Weigh out of line

The Daily Mail's vicious treatment of Mo Mowlam revealed a callous disregard of the facts, argues David Walker
Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam always knew she was on The Daily Mail's hit list. Her Northern Ireland brief on Labour's front bench means she is front-line game. Labour-soft-on-the-IRA is a story the right-wing papers need no prodding from Michael Howard to run.

But on Irish affairs Ms Mowlam has been sure-footed. So she fell victim to another line of attack. Her size. On 5 April The Daily Mail gave over almost an entire news page to a very large photograph of a very large Ms Mowlam. The accompanying piece by Vicky Ward was colourful - "why is she so big?" and "look what she's done to her hair". It reported speculation (a code word for something a journalist makes up and cannot be bothered to find a pliant source for) that she was so altered that Tony Blair had "chosen a new frontbencher".

The tone of the article was friendly; it blamed her weight gain on her giving up smoking. But the only contexts which made it a "story" were deeply unfriendly. Ms Mowlam's weight is only worth picturing if fat women are funny or (nudge, nudge) how can the government of the country be trusted to someone who lets herself go in this way?

A few days later, The Daily Mail's columnist Lynda Lee-Potter weighed in. Ms Potter's stock in trade is to opine crudely on the basis of minimal facts. Together with some prurient banter about the MP's sex life, the great phrase-maker described her having "shoulders like Frank Bruno and bears an undeniable resemblance to an only slightly effeminate Geordie trucker."

On Saturday, with characteristic humour and dignity, Ms Mowlam announced she had been undergoing treatment for a tumour, including steroids (which cause weight gain) and radiotherapy (which can cause hair loss).

The Daily Mail, plainly put, got the story wrong and no one was expecting any hint of an apology this morning. Do we then dismiss this as just another tale of media prurience ? After all, Mo Mowlam has her press champions - Bridget Rowe wrote movingly about her yesterday in the Sunday Mirror. And her political reputation is unaffected: the voters of Redcar will, if anything, support her even more enthusiastically.

But before The Daily Mail is allowed to pass on to its next trick, it is worth making these notes. One is an old saw. The press culture it exemplifies is persistently misogynist. Women are regularly put down, an observation diminished not one whit by the fact it is female reporters and female columnists (which The Daily Mail has in abundance) who do it.

Yet the worst thing that can be said about the treatment of Ms Mowlam is the example it gives of editorial laziness. If reporter Vicky Ward actually talked to Ms Mowlam face to face, she is evidently myopic as well as incurious, since the wig the politician wears is plainly such ... and Mo Mowlam (to her credit and her handlers' despair) is talkative to the point of indiscretion. Perhaps the questions did not go far because in The Daily Mail's world view, fat Labour female is so much more compelling a story than sick politician with the potential to be a stateswomann