Fergie, Mandy and Paula, we judge you

Forget the party conference talk of the decent society. It's open season on the intimate details of women's lives
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The Independent Online
While Mr Blair was giving us his presidential version of a decent society, I could scarcely stop yawing. Decency isn't exactly arousing is it? Indecency is what we prefer to get excited about and thankfully Mr Hamilton has provided some this week. Yet, as if to counter all the hyper-rationality of Blairism, we have binged over the last few days on stories of mad, sad and bad women - Fergie, Mandy Allwood and Paula Yates have played these respective roles. Oh, and there's Mrs DB who wants her dead husband's sperm. What a vision of woman hood has emerged from this popular press. We are irresponsible, greedy nymphomaniacs driven by hormones, obsessive love, daft infatuation, dodgy psychics to all kinds of outrageous behaviour ranging from ignoring medical advice to wearing cocktail dresses in the daytime.

There are two languages being spoken this week and I hesitate to ascribe male and female qualities to them, yet one is the official news agenda of party conference and party politics and the other a far more messy, low-down business of personalities and private lives. It is no longer possible, I feel, to dismiss one set of stories as merely tabloid, as somehow essentially trivial compared to the broadsheet coverage of more serious topics.

It strikes me that there are few more serious topics than the discussions about fertility treatment, selective termination, and the rights of patients than the Allwood case brings about. We may not like the tabloids' way of creating rather than reporting stories but we cannot merely hope it goes away or be so hypocritical that we condemn them while also writing about them a few days later. What starts off as tabloid wheeze ends up on the Nine O'Clock News.

The tabloidisation of our culture pushes to the forefront a profound misogyny that plays itself out as mass entertainment. Paula, Fergie, Mandy are all considered fair game because we understand they have made Faustian pacts with the media. None of these women is particularly easy to defend. They are not blameless. But are Bob Geldof, Prince Andrew or Paul Hudson blameless individuals? Still we are invited to phone newspapers in order to say whether we we would rather date Fergie or a goat. Some time ago GQ emblazoned itself with a picture of Helena Christiansen, Michael Hutchence's ex-girlfriend, asking "Would you trade her in for Paula Yates?" Used cars, animals, women - what's the difference? If we so desire we can fax our answer to Mandy Allwood's dilemma "Was she right to try for all eight babies - or should she have terminated some?" The men in these cases remain shadowy figures. We know more than we could ever want to know about poor Fergie's delusions but Andrew was himself on the phone to Vasso, the psychic who makes Mystic Meg look like the real thing. And what of the infamous No.s 1 to 10 of Fergie's various toe-suckers, what of their integrity? Are we asked to fax the papers with our opinions on them? Can we phone with our comments on Geldof, born again champion of fathers' rights? Now that he has been spurred into action by some opium in a Smarties tube, is he a paragon of virtue? Is there a special phoneline set up about Allwood's partner Hudson, who hardly emerges from this tragedy as an honourable man? Was he was right to urge Mandy to continue with the pregnancy?

The Allwood case is simply the latest in the blitz of cases that erupted over the summer about selective termination, all of which have given much fuel to the anti-abortion lobby. Allwood's loss we are told by Professor Jack Scarisbrick, chairman of Life, is "less sad than if the horrible techniques of selective termination had been used". Really?

None of this confronts the reality that fertility treatment often leads to cases where patients are given the choice of selective termination. The key word is choice. Allwood made hers and, as Wendy Savage said with dignity, "A patient has the right to refuse medical advice." In order to make those choices, however, we need to be informed. The reporting of this case shows the terrible confusion we are in. The language is loaded with moral judgements. While doctors talk of spare embryos, Mandy's babies, tiny foetuses, became in tabloidese "tots" with pink and blue tags.

We know these desperate details because Allwood sold her sorry tale, which also meant that her capacity to be a good mother was called into question. The same could be said of Paula Yates who, while spoon feeding us the salacious details of her life, is being judged on her lifestyle rather than her parenting skills. As silly as she is - and it is difficult to stand up for a woman who once wrote a book saying that women with children shouldn't work when she herself was flogging lingerie - she has always been passionate about her children. As Geldof wants to stand up for the rights of fathers, I trust he will also insist on their responsibilities otherwise the nanny might as well get custody.

One can't help feeling that this focus on who has the right to be a parent is a bizarre form of denial. A discussion of what constitutes good fathering might be more appropriate in the current climate yet there is no trace of it. A visitor to the planet this week might gain the impression that the only woman fit to be a mother is Mrs DB herself on the grounds that she was once happily married. A woman's ability to mother it appears can be impeded by having breast implants, by not living with the father of the children, by trying to make some money. Meanwhile treatment of the increasingly ridiculous Fergie has become gratuitous and sadistic. She should presumably not have a sex life. She should know that she can trust no one. She should not be honest. But whose shining example should she follow? Shagger Norris's perhaps? Should she go to Kevin Maxwell in order to find out how to appear credible?

There is open season on the intimate details of these women's lives, women who, whatever their faults, have not committed any terrible crimes. One could argue that through these stories we are able to address our anxieties about the complexities of modern life with its broken marriages, divorce, fertility problems and custody battles. Maybe there is some truth in this but our chief anxiety appears to rest on a very old-fashioned fear and loathing of woman. These women have made choices, some of them the wrong ones, and therefore must be tried in the court of public opinion. There is a fine line, it appears, between being punished for making the wrong choice and being pilloried for having a choice to make in the first place.

Fergie, Mandy, Paula - we are now on first-name terms with you largely because while taking your lives apart we can moralise about sex, drugs and dead babies. So rest assured, sleaze is not only the province of a few men in public life but can be found in the private lives of these distraught women. Read it and weep.