity injection.

The bonus pool available to its top 25 executives has been cut by 40% from 2007 levels.

GM and Cerberus will both see their holdings in GMAC reduced as a result of GMAC becoming a bank holding company.

GM will end up with 10% stake, while Cerberus will have a 30% share in GMAC.


Monday, December 29, 2008


Top Israeli officials have vowed to continue attacks on militant group Hamas, as Israeli air strikes pounded the Gaza Strip for a third day.

Israel was fighting a "war to the bitter end" against Hamas, its defence chief said. A top army official said no Hamas buildings would be left standing.

About 320 Palestinians have died since Saturday, the UN says. Four Israelis have been killed by rockets from Gaza.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an immediate ceasefire.

Mr Ban said he was "deeply alarmed" by the escalation of violence in Gaza. While recognising Israel's right to defend itself from militant rocket attacks, he condemned its "excessive use of force".

Israel has massed forces along the boundary with Gaza and has declared the area around it a "closed military zone".

320 - Official Gaza toll (source: UN)
62 civilians in Gaza (source: UN)
4 civilians in Israel (source: Israel police)

Correspondents say the move - in addition to the call-up of thousands of reservists - could be a prelude to ground operations, but could also be intended to build pressure on Hamas.

In other developments:

• The Red Cross described the situation in Gaza's hospitals as chaotic, with medical teams "stretched to the limit"

• A small number of wounded Palestinians have begun passing through the Rafah crossing into Egypt for treatment; trucks laden with medical aid have been permitted to cross into Gaza

• European Union foreign ministers are to meet in Paris on Tuesday to discuss the escalating crisis

Dozens of centres of Hamas strength, including security compounds, government offices and tunnels into Egypt, have been hit since Israel started its massive bombing campaign on Saturday morning.

Early on Monday, raids damaged both the interior ministry and a science building at the Islamic University in Gaza, from which many top Hamas officials graduated.

Places hit by later strikes included the home of a senior Hamas commander and a car carrying gas cylinders, reports said. Five sisters were killed in one attack in the densely-populated Jabaliya area.

Police help an Israeli woman in shock following a rocket attack from Gaza on south Israeli town of Sderot (29/12/2008)
Israelis in nearby towns have faced an escalated militant rocket threat

UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said his latest information was that about 320 Palestinians had been killed and 1,400 injured.

"Sixty-two of those killed, we believe... are civilian casualties," he told a news conference.

"That simply encompasses those who are women and children. It does not include any civilian casualties who are men - even though we know that there have been some civilian men killed as well."

Palestinian hospital sources put the death toll higher, with 345 people killed and 1,650 injured.

Israel reported its second fatality, a labourer at a building site in the city of Ashkelon that was hit by a medium-range Grad missile. Three people were seriously wounded in the attack.

Late on Monday, Israeli media reported two more deaths from rocket fire in the space of an hour, at Nahal Oz near the border with Gaza and in the southern city of Ashdod. Several people were injured in the attacks.

Israel says its aim is to end the rocket attacks by Hamas-linked militants - of which there were more than 40 on Monday, the Associated Press news agency said.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel was not fighting the residents of Gaza, but wanted to deal Hamas a "severe blow". The Israeli operation would be "widened and deepened as needed", he said.

The army's deputy chief, meanwhile, said that there would "not be a single Hamas building left standing in Gaza" after the operation.

Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon went further. "The goal of the operation is to topple Hamas," he said.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on both Israel and Hamas to "halt their acts of violence and take all necessary measures to avoid civilian casualties".

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an immediate ceasefire

"The suffering caused to civilian populations as a result of the large-scale violence and destruction that have taken place over the past few days has saddened me profoundly," he said.

The US - Israel's strongest ally - says the onus is on Hamas to end the violence and commit itself to a truce.

But there have been angry protests against the Israeli action in many cities across the Arab world and in several European capitals. In Lebanon, tens of thousands of people took part in a demonstration in the capital, Beirut.

The strikes began less than a week after the expiry of a six-month-long ceasefire deal with Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007.

Analysts said Saturday was the single deadliest day in Gaza since Israel's occupation of the territory in 1967. Israel withdrew in 2005 but has kept tight control over access in and out of Gaza and its airspace.

The exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, has called for a new intifada, or uprising, against Israel, while the movement's Gaza leader, Ismail Haniya, called the attack an "ugly massacre".

