Unleashed and unrepentant: Fleet Street's bitch goddesses

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

They're the Wednesday witches, the queens of mean – the female columnists from whom no woman is safe. But they operate under a strict code of conduct, says one leading exponent

On Wednesday morning the model Saskia Porter took a hefty slapping from the columnist Sue Carroll in the Daily Mirror. Porter had been outed for knocking eight years off her real age and, according to Carroll, this was "a crime against women". Over at The Sun, Jane Moore picked on the self-absorbed Lily Allen for sending "yesterday I had a runny poo, too-much-information missives" across Facebook.

Both, this week at least, were splendidly outdone by Allison Pearson in the Daily Mail, who amused herself with speculatively casting a new Dr Who sidekick. Not Charlotte Church: "She doesn't do deep space – only deep fried." Lily Cole? "Already looks like an alien." Sienna Miller? "She could go out with several boyfriends at once in parallel dimensions. So, no acting needed at all."

(Oh, go on: smile. You know you want to.)

And so the wheels of the "Wednesday witches" – a sobriquet attributed to Diana, Princess of Wales – trundle nicely along as women, gloriously paid for their contribution to newspaper sales, are horrid to other women.

Waspish gossip has always been a staple of female intercourse: Bette Davis, Maria Callas and Edith Piaf were all fangs and claws at the sniff of a rival, and while Dorothy Parker could snipe at the best of men, she reserved her more memorable jibes for women, as in the famous review of Katharine Hepburn: "She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B."

What is newer is the harnessing of the bitch to the public prints, a whole page at a time, with spleen to the fore. Jean Rook, the Daily Express inspiration for Private Eye's "Glenda Slagg", kicked it off in the early Seventies, closely followed by Lynda Lee-Potter in the Daily Mail (both emerged, perhaps not coincidentally, during the infancy of contemporary feminism), and now there is not a newspaper that dares publish without.

The qualities like to pretend they are above it but they are not: Catherine Bennett (Observer), Libby Purves (Times), Vicki Woods (Telegraph), and India Knight (Sunday Times) are all perfectly capable of an elegant spear to a fellow breast, while brave is the woman who steps on the tetchy toes of Janet Street-Porter of this parish.

Courtesy of a greater directness of language, however, it is the tabloid queens of mean who tend to define the genre – one in which my own tour of duty, divided between the Sunday People and the Daily Express, lasted 12 years until 2005 and produced not a shred of remorse or regret.

When friends asked, how could you?, the answer was, "really rather easily". Furthermore: the misconceptions were, and continue to be, theirs not mine.

The first is that we are but puppets of editors, usually male, whom we seek to please by manufacturing the invective they demand. In fact, for invective to work it has to be real; fraudulent spite shows from a mile. So it is actually the other way around: editors hire those who are already choleric and simply seeking an outlet for it.

The second misconception is that we tip ordure only over women, when we are just as critical of erring men. The false impression is created because only we weigh in against women at all; male columnists know that for them to do so is a no-no across the political spectrum – to the right it is "unchivalrous", to the left it is "sexist". Almost entirely in our hands, therefore, girl-bashing becomes that for which we are noted.

The third, and the most important, misconception is that no woman is safe from our scrutiny. The truth is that our targets are carefully selected and that there are many women granted immunity by unspoken consensus. But to understand how that works requires a recognition of the most defining characteristic shared by these women writers: their age.

This is not peculiar to the female of the trade. It is a rule of Fleet Street's thumb that a fully-rounded journalistic career is divided into two parts: one spent discovering the world, often by reporting, and the other spent, only later when thus armed, trying to make sense of it. This is why, with the single exception of Johann Hari (of The Independent), there is no worthwhile columnist of either sex under the age of at least 40 and often a good 20 years more.

So when you take that general rule and apply it specifically to a woman columnist of the early 21st century, you know exactly who you are up against: one who has, as Jean Rook proudly claimed, "clawed and scrambled" her way up, partly because her era decreed that she had to and partly because – maybe fancifully – she saw herself as a trailblazer.

The women she likes, not surprisingly, are those she perceives as comrades in pluck: the strong, the no-nonsense and the hard-working. You don't, therefore, often read her sniping at Dolly Parton or Princess Anne; even Joan Collins gets the "national treasure" treatment. And it is noteworthy that Charlotte Church went unscathed when she worked hard, but felt the barbs once she slacked and became silly.

Useless, mindless celebrity may be admired on other pages of the same newspaper but, within the dizzy pluralism that governs the tabloid press, it cuts no ice on ours.

My own bitch-fest was at its peak during the era of the Spice Girls and my venom was entirely genuine. I had a daughter and a serious, grave fear that her role model would not be her tough old boot of a working mother but some soppy, vapid dolt like Victoria Beckham, to whom – then as now – I have never given an inch.

As for Heather Bloody Mills McCartney: rich by dodgy men, famous by unwise marriage and no proven merit beyond, she was ripe for the picking on. Her "achievements" were a throwback to times from which we like to think we led the escape – which may be untrue, unfair and unkind, but nonetheless she never stood a chance. I do not recall ever discussing her with other women columnists, though most of us know each other; still, as one, without meeting her (certainly not!) we unleashed the savagery.

It is, I concede, a power open to abuse and mistake. Lynda Lee-Potter once had a pop at Mo Mowlam for "letting herself go" – although no hypocrite she; Lynda herself was immaculate – only to discover that the offending puffiness was due to treatment for a brain tumour. Mo forgave her; poor Lynda went to her grave, in 2004, never forgiving herself.

On balance, however, and still unrepentant for my own part in the vitriol, I would hugely miss it if it stopped. A world where women's behaviour is monitored, policed and judged by the values of Misses Carroll, Moore and Pearson might well be imperfect. But for the majority of women – better known here as readers – it could be an awful lot worse.


Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage

nflAtlanta Falcons can't count and don't know what the UK looks like
Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Finance - Media

£80000 - £90000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for an International Mul...

Business Development Manager

£25000 - £27000 per annum + Bonus: Sauce Recruitment: Within your role as Busi...

IT Graduate

£15 - 20k: Guru Careers: We are looking for an eager IT Graduate / Technology ...

Ad Director / Sales Director

£55 - 65k + 25% Y1 OTE + Fantastic Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an e...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London