Ian Burrell: The women of Fleet Street are on the march to claim their place at journalism’s top table. It’s about time, too

  • @iburrell

The women of the press are about to get more vocal – and if the newspaper industry is serious about wanting to improve itself from within then it would do well to listen.

Few could argue that the press has kept pace with other media sectors in offering equal opportunities. You look at Cilla Snowball, running Britain’s biggest advertising agency (AMV/BBDO), Lisa Thomas, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Group, Nicola Mendelsohn, in charge of Facebook in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and Roisin Donnelly, marketing head at Procter & Gamble, and there aren’t too many similar figures in Fleet Street.

It’s the British Journalism Awards tonight. Over the years, newspaper industry nights have been noticeably more macho affairs – marked by cat-calling, flying bread rolls and the odd fist fight – compared with equivalent events in television.

But things could be about to change. The campaigning group Women in Journalism (WiJ) has a new chair – Eleanor Mills, editorial director of The Sunday Times. And she says that action is needed to tackle the macho culture on the news desks of some national newspapers.

She is particularly concerned about a lack of women working in hard news.

“One of the things I’m particularly struck by is the lack of female bylines in the ‘deep ends’ of newspapers, in the main news sections and comment. That’s something I will be taking a look at,” she says.

“There’s a macho, misogynist culture on many news desks, particularly on the tabloids. That’s not acceptable, and I think in some ways that it’s going backwards.”

It is high time this changed. The Daily Telegraph’s scoop last week over alleged match-fixing in football was another big hit for star investigators Holly Watt and Claire Newell, demonstrating again how effective women reporters can be in the deepest of journalistic waters.

The fact that this was a sports story was also poignant. Broadcasters – and the BBC, in particular – have come under fire this year for the lack of opportunities given to female sports presenters. Yet the BBC, which has a female head of sport in Barbara Slater, does far more in covering women’s sport than most organisations in the written news media.

It is something that Ms Mills will challenge.

“There’s a dearth of coverage of female sports after the Olympics, when we saw how enthusiastic people were about watching women compete,” she said. “I think it’s an absolute scandal that there’s so little coverage of women’s sport on the sports news pages. Women’s sport gets very short shrift unless it’s blonde, Sharapova-esque tennis players. That bias needs to be looked at and we’re going to be much more vocal about that.”

Some will say that Ms Mills hasn’t done too badly out of the industry. The youngest-ever features editor of the Telegraph, she has also been Saturday editor of The Times. Her employer, News UK, anxious for some publicity that shows it in a softer light, celebrated her appointment to WiJ and highlighted the fact that it has recently appointed Sarah Baxter as deputy editor of The Sunday Times, Emma Tucker as deputy editor of The Times and Victoria Newton as editor of The Sun on Sunday.

But the reality is that Ms Newton joins only Lisa Markwell (editor of The Independent on Sunday), Sarah Sands (editor of the London Evening Standard) and Dawn Neesom (editor of the Daily Star) in an exclusive club of women in the top jobs.

Ms Mills is promising to be vociferous in arguing for greater equality in newspaper offices. She hopes to be helped by younger cohorts who have led a recent revival in feminist journalism.

“I’m going to set up a new campaigns sub-committee which I’m going to head with a group of feisty younger ‘hackettes’ who have good ideas about the things we should be doing. There’s a good mass of young women who feel passionately that the pace of change hasn’t been fast enough and I’m going to do everything I can to help them.”

During the Leveson Inquiry, several women’s organisations gave evidence claiming misogyny by newspapers, some of which presented women in a “sexualised and objectified way”.

Since the publication of Leveson – with all its criticisms – the industry has been anxious to say that it is putting its house in order as it sets up its new regulatory body. Women journalists must be at the heart of that change.

Mail promises Aussies straight bat

“We’re not partisan. We don’t have a dog in anyone’s fight. I think people might find us refreshingly straight. We don’t edit with an agenda. It’s not a question of positioning ourselves to the left or the right of anyone.”

With those words, Martin Clarke, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Mail Online, addressed an audience in Sydney last week as he set out plans for an Australian edition of the world’s most-read English language news website. The venture, in partnership with Nine Entertainment, follows The Guardian’s launch of an Australian website six months ago. The Guardian ranked ninth among Australian news sites in October, just behind the BBC, according to Nielsen figures.

Clarke is planning to hire about 50 journalists. “I would expect our Australian team to break good Australian exclusives,” he said.

Given what’s happening with the Ashes, it’s good to see British news brands feeling confident enough to take their offerings Down Under. But the Daily Mail, the most opinionated voice in the British press, without an agenda? Sounds to me about as likely as an Aussie cricket team promising to abandon sledging.

Situations vacant at the BBC

The biggest on-camera jobs in business television are all up for grabs. But executives are struggling to identify replacements for Robert Peston (BBC business editor), Laura Kuenssberg (ITV business editor) and Jeff Randall (star presenter on Sky News).

Sky News city editor Mark Kleinman is regarded as the best story-getter in the sector but might not be suited to the broader BBC role. But he would be fearsome competition for whoever does succeed Peston (who is becoming economics editor).

Ian King, business editor of The Times, and Kamal Ahmed of The Sunday Telegraph would both face the difficult transition from print. Linda Yueh, the BBC’s Singapore-based chief business correspondent, is the best-placed internal candidate – but James Harding, director of BBC News, may want her to focus on the huge story of China.

It’s said that former Times editor (and business editor) Harding might turn to his ex-Times colleague Siobhan Kennedy (of Channel 4 News) to fill Peston’s shoes. Would any of them do the job as well as Harding himself?

Twitter: @iburrell