1. Ashdod: First attack so far north, Sunday
2. Ashkelon: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Monday
3. Sderot: rocket attacks
4. Nevitot: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Saturday
5. Civilian family reported killed in attack on Yabna refugee camp, Sunday
Israeli warplanes strike tunnels under Gaza/Egypt border, Sunday
7. Three young brothers reported killed in attack on Rafah, Sunday
8. Khan Younis: Four members of Islamic Jihad and a child reported killed, Sunday
9. Deir al-Balah: Palestinians injured, houses and buildings destroyed, Sunday
10. Interior ministry and Islamic University badly damaged, Monday
11. Gaza City port: naval vessels targeted, Sunday
12. Shati refugee camp: Home of Hamas leader Ismail Hanniyeh targeted, Monday
13. Intelligence building attacked, Sunday
14. Jebaliya refugee camp: several people killed in attack on mosque, Sunday




DuffySimone WallmeyerFiona ShackletonShannon MatthewsIngrid BetancourtFern BrittonYang PeiyiCarla BruniSarah PalinGeorgina BaillieChristine OhuruoguCheryl Cole

Some of the women who have made the headlines in 2008, clockwise from top left: Duffy, Simone Wallmeyer, Fiona Shackleton, Shannon Matthews, Ingrid Betancourt, Fern Britton, Cheryl Cole, Christine Ohuruogu, Georgina Baillie, Sarah Palin, Carla Bruni and Yang Peiyi.

If the credit crunch, which started in 2007, grew to become the story of the year, one face represents the turmoil of the financial meltdown better than any other - Simone Wallmeyer. The Frankfurt Stock Exchange broker's emotion-wracked face became a fixture on the front pages of many newspapers around the world. Behind her designer spectacles, Ms Wallmeyer's animated features seemed to reflect every bad twist and turn in the world economy. The 47-year-old broker with Germany's ICF securities bank thinks her fame may be partly to do with the fact that she sits in front of the share price index board. But she admits the adrenaline high caused by the markets crashing has caused her to "run the full gamut of emotions".

Presenting a far more beatific face to the world was the British singer Duffy. The 24-year-old diminutive blonde chanteuse from Bangor in north Wales headed a charge of female British soul talent with a retro feel. Duffy's album Rockferry was the biggest selling album of the year, outperforming Coldplay and Take That. It included her hit, Mercy, which was voted Song of the Year at the MOJO awards. Duffy, real name Aimee Duffy but never referred to as such except by friends, has also received three Grammy nominations. She has been compared to Dusty Springfield in both looks and voice and, like Dusty, has found fame in America. She has made 15 trips to New York and has sung at the legendary Harlem Apollo.

Emotions were in plentiful supply in court 34 of the Royal Courts of Justice earlier this year when Heather Mills poured a jug of water over the head of Fiona Shackleton. Ms Shackleton was the lawyer representing her husband Sir Paul McCartney in their divorce proceedings. But the 51-year-old legal eagle had the last laugh, convincing the judge that her client, the former Beatle, was worth only half of the £800m that Ms Mills alleged. Ms Mills asked for £125m, but was granted only £24.3m. It was another triumph for the woman whose charm, resoluteness and blonde looks have earned her the nickname Steel Magnolia. It was because of Ms Shackleton's high-profile success when acting for the Prince of Wales in his divorce case against Diana that McCartney is said to have chosen her.

If Heather Mills has become something of a hate figure in the British media, it is nothing compared with the mother of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews. Karen Matthews reported her daughter missing in February, made an emotional appeal to her "kidnappers" and had many of her neighbours in Dewsbury go looking for the child. In fact, Shannon had been abducted by Mrs Matthew's boyfriend's uncle, Michael Donovan, described in court as "inadequate", in connivance with Miss Matthews. Shannon was drugged, tethered and kept in the drawer of a divan bed. The debt-ridden mother had hoped to profit from a reward. The pair were convicted of abduction charges. The case, however, raised the lid on the extent of poverty, welfare dependency and child neglect in many of Britain's sink council housing estates.

