Media: Horror] Girl writer gets good story: It was a typical interview - but subsequent comment about the journalist has been shocking, says Ruth Picardie
Wednesday 09 February 1994
A ridiculous rendition of Dominic Lawson's celebrated 1990 interview with Nicholas Ridley? Perhaps. Yet the recent Times magazine profile of Norman Lamont, in which the former chancellor described the Prime Minister and his policies as 'nauseating', 'pathetic', 'weak and hopeless', has prompted an equally extraordinary response from male MPs and journalists.
Never mind the embarrassment caused to John Major, or Norman Lamont's motives - almost as many column inches have been devoted to the author of the profile, Ginny Dougary. Have the pundits been celebrating the thoroughness of her research, her sharp observations, her ability to get a media-savvy politician to be so nasty about his former boss?
Strangely, no. The real subject of comment is the fact that Ms Dougary is - gasp - a woman, or, in the words of the Evening Standard, an 'ambitious girl
Appearance is, of course, a vital subject when it comes to 'ambitious girl journalists'. Ambitious boy journalists showed their imagination by favouring 'attractive' as an adjective to describe Ms Dougary (the Mail and Evening Standard); the Mirror opted for 'flame-haired' and 'striking'.
Sadly, we don't know what Ms Dougary was wearing at the time of the interview. However, it is clear that Mr Lamont's criticisms of the Prime Minister were made over lunch. So what? Journalists interview subjects over lunch as a matter of course. Nevertheless, the Mirror's Nigel Morris decided that this was a 'date' at 'an exclusive table for two'.
The general idea was that Ms Dougary had lured Mr Lamont into a 'tender trap' (the Mirror again), using 'feminine wiles'. 'Norman,' wrote Alan Clark in the Mail on Sunday, 'is a sucker (aren't all good chaps?) for a pretty curve.'
For some of the men, even this cheap denigration gave too much credence to Ms Dougary's skills as a journalist. In the Mail, she appeared as a 'former secretary'; for David Mellor, in the Guardian, she was 'an antipodean secretary and mother of two'. It is unclear which was the worst crime - being a foreigner (Ms Dougary is, in fact, British); spending six months as a secretary when she left Bristol University with a degree in English 15 years ago; or combining motherhood and a career.
The message, however, was clear: this little woman ought to have been at home doing the washing up, rather than dabbling in the complicated, masculine world of politics. So complicated, indeed, that not even Mr Lamont seems to understand the difference between 'lobby terms' and lunch with a non-lobby journalist. Mr Mellor - coincidentally, an ambitious boy journalist - is also confused: 'Quite what it is in Ms Dougary's CV that qualifies her for all this advanced superciliousness is beyond me.'
Crude stuff? It gets cruder: Mr Mellor also writes that Ms Dougary is a 'judgemental harpy' and a 'sorceress's apprentice' who once 'propositioned' him, too. He describes Lynn Barber thus: 'She's a sabre-toothed old harridan who by the look of her has lived a bit, and none too wisely either.'
It is hard to take seriously the rantings of a middle-aged MP whose career was derailed by an affair. What does matter is the subtext to these commentaries: that, despite herself, Ms Dougary had, in the words of Stephen Glover in the Evening Standard, 'won Mr Lamont's heart'. Men just can't help acting on impulse.
On the contrary, says Lynn Barber. 'Sex would be a distraction,' she writes. 'For many men, the opportunity to talk at length about themselves is a far more attractive proposition.'
Alternatively, male politicians may attempt to flatter a female journalist into a sympathetic write-up. Take Mr Major's pre- election interview with Barbara Amiel, of the Sunday Times: ' 'Barbara,' says the Prime Minister, bounding up to me in greeting, 'you're not wearing your glasses. Have you contact lenses on?' he asks as his hand twirls a ringlet that has wandered incautiously over one of my eyes.' Like a good journalist, she uses his silly remarks to 'wonder about the self-confidence of a man' who is so anxious about the press.
MPs have even been known to use sex as a weapon. Alan Clark, when interviewed by Ms Dougary last year, declared halfway through their conversation: 'I was trying to imagine what you would look like with no clothes on.'
The point is this. It may be that Mr Lamont is prone to burble on in the company of an attentive interviewer. It may be that male peacocking comes into play when politicians are interviewed as celebrities. But this is not the exclusive domain of female journalists.
Take Mr Lamont's interview with Hunter Davies, published in this newspaper last November: 'He would appear to have put on a few pounds, as well. 'Don't mention my weight, or my wife will go bonkers.' ' Male vanity? Certainly. Some 'chemistry' in the meeting? Of course. But anything to do with Hunter's attractive moustache? Who cares?
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