Media: Give me a pair of glasses, and I'll show you an intellectual

Political correctness has spread to the picture byline. David Lister offers advice to the wary writer
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The Independent Culture
as a character in Absolutely Fabulous once put it, "it's bad enough having to read the rubbish, now you have to look at the bastards who write it."

Picture bylines are a curious phenomenon at the best of times. But last week there was a new twist - the case of the politically incorrect picture byline.

When the political columnist of The Express parted company with his newspaper, it was charged that the paper's new editor, Rosie Boycott, did not think the picture byline of him smoking a cigar was quite the image she wanted for her left-of-centre, youthful paper.

You have to sympathise with the plight of the columnist. What photograph could be ideologically pleasing to both an editor that was a former monk and his radical feminist successor?

But he should have seen it coming. For any paper apart from the Havana Daily News, cigars are out. They smack of privilege, elitism and chatting to high-powered contacts over brandy in a gentleman's club. A cigarillo might have just saved the day. But probably not. Too effete for someone in the Westminster hothouse. Best to steer clear of smoking altogether. Could offend a health-conscious editor. And as an image it's as dated as those shots that used to be ubiquitous on regional newspapers - the reporter clutching a telephone to the ear.

So what is the most politically correct, or at least most job-secure, picture byline? Glamour seems to be much more important than a decade ago, when journalists accepted and occasionally delighted in a slightly seedy image. Now the subliminal message of the picture byline is "as you can see, if I wasn't such a whiz with words I would have taken up that offer from Hollywood".

My next remark risks accusations of sexism, but not wishing to risk my life also, I won't name any names. Female journalists in particular go to great lengths for a glamorous pic byline, not least the ones whose picture accompanies an article mocking the vanity of its subject.

Many female journalists use professional studios for their headshots; others demand numerous reshoots until they succeed in looking as different as they can from the picture byline in the mirror each morning - something Anthony Clare might care to devote a programme to one day. One freelance photographer who takes a number of these pictures has shown me how he routinely covers even the most minor skin blemish. After all, why risk offending someone who could soon be employing you?

But glamour alone is not enough. It might convey empty-headedness. Intellectual rigour, wit and sensitivity have somehow to be suggested in a one-column- wide, black and white mugshot.

This is most often implied by a moody stare rather than an old-fashioned smile. Dangling earrings, increasingly common with women writers and probably soon with men too, are useful for giving a hint of a partygoer and good dinner companion when the day's writing is done.

But the best way to suggest intellect is, of course, glasses. Not of wine, or you'll go the way of the Express chap. Nor of spectacles properly balanced on the bridge of the nose. That suggests a computer screen nerd who never gets out. No, one should wear them as Harry Enfield did when he wrote a column for The Independent on Sunday. To divest himself of his comedian image (though that was presumably why he was hired) he wore spectacles, but had them perched right down on the edge of his nose to suggest he only wears them for writing and thinking at the same time. Very clever, this, and much imitated.

So... youthfulness, glamour, intellect. But there is one thing more for the completely renaissance picture byline - fitness. This paper may well have been responsible for the aerobic byline photograph; writers pictured striding purposefully as if they composed their articles on a brisk constitutional rather than at a desk with a smoking room nearby. Perhaps it was to the smoking room that they were striding. Along with being a good walker you should be a natty dresser. Ties, I suspect, will soon go the way of cigars and on some papers are already conspicuously absent. Fitness accompanied by an egalitarian (but trendy) dress sense is the ultimate antidote to the cigar-chomping byline.

I noticed a perfect illustration of this in last Friday's London Evening Standard. The personal finance column by the estimable Lorna Bourke, late of this parish, was entitled Lorna's London, and to accompany such a laid- back approach to an article on inheritance tax, showed the writer striding out in blue jeans. This is not how one usually meets one's personal financial adviser, nor is it how I recall that particular writer. But no matter. It achieved total byline correctness.

The most effective and successful picture byline of recent times appeared for a long time in The Independent. It was above Bridget Jones's Diary, which, of course, went on to become a best-selling book. The author, Helen Fielding, received numerous love letters and, I believe, even proposals of marriage because of this picture. In fact the picture associated with the column was not of Helen Fielding, but of a PA on this newspaper who was hurriedly snapped with the props of a cigarette and a glass of wine. In other words, it broke every rule of picture byline correctness. Tobacco, drink, sitting down instead of striding out. Not even a pair of spectacles. She'd never get a job on The Express.