Media: A Tory feminist for TV's watchdog: Michael Leapman profiles Lady Elspeth Howe, the incoming chair of the Broadcasting Standards Council

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The Independent Online
IN CHOOSING Elspeth Howe as chair of the Broadcasting Standards Council, Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, has drawn from the same pool of perceived talent as spawned her predecessor, William Rees-Mogg. Both are top-drawer Tory grandees - like Mr Brooke himself. They go to the same political dinner parties and sit on numerous boards and bodies devoted to the regulation and betterment of the less exalted.

They are, in short, used to telling other people how to behave. Their lack of experience of working in television or even of watching it much - Lady Howe prefers bridge - is viewed as a minor drawback compared with that patrician quality. Nor is her hearing difficulty, inherited from her mother, expected to interfere with her ability to detect and denounce improper television language.

'She has high moral standards and a great sense of right and wrong,' says Rosemary Wolff, a member of the Police Complaints Authority, who has known Lady Howe since before she married Sir Geoffrey Howe 40 years ago, aged 21.

'I suppose you'd say she's quite old- fashioned by today's standards.'

The Rees-Moggs and the Howes have known each other a long time. A few years ago Lady Howe - known as 'Heppy' to her closest friends - became a mature student and took a degree course in social policy and administration at the London School of Economics. When she had completed it, Gillian Rees-Mogg decided to follow suit.

'She gave me all her books and copies of the course lectures,' says Lady Rees- Mogg, who was awarded her degree last year.

'She's a very effective person who gets things done. I wouldn't say she was a prude but she dotes on her two grandsons and so she'd be concerned about what's shown to children.'

Another old friend, the London antiques dealer Alistair Sampson, agrees. 'She isn't easily shockable,' he says, 'but she does insist on standards. She's not a Mary Whitehouse figure. And she's a feminist - but not a tiresome feminist.'

Her feminism has taken practical form in her membership of bodies such as the Equal Opportunities Commission; and she advised Gillian Shephard, former Secretary of State for Employment, on equality matters. She is sure to be vigilant about how television portrays women and treats women's issues, although the BSC has no say on two subjects that greatly exercise feminists - the employment of women in television and their representation on serious discussion programmes.

She has also been an active campaigner against homelessness. In June 1990 she was one of several prominent people who spent the night in a cardboard box to highlight the problem.

Sir Geoffrey was then still a member of the Cabinet and Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister, was furious at Lady Howe's gesture. It helped to widen the rift that led first to Sir Geoffrey's resignation (it was said that Lady Howe wrote his speech) and thence to Mrs Thatcher's removal from office.

A hostile profile of Lady Howe in the Sunday Telegraph just after those momentous events quoted Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, Conservative MP for Perth and Kinross, as saying:

'Elspeth Howe is the sort of woman who would have espoused the wonders of Communism in the Thirties . . . She's a typical intellectual, like all those who have betrayed the country over the years who think that trendyism is preferable to orthodoxy. She gave him (Sir Geoffrey) the knife and the feeble fool used it.'

Broadcasters have no view on whether Lady Howe will do a good job at the BSC, partly because they know little about her and partly because most of them disapprove of the council and the philosophy of censorship behind it.

'It's relatively harmless,' was as far as one television executive was prepared to go. 'It's certainly given Mary Whitehouse nothing to celebrate. I don't suppose it will change much under Lady Howe.' The new chair may well be shocked at some of the things she has to see and listen to in her job of monitoring televised sex and violence. To judge from an interview she gave to Homes and Gardens in 1983, her life has been mostly sheltered from that kind of thing.

She revealed that Sir Geoffrey insisted that, at their dinner parties, the ladies always separated from the men after coffee. This offended her feminist principles, and also deprived her and her female guests of some spicy stories.

There was an occasion when the actor Donald Sinden was among the guests: 'The ladies had gone upstairs and I was getting crosser and crosser because you could hear gales of laughter from downstairs. When they came up I said: 'You are rotters, staying down all that time.'

'To make up for it Donald told us all a marvellous story about how he went to Japan and experienced all the things men have been longing to experience with Japanese geisha girls, but never quite getting to the point. It was so funny.'

No doubt, but, wearing her new regulatory hat, it is surely something she would not countenance on screen, at least not until the nine o'clock watershed.

(Photograph omitted)