Media: Not being able to help was agony: Angela Willans spent 29 years giving advice to 'Woman's Own' readers. But she left when her editors put costs first

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The Independent Online
THE turn of the year has been an unsettling time for us aunts. Virginia Ironside was sacked from the Sunday Mirror, Marje Proops let the skeletons out of her cupboard, Claire Rayner was still without a problem page in the press, and I resigned from Woman's Own.

I had hoped to emulate Marje and go on till I could no longer raise hand to word processor. As it turned out, I just managed to reach my 30th year but not complete it. I am proud of 28 of those years - the 29th I am glad to put behind me.

To understand why I resigned it is useful to know two things. One is that there is a certain degree of tension between the journalistic side of this mongrel job and the help-giving side. This in turn leads to conflict over what readers show they are actually worrying about in their cries for help and the more titillating and entertaining worries editors imagine or wish their readers had.

So there is the agony aunt's very own dilemma. If the 200-plus letters you are getting every week are not titillating at all but are about broken hearts, loneliness, despair, rejection, feelings of inferiority, the search for love and the loss of it, bereavement, bullying, domestic violence, abuse of all kinds, family break-up, debt, unemployment, loss of confidence and self-esteem - and only a few of them have anything approaching the required spiciness - well, you then have to think about inventing letters to go on the page. Since I have all but jumped down the throats of the hundreds of people whose first question about the page is 'You make up all the letters, don't you?' it comes particularly hard to discover that fiction is precisely what is wanted.

However, even that might have been tolerable if the second reason for resigning had not happened.

From the time I joined Woman's Own, way back in 1963, the magazine always provided a fully funded, behind-the-problem-page service for giving personal help to those readers who wanted it. This entailed a staff of letter writers trained in the counselling approach, a vast range of leaflets, book lists, information sheets, a network of contacts in the field of social, domestic, emotional and relationship and family problems, and a high degree of responsibility and confidentiality.

It was not cheap to run, but it seemed to me - and clearly to the managers and editors at the time - to make economic sense. The evidence from the post is that when someone has received the help she wanted, she sees the magazine as a friend and remains a reader for life. In fact, more than a quarter of a million personal replies in my name have gone out to readers over the years and that, to me, sounds like garnering the kind of goodwill that holds on to circulation or even increases it.

The existence of the personal service also made moral sense. I believe that the only justification for inviting readers to send in their worries is that you actually give them the help they ask for. (With only five letters published per week, the shortfall of unanswered letters hardly bears thinking about.) Without this individual attention to every troubled reader, the magazine seems to me to be cynically asking people to send in their cries for help solely for the entertainment of other readers.

So it was truly my turn for the bleeding heart when, just before Christmas 1991, I was told that the personal reply service was to end - completely, finally and within a month. The job's feel-good factor ended with it. Before long, there was the chilling little note that appears at the foot of so many problem pages now - 'so and so is unable to reply personally'. The post went right down and up went my anxiety for all those people who had lost a desperately needed hand in the dark and, alongside the anxiety, a deep feeling of shame that I had let them all down.

Agony aunts are a strange breed, tending to insecurity and to identification with the lost child in everyone. I think that what we all have in common - apart from being competent journalists - is the need to be needed. That is why we get such great satisfaction out of responding to people in trouble with all the resources we can muster, both from within ourselves and from the employing newspaper or magazine. After a few months of struggling to adjust to what was virtually a completely different job, and not one I was proud of, I gave in and gave up.

There is a marvellous sense of release now that I am not working against the grain of my own nature and 29 years' experience. But I take with me one big question. Now that more and more newspapers and magazines are losing sight of their readers as people and seeing them merely as figures on a balance sheet, where do they go now, all those people who looked to a familiar friend on their favourite journal for comfort, information, advice and a listening ear? An even bigger question is - does anyone care?

(Photograph omitted)