There was nothing fake about the kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt. In 2002, nine months after announcing that she would run for President of Colombia, she was captured by the guerrilla group Farc and held for six years in the jungle. She and 14 others were rescued this year in a daring mission launched by her former rival, President Alvaro Uribe. During her captivity, she says she was "abused, insulted and tortured". She spoke to the BBC's Alan Johnston, himself a kidnap victim, about her struggle to maintain her self-respect, and said of her ordeal, "I've decided that there are things that will never be brought to the surface - that have to stay in the jungle."

TV presenter Fern Britton earned a good deal of praise in the tabloid press for losing some five stones in weight on a diet. Initially she said, "It's taken me two years and a lot of hard work." However, praise turned to criticism when it emerged she had had a gastric band fitted around her stomach, reducing the amount of food it could take. Viewers felt they had been misled and, in the resultant furore, Ms Britton missed four editions of her programme This Morning with "nervous exhaustion". She said that she had fudged the issue in case it encouraged people to undergo the procedure inappropriately.

A deception on a much grander scale was performed by the Chinese authorities at the summer Olympics in front of a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions. As part of the opening ceremony in the Bird's Nest stadium, a cute little nine-year-old Chinese girl named Lin Miaoke sang the Ode to the Motherland. Except she didn't. In fact, it was to have been performed by another child, seven-year-old Yang Peiyi. But at the 11th hour, little Yang was replaced because she wasn't photogenic enough. Instead, Lin Miaoke lip-synched Yang Peiyi's voice. An official declared, "The child on the camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings and expression."

There's nothing unphotogenic about Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, France's first lady as of February this year when she tied the knot with French president Nicolas Sarkozy. A month later the former supermodel went on to wow the British public accompanying her husband on a state visit to Britain. The media positively frothed at the mouth in describing her elegant beauty. Her charm offensive was not restricted to matters of state. In September, she appeared on the BBC's Later… with Jools Holland programme singing songs from her recent album, Comme Si de Rien N'Etait. Later, she told French TV that her wedding to President Sarkozy was decided just two days in advance, and that she had practised curtsying to The Queen with singer Marianne Faithfull.

Another woman who caused a stir in world politics in 2008 was Sarah Palin. John McCain catapulted her from the obscurity of Alaska on to the world stage when he chose her as his presidential running mate. When she joked, "What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick", it seemed a large section of America instantly fell in love with her. A number of gaffes including, allegedly, the belief that Africa was one country, the comedy impersonation by Tina Fey, and a family scandal involving her brother-in-law eventually saw Mrs Palin become more of a campaign liability than a benefit. Yet, many on the right of the Republican Party are backing her to become their presidential candidate in 2012.

Another figure that rose from obscurity in an unlikely fashion was Georgina Baillie. A member of a "horror burlesque" troupe named the Satanic Sluts, she found herself at the centre of a media scandal that resulted in comedian Russell Brand and Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas resigning from the BBC, while presenter Jonathan Ross was suspended. On radio, Brand and Ross had rung up Baillie's grandfather, Andrew Sachs, the actor best known for his role as Manuel in Fawlty Towers. In a message they left on his answer phone, Brand boasted of having slept with Sachs's granddaughter. Later, Miss Baillie told how her loving middle-class upbringing had given way to drugs and appearances in pornographic movies once her parents had split up. When asked what she had learned from this scandal, her reply was "Don't sleep with celebrities. Ever."

Christine Ohuruogu admitted she was so nervous before the Olympic 400m final that she barely slept. When the starting gun sounded, her main rival, American Sanya Richards, went off at a furious pace. But Ohuruogu timed her tactics to perfection, winning Britain's first 400m Olympic gold since Eric Liddell - of Chariots of Fire fame - won in 1924. It was a remarkable comeback for Ohuruogu who had been suspended for a year after three missed drugs tests. She then successfully challenged a ruling that barred her from competing at the Olympics. After the race she said, "The last 50 metres is when people start dying and everyone knows I don't die in the last 50 metres."

Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Cole received much public sympathy after tabloid speculation about the fidelity of her husband, footballer Ashley Cole. But her popularity has soared this year since she became a judge and mentor on the popular reality TV show, The X Factor. Her good looks combined with her warmth and sensitivity appeals to both sexes. She cries when empathising with contestants' sob stories, but is forthright and feisty when criticising performances. Cole herself auditioned for a reality TV programme as a nervous 19-year-old. According to PR guru Max Clifford, "She knows her subject because, professionally, she does exactly what she's judging…she's got a natural humility."

