Headlines, hemlines and internet obsessions

Female broadcasters face scrutiny not just by the viewers but also by internet fans - and some aren't happy about it. By Jonathan Brown
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The Independent Online

For most consumers of television news the answer would be a resounding no. But tap the name of BBC Breakfast's Natasha Kaplinsky into your computer's search engine. Among the links offered will be a discussion group which also features "over a hundred pictures of Tasha's stockinged legs".

Enter the name of Emily Maitlis, BBC London's Cambridge-educated, Mandarin-speaking presenter and up will pop screen after screen of thumbnail images of her presenting the television news. Alongside these sites are discussion forums in which hundreds of "fans" discuss every aspect of the presenter's appearance, from the thickness of her tights to her choice of blouse.

If it stopped there the suggestion that the proliferation of these sites is a harmless if bizarre reflection of society's increasing obsession with celebrity might hold true. But that appraisal was undermined this month when internet giant Yahoo removed one such site from its service and reclassified another because of their sexual content. It also emerged that broadcasters had acted to close similar sites because of similar concerns.

Martin Phillp, a 26-year-old community broadcaster from Bexley in Kent, runs Current Buns from an internet café on the Strand in central London. On it he offers a comprehensive guide to national and regional presenters and even a section devoted to "radio babes" and a mini site for the ITV1 Meridian weather forecaster Gemma Humphries. More than 10,000 readers log on to the site each month.

Like the other "tribute" sites, the main offerings are pictures or "caps" of the presenters at work, obtained by screen grabbing images using a TV card in a PC. Mr Phillp concedes that that interest in his site is "60 per cent sexual" and that a disproportionate number of "up-skirt" shots make their way on to the internet. But he claims he is offering an information service to "promote the artistic talents of the presenters". "The attraction is in the combination of beauty and brains. Men are mesmerised by these intelligent journalists," he said. Mr Phillps claims he has had only had one complaint from the women whose images he posts on his site. "A presenter asked me if I could remove a picture that showed her backside. I'd rather not say who that was," he adds.

Julia Caesar, who presents BBC News 24's business news and on occasions Breakfast News, says she felt "horrible and awful" on learning that she was appearing on such sites. But the 33-year-old is now more phlegmatic. "You are on television in the public domain and people are entitled to have an opinion about you. It is part of the job. It is not something that worries me, it is just there. But there aren't too many sites devoted to men presenters," she said.

Like other women in the business she has been subjected to unwanted attention from obsessive fans. But more typical is the excessive interest paid to her appearance and downright hostility to her as a woman - something that the sites "don't help". "A few months ago I had an e-mail from someone who said "you are a pretty, blonde girl who reads out loud". I wrote back to say I took it as a compliment that he thought that I was pretty but that I didn't use an autocue and had two degrees. He didn't write back," she said.

Meanwhile, over on GMTV, the female presenters continue to receive huge levels of interest from their "fans" much of it sexual in nature. After being contacted by The Independent, Yahoo blocked one site dedicated to Kate Garraway because it linked to a pornographic site. Another was reclassified as an adult site because of the graphic sexual fantasies described in the chat rooms. But Donny MacLeod, who founded Garrawench, the site dedicated to Ms Garraway, insists there is nothing unsavoury going on and that his work is enjoyed by 18,000 people a month. "It's just a fan site for Kate fans, to learn about her, see pictures and talk with other Kate fans, nothing too stalkish (sic) about it at all, all very fair. I think Kate has the same laid-back approach to the website it seems, joking about it," he added. Karl Perkins, from Preston, Lancashire, who set up "Women at GMTV" four years ago after finishing a university computer degree, shares this view. He developed an interest in "capping" images of the BBC's Sophie Raworth while still studying, but he has since moved on to devote his energies to GMTV.

"Some of the male presenters are always dropping hints about pictures on the web," he said. "I presume they must know about the sites as I'm sure they have all Googled their names." He says his favourite presenter is Penny Smith. "I think the reason ... is that she seems to make more of an effort in the mornings. Many fans don't seem to like trouser suits and Kate Garraway seems to live in them where Penny isn't afraid to dress a little sexier. Kate was very popular but her going on about her marriage means a few fans have gone off her, whereas Fiona Phillips has started to get popular as she started to dress up a little."

GMTV said it is keeping a close eye on the sites as they spring up. "If it is brought to our attention such sites have overstepped the mark in terms of decency or in the use of images, we take steps to close that site down. If anyone is making money out of the pictures either by selling or charging for access or if they are manipulated, we will take action to close the site down," said a spokeswoman for the broadcaster.

The BBC said it offered advice on how to deal with threats and had already closed a site. "We recognise that people can get unwanted attention because they are on screen which is part of their job," said a spokeswoman.