Tabloid queens: then there was none
Monday 26 January 1998
Wendy Henry was the first Killer Bimbo of Fleet Street and it has been 11 years since she arrived, stilettos at the ready, to edit News of the World. She was the first female national newspaper editor that anyone could remember and certainly the flashiest. Short skirts and fishnets had not been standard editing gear before. Not everyone adjusted well. "I will not work for anyone wearing an ankle chain," cried Nina Myskow, who walked out as Ms Henry walked in, brandishing a brand of "yuck journalism" that would do for her in the end.
Well there is no more Fleet Street and no one wears ankle chains anymore. Wendy Henry is now editing a magazine called Successful Slimming in New York and the sudden departure of Bridget Rowe last week from The Sunday Mirror means there are no more women, never mind Killer Bimbos, editing tabloids. Since 1987 eight women have sat in editor's chairs. All have been at Sunday newspapers and almost all of them have been tabloid. Now the suits are back in charge. No more bubbly blondes, no more sleek brunettes, no more rumours about the editor sending out for Tampax. But, aside from the loss of adjectives and the like, does anyone care? And does it really matter?
"Yes we do care. There should be more women. We definitely do care," says the one and only female editor, Rosie Boycott, from her desk at The Independent on Sunday. "After all 50 per cent of the population are women and they are a large part of the newspaper readership. It would be nice to have an even-steven balance."
Nice, yes, but there is little evidence to show that the women at the top of tabloids have meant much to the average woman reader. This seems puzzling at first. A quick look at the names of the women editors shows that all came via the features side of newspapers or from magazines. (In addition to Ms Henry and Ms Rowe, female tabloid editors include Eve Pollard, Patsy Chapman, Tessa Hilton, Amanda Platell and Sue Douglas.) The idea was to bring these women in to do what they do best - women-friendly features - to bolster readerships that had been falling for years, if not decades.
The first part was achieved in an explosion of glossy magazines, newsprint and extra sections. New readers were harder to conjure up. City University lecturer Linda Christmas, in her report Chaps of Both Sexes? for the campaigning group Women in Journalism last year, noted that only a few female editors (most notably Eve Pollard at The Sunday Mirror) managed to achieve even a temporary rise in circulation and female readership. "My theory is that these women only got to edit the tabloids anyway because the circulation was on a steady downward curve," says Ms Christmas. "The jobs were not nearly the same as when the red tops ruled the world. They thought: why not give a woman a go? In the end, though, they were given impossible tasks and it turned out to be very hard to reverse the downward trend."
Columnist and TV presenter Anne Robinson saw this more clearly than most. "Bob Maxwell offered me The Sunday Mirror when there really were no women. I turned it down. The problem with being an editor is once you stop, you can get a bit lost. As attractive as it was to be the first woman, I didn't think it would last long. "This was at a time when Maxwell and Murdoch were racing to appoint the first women editor. "Now the red tops are in so much trouble that no one can afford the luxury of ideas about how we've got to have a woman," she says. "I mean if you want to look at it, the only paper that really puts on a skirt is The Mail and they've never bothered about women at the top."
Everyone is always trying (and failing) to copy the secret of The Mail's success. But, for the women who have been at the top, there were genuine frustrations with trying to change the news culture. "I did try to report on life the way it is. After I'd been on holiday, I'd see things differently and come back and, for example, do more on family life because most of us live, work and die in families," Eve Pollard says in Chaps of Both Sexes?. "But after a while I'd find myself listening to the views of the staff who were mainly male, middle-aged and white and far more concerned with what the other papers were doing. You need many more women around in newspapers before the atmosphere and attitudes change."
Sue Douglas remembers this from her days at The Sunday Express. " I hated splashing on the same story as everyone else. But sometimes I was under a lot of pressure, always on a Saturday night, from my deputy or whoever was night editing, to run with the latest news story.
I remember one Saturday about 11.30pm, I was getting near Oxford where I live and the car phone rang and it was my deputy saying: `Sue, the others are leading on McDonald's deciding not to go with British beef.' I preferred our story and I told him we wouldn't change it. Then, as I'm driving past McDonald's, I thought: `Bloody hell, everybody is going to be shocked by this story and we are going to have to do it.' So there I was feeding from the same trough but my instinct was not to."
But why talk of such substance when we can discuss style? For style - both management and personal - is what the female editors are perhaps best known for. " They are worse than the men!" say many. Certainly all would probably admit to being tough operators in a tough world. After all Bridget "Death" Rowe does not get her nickname from an interest in capital punishment. "I am intrigued as to what these women are really like," says Alison Hastings, editor of the tabloid Newcastle Evening Chronicle. "They are said to be just like the men but maybe the younger ones coming up now have had less pressures on them."
Maybe so. One who will be particularly watched is Rebekah Wade, who last week moved from being deputy editor at News of the World to the same job at The Sun. But Ms Wade will not be able to escape the style police. For I am not the first to note that she is "flame-haired". As opposed to Eve Pollard who is, of course, blonde. "Does anyone know what some of the men look like? What does Paul Dacre look like? Does anyone ever call Alan Rusbridger a brunet?" asks Ms Pollard. Who knows, now they just might. And, more to the point, do any of these men wear ankle chains? I think we should be told.
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