Compiled by Bob Chaundy.




A British man who was convicted of having sex on a beach in Dubai has been left with a legal bill of tens of thousands of pounds.

Vince Acors, 34, of Bromley, south-east London, and Michelle Palmer, 36, of Oakham, Rutland, both got three-month jail terms, later suspended on appeal.

Acors told BBC Radio 5 Live it had been a "very expensive experience".

He also expressed his relief at seeing his family and friends after arriving back in the UK on Christmas Eve.

Acors said he went to Dubai on a three-day business trip which turned out to be a six-month ordeal which was "gladly finally over".

He went on to explain how the costs mounted up after he was arrested.

"You pay a succession of fees to a local, which is your lawyer, then you have a set of fees for your solicitor who effectively puts your case together," he said.

"We paid double-bubble, but we got the result that we wanted in the end."

He added: "It's been an extremely expensive situation for me. I had a pretty successful business before I went to Dubai which it's going to take me at least six months to pick back up again.

"In addition to that, the living expenses in Dubai are huge. I didn't think there could possibly be a place more expensive than London, but I found it."

He said he could not see himself and Palmer pursuing a relationship.

Acors later told a news conference that heavy drinking and contact between unmarried couples were not uncommon in Dubai, but added he had been "extremely naive".

"We just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. He added that he felt the Dubai authorities had "no real choice" other than to find the pair guilty because of the worldwide publicity surrounding the situation.

"We were obviously on the beach, and the definition of sex in this country is different to the definition in the Middle East," he said. "There would have been some physical contact, but intercourse did not take place."

Palmer flew home before Acors who was re-arrested because of paperwork problems as he prepared to board a flight back to the UK.

She was working in Dubai as a publishing executive but was sacked after her arrest.

The pair were arrested on Jumeirah Beach on 5 July, hours after meeting at a champagne brunch.

In October, they were found guilty by Dubai's Court of First Instance of unmarried sex and public indecency. They admitted a charge of being drunk in a public place.

Acors and Palmer were also fined £170 each.






Herman and Roma Rosenblat
Herman Rosenblat claimed Roma threw food to him over a camp fence

A US publisher has cancelled publication of a Holocaust memoir after its author revealed that he had made up crucial parts of it.

Herman Rosenblat did survive a German concentration camp, but he did not fall in love with a girl who threw him food over the fence, as stated in the book.

Instead, he met her on a blind date in New York and married her 50 years ago.

His book, Angel at the Fence, came under public scrutiny after a number of scholars questioned important details.

The fabricated story says that when Rosenblat moved to New York after the war he met Roma Radzicki by chance and discovered she was the girl who had thrown apples and bread to him.

They fell in love and married.

But some questioned Rosenblat's descriptions of Schlieben - a sub-camp of Buchenwald - and said it was impossible to throw food over the fence there.

The book was due to be published by Berkley Books, part of the Penguin Group, in February. Advance publicity had included a couple of appearances by Rosenblat on the chat show hosted by Oprah Winfrey.

In a statement, Rosenblat, 79, said: "I wanted to bring happiness to people. "I brought hope to a lot of people. My motivation was to make good in this world." His agent Andrea Hurst told the Associated Press: "I question why I never questioned it. I believed it; it was an incredible, hope-filled story."

A statement from Berkley said Rosenblat and his agent will be required to return "all money that they have received for this work," Reuters news agency reported.

Historical records prove that Rosenblat was an inmate at Buchenwald and other camps.

But Rosenblat's agent said the love story involving meeting his future wife through the fence when he was a teenage prisoner at Schlieben was invented.

The Angel at the Fence is the latest in a series of high-profile literary fabrications.

Earlier this year, a Belgian woman revealed she had invented her tale of survival as a Jewish girl searching for her parents with a pack of wolves in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Monique De Wael, who adopted the pseudonym Misha Defonseca, admitted she was not Jewish and had lived in Belgium.

And a memoir by a white woman that claimed she was raised in poverty by a black foster mother and sold drugs for a Los Angeles gang was also exposed as a lie after her sister contacted the publisher.

Margaret B Jones, the author of Love and Consequences, actually grew up in a well-off area of California's San Fernando Valley.

Meanwhile James Frey, another author championed by Oprah Winfrey, admitted he "embellished" his bestselling memoir about his battle with drug addiction published in 2003.