BOOK REVIEW / In the front line, not the boardroom: Battling for the news: The Rise of the Woman Reporter by Anne Sebba: John Curtis/Hodder, pounds 19.99

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The Independent Culture
WHAT a trick they missed, the men who manage the quality press. In 1991, more than 50 years after breaking the news that the Second World War had begun, Clare Hollingworth prepared for the privations of the Gulf war by sleeping on the floor. But no newspaper called her up. At 80, she was considered too old.

Would Hollingworth have made it to the front - or even to the back, where most reporters were in 1991 - had a woman been editing any of the heavies? It would be nice to think so. Hackettes' needs are no longer little things like wide-brimmed straw hats (Hollingworth, c 1940) and drip-dry underwear (Anne Sharpley, c 1950), but armoured cars and satellite phones. So why not organise a motorised bath chair, if necessary, for the great author of Front Line. Read Martha Gellhorn, another octogenarian, on the 'infuriating and shabby'

1980s, and lament Hollingworth on the Stormy 1990s.

This book has a humbling tale to tell. It should perhaps have been sub-titled 'The Spread of the Woman Reporter', for they don't rise any higher than they did half a century ago, when women such as Hollingworth, Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles were at, and often over, the front. Anne Sebba quotes Gellhorn on Dachau:

Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces . . . They watched us but did not move; no expression shows on a face that is only yellowish, stubbly skin, stretched across bone. Has it been done better since? I think not.

Sebba, whose previous subjects include Enid Bagnold and Laura Ashley, is workmanlike on what she calls 'modern times'. She tells us that women now run bureaux, go to war on prime-time television and pee in front of entire armies (straw hats off to Kate Adie, if she's telling the truth). But they are often leery of management positions - oh yeah? - and still feel their paths have been 'littered with obstacles'. (A British warship barred female reporters in 1991, arguing that it had 'no facilities for ladies': would Kate care?) Yet Sebba herself admits stereotypes - Adie, for example, is 'attractive . . . but more as a girl-next-door type than Hollywood star' - and leaves unclear whether she believes there is such a thing as a 'woman reporter', or simply good and bad reporters.

(On which, a passing thought: are men, some men, more self-indulgent in reporting suffering? It was a man who wrote, of a colleague slain beside him, 'it was the worst day of my life'; it was a woman who remembered the shining hair of the friend she saw die. Debate.)

Sebba's book is at times a disturbing one. It's one thing to be surrounded by colleagues whose relationships don't stand the strain. ('What man would put up with that sort of schedule?' asks Edie Ledorer of Associated Press.) It's quite another to learn that Hilde Marchant, the best woman reporter who ever worked in Fleet Street, according to Arthur Christiansen, former editor of the Daily Express, died destitute, 'a pathetic has-been', after collapsing under a railway arch; or that Elizabeth Wiskemann, she who told an SS interrogator that Jews were mistreated in Nazi Germany, committed suicide at 70, alone and fearful.

Others may be philosophical about it. While management is predominantly male and Kate Adie, at 40-something, is discussing sell-by dates, it scares the hell out of me.