She was, the Daily Mail said, a legend. The obituaries were the generous, heart-warming kind she used to write herself for people who had previously got a kicking in her column. She was the First Lady of Fleet Street, but Lynda Lee-Potter, who died on Wednesday, may also be the last of her kind.
Even as ferocious jockeying began at the Daily Mail as to who would fill Lee-Potter's slot - the firm favourite being Amanda Platell - the question arose as to what exactly the job description might be. Since Lee-Potter arrived at the Daily Mail in 1967, women have colonised Fleet Street, and their columns are a staple of every publication. When as many women as men have columns, does the alpha female columnist, the Fleet Street Queen Bee, still embody a newspaper's heart and soul?
"What's a female columnist?" asked Ann Widdecombe, who had her own column in the Daily Express. "I certainly never thought of Lynda as a female columnist. The gender shouldn't make any difference at all."
"It won't be the same again," agreed Jane Kelly, until recently a features writer for the Daily Mail. "In the 1970s it was Lynda Lee-Potter against Jean Rook on the Daily Express, and we younger women writers all thought we would inherit that. But it's faded out. There's been a change in editorial approach. Perhaps lippy women aren't as much of a draw as they were."
Yet in the tabloid and middle market at least, comment is, it seems, still gender specific. The intimate lives of celebrities and royals, children, marriage and work-life balance are all areas of expertise on which women are expected to pronounce. Through their supposed closeness to "real life" women are allowed a certain moral authority, accorded to Lee-Potter by the fact that she came from Lancashire and was the daughter of a miner. "Lynda had grown up in a council house. She had lived in the real world," boasted Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail's editor, in last week's emotional tribute.
"Women are used to dish out advice on hair and body shape and personality-based politics. They are supposed to have an emotional range which allows them to speak on these subjects," said Georgina Henry, deputy editor of The Guardian. "And they seem happy to be used that way. That's why there are so few women political columnists on the middle-market papers."
Even on the broadsheets, different expectations of female columnists persist. "There's very much a feeling that you have a certain sphere, which is love, the family, schools, all women's page stuff," said Amanda Craig, a columnist for The Sunday Times. "When I began to do it I was always being told I was too literary and intellectual, even though the person commissioning me was literary and intellectual herself."
Another requirement is a willingness to be exceedingly nasty in print, an attribute long parodied by Private Eye's Glenda Slagg. For "outspoken views" or "common sense" read unbridled bitchiness. Tributes to Lee-Potter last week persistently praised her refusal to "mince her words" and contrasted her personal diffidence with her acid pen. Vitriolic commentators like Lee-Potter and Anne Robinson are often euphemistically described as "acid tongued" when they are simply being very unkind.
In the past, such techniques have sold papers. Inter