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BOOK REVIEW / From pedestals to columns

SPLASH by Val Corbett, Joyce Hopkirk & Eve Pollard, Headline pounds 10
THIS is a true story, in substance if not detail. The authors are Fleet Street's best-known female editor, Eve Pollard, her former right hand Joyce Hopkirk (right) and their one-time colleague, Val Corbett (left). The novel is deliberately autobiographical, the writers sound demob-happy and despite the glossy genre and tone of girls-just-wanna-have-fun, the book has a sad truth to tell about our press.

Overtly, Splash is a frothy fable of three women's friendship; it also delivers the message, more eloquently than the authors intended, that print journalism now ranks with the police and politics among the working environments most hostile to women.

The book is pervaded by fear of sexist aggression. At times the anxieties are ridiculous - one editor confides that she is afraid to close her office door in case the men assume that she is painting her nails. At others, the degree to which the notion of female inferiority has been internalised is breathtaking: "the three of them were part of a growing army of females who were beginning to act like hunters, stalking the workplace jungle and hacking away at the normal feminine territory of relationships, etiquette, community spirit and good neighbourliness." My italics. The time is meant to be the present.

Feminism changed the world, and we have moved on, but in journalism there has been little progress since the day I heard a sub-editor explain to Shirley Conran that the word "lavatory" did not look nice under a woman's by-line. Women are under-represented and undervalued in the press at every level, and the products in consequence have a distorted perspective on the world.

Women writers are more numerous now than when Pollard, Hopkirk and Corbett were learning their craft, but many belong to Fleet Street's Floating World. Germaine Greer's description of the Guardian columnist with bird's- nest hair, brain-damage lipstick and come-hither footwear was resonant because it is true of half the women in print. The look is laughable because great efforts have been made to look sexy for advancement in an intellectual profession: the streetwalker with the starred first. In this resistant pocket of gender conflict, collaboration is well rewarded.

Another newspaper novel, from a writer of a younger generation, is due later this year. The journalist heroine wonders why "she had always taken her career seriously but it had never returned the favour." Hard Pressed by Jane Gordon (Signet pounds 4.99, September) shows a woman trying to reconcile the demands of her paper with love for her children. The cast of Splash are all childless. The same situation, over an age-gap of 15 years.

Those who think that these things only happen in the tabloids are misguided. Part of the mythology of journalism is that tabloid culture contains the tough truth of the trade. There is a lingering belief that real editors learn their craft only in the men-behaving-badly environment of bawling, bigotry, testosterone surges and congealed plates of curry and chips.

Splash recites most of the well-known horror stories, including the one about the all-male editorial conference of a liberal broadsheet forced to co-opt a token woman for a photo opportunity. As if to underline the point, the Daily Telegraph, interviewing Pollard, dwelt at scandalised length on the fact that she employs a cleaner. Imagine laying such a charge at theTelegraph editor's door.

Neither book offers reasons; the sado-masochistic thrills of a newsroom, the tabloid cult of reactive prejudice, and the Captain Bligh command- structure are all accepted as the way of this world, although in Splash: "Fleet Street abounded with stories that before morning conference... executives had been known to be physically sick. Of course, they had been reporting to a male editor."

The British press is a coprophagic medium operated by victims of what Pollard calls Mad Editor syndrome: the more senior a press executive, the more crammed the schedule, the greater the ignorance of the real world. Not six months ago such a man pointed at my lapel and demanded, "What is that little red ribbon that people have started wearing?" No Aids awareness in Wapping yet.

Hard Pressed is eloquent on hostility to women with children, so rife that the showbiz editor of a tabloid as misogynistic as it is homophobic suggested the only answer was an all-gay department. He was joking, but the sector is bleeding readers; perhaps market forces will win where, on the evidence of these novels, right and reason have been tragically defeated.