The ides of Marje

Marje Proops brought down shame and decay upon the nation. So say the moralists of the right-wing press. But where did they get the idea that a journalist can change how people think? By Carol Sarler
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Marje Proops would have loved it. Never has the death of a journalist made so many column inches as her career was recorded, as her personal life - with all its dramas - was resurrected and as her peers linked arms with party political leaders to pay fulsome tribute to "the queen of agony aunts". Well, that was day one, anyway.

Two days later, as is always the way, the backlash kicked in. William Oddie, in The Daily Mail, pronounced that she "had no advice to give that was worth giving" and that she was guilty of creating moral anarchy by destroying social constraints. Mary Kenny, in The Daily Express, ascribed to the hand of Miss Proops the destruction of family values and moral ideals - while The Daily Telegraph's anonymous leader writer bitched all the way up to and including the suggestion that the dearly departed is today actually resting in hell. Phew.

The funny thing is that Marje Proops would have loved the invective as much as the eulogies. For all that she was a staunchly endearing woman, she was not noted for her modesty. She would have enjoyed the notion that her journalistic comment might have carried such naked power; that pivotal social change was brought about by the sweep of her pen. She would have enjoyed it for exactly the same reason that William Oddie and Mary Kenny are prepared to suggest it: for all three of them, sharing as they do the same egotistical trade, it is a boost to self-esteem to rise in the morning and believe that their day's work will make some kind of meaningful difference.

It is, perhaps, especially easy for an agony aunt to believe this. To be in receipt of some 50,000 readers' letters in a year is to feel oneself hacking at the coalface of real life: a chip off here, a chunk out there and you have changed the shape and substance of that life. All by yourself.

But "advice" does not work like that; advice - at least, advice that is taken - is always just reinforcement of a decision already reached.

Consider how it works out of the newsprint context: the woman who seriously wishes to leave her erring husband will believe, when she speaks of it to a friend, that she is seeking advice. But to which friend does she turn for such counsel? To the similarly abused woman who will urge her to give it another try? Or to the fiercely independent one that she knows will help her to leave - and who never liked her husband in the first place? It will, of course, be the second, the one who will bolster and encourage her to do that which she has already decided to do. By the same token, if it did come to referral to an agony aunt, that same woman would always have written to Marje Proops in preference to The Catholic Herald.

People knew Miss Proops's views, as surely as they know the views of all journalists who write on a regular basis. Some felt her to be too radical, others not radical enough (it is a personal belief that she defaulted too often to the "put-up-and-shut-up", but you cannot have everything).

When they wrote to her, they knew in advance what she would say - and the real measure of her success is that her finger was sufficiently firmly on the national pulse that an estimated three per cent of the population did write to her, comfortable in the certainty that she thought what they thought. Not that she could form their thoughts for them. None of us, in truth, can do that.

It is three and a half years since I started to write a weekly page for The People, a Sunday newspaper with many millions of readers. In that time, the greatest adjustment to preconceptions of such a job has been learning how very little power there really is in the hands of "opinion- formers". In all that time, I have had copious mail taking issue with what I write and, mercifully, rather more agreeing with me. I have even had letters that say, "You put that so well; it's just what I have been thinking for ages". But I have never, ever, in all that time, had one letter that said "I have changed my mind since reading you".

Those who are homophobic remain so; those in favour of birching, hanging and a hand gun in every bedroom remain so, in spite of all my best efforts to the contrary. Happily, these rabid dissenters are in a minority, which is presumably why I still have the job. Marje Proops held her much higher- profile job through a succession of editors because each of them was smart enough to realise that she precisely reflected what her readers already thought and felt.

This is not for a moment to suggest that her page was without value. Quite the reverse. But the value was not really for the half dozen or so individuals whose problems were addressed (none of the aforementioned brood of editors was so altruistic as to offer a whole page for the interests of so few). The value was that by acting as a reflector, rather than a creator of social mores, she offered up a reassuring barometer to the rest of her readers; she reinforced their beliefs by saying that others believed them too.

In 1971, when, it is claimed, she became the first agony aunt to use the word masturbation, she was not responsible for sending hordes of schoolboys into exploratory dives beneath the blankets. They were there already. She was simply picking up on what was already a growing feeling that we must stop the silly nonsense about going blind.

When she published a letter from a battered wife in Cardiff, the value was not in the essentially peripheral advice as to whether that wife should leave him, shop him or slay him; the value was to the other battered wives in Leeds or Scunthorpe as they thought, this is happening then ... it's not just me.

She did not make people have abortions, under-age or homosexual sex. Her page, like any other page in a newspaper, was just another way of reporting what was going on and - for all that it was structured into a question-and-answer format - that made her just another journalist. Like William Oddie, Mary Kenny or myself. Each of us, on a good day, may contrive to be entertaining, provocative or informative; on a splendid day we may be all three. But powerful?

No such bloody luck