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Newsnight's women fight back at 'sexist' sniping

When the Mandarin-speaking broadcaster Emily Maitlis joined the ranks of Newsnight, it provoked a rash of headlines about her good looks rather than her intellect.

Yesterday, her colleague Kirsty Wark hit back at media sniping over the show's female presenters by dismissing as "male fantasy" claims of rivalry caused by Maitlis's arrival.

Wark, 52, one of the presenters of BBC 2's heavyweight news programme, gave the riposte in Harper's Bazaar magazine in an interview with Maitlis and Newsnight's political editor, Martha Kearney. The addition of Maitlis to the presenting roster brought suggestions that the "beauteous" 36-year-old, who has a degree from Cambridge, would have a fractious relationship with Wark and Kearney.

Wark, who was photographed alongside Kearney and Maitlis for a feature about female power in the March issue of the magazine, pointed out that no such rumours had accompanied the appointment of Gavin Esler in 2002 as presenter alongside Jeremy Paxman.

She said: "What is this male fantasy? Did people say this about Gavin Esler and Jeremy Paxman?"

The irony of the juxtaposition of Wark's indignation alongside a glamorous photograph with her co-presenters wearing clothing and jewellery worth £5,500 was not lost on some commentators.

One leading media PR said: "Kirsty is absolutely correct. There wouldn't be all this fluff and fuss if it was two hairy blokes with the job of asking probing questions about Iran's nuclear agenda or the "cash for honours" scandal.

"But then to accompany it with a glammed-up photo of all three of them looks a bit like what's good for the goose isn't good for the gander. You can't really have it both ways."

The Harper's Bazaar feature, shot in a Georgian townhouse that once hosted the high commission of Sierra Leone, is Wark's second photoshoot appearance in a month after she was hailed as the "thinking man's crumpet" in a Sunday newspaper magazine.

Her glossy riposte to the pundits, complete with Louis Vuitton skirts and Cartier rings, is the latest foray by Newsnight and its presenters beyond the boundaries of their traditional material.

Paxman and Esler crossed swords last week after Newsnight's famously pugnacious chief presenter accused the BBC of "corporate hypocrisy" in its policy on green issues.

Responding in the corporation's in-house magazine, Esler suggested that Paxman was guilty of leaving his computer on all night. Esler wrote: "In the BBC office Jeremy and I share, the computer and monitor (which we also share) were left switched on all night. Who could it be, wasting all that electricity? Well, the last log-in I discovered was 'Paxmanj'."

When Maitlis, who had worked for the BBC's London news programme, was appointed in March last year, she was accused of not having sufficient grounding in international affairs. Amanda Platell, the former Conservative spin doctor, said: "Emily Maitlis has been put in far too young to present Newsnight, and it is, in fact, far too early for her to do it. You can see with these young women, there is no comprehension of the story. I don't want to see a pretty dummy sitting there."

Maitlis, who returned to Newsnight from maternity leave in December after the birth of her second child, speaks Mandarin, Spanish and Italian.

Editors of Newsnight have also defended it against claims of abandoning its cerebral agenda with items including an interview with Madonna about her adoption of a Malawian boy and a plea for viewers to send in home videos - which Paxman described on air as "pathetic".Harper's Bazaar is on sale from 8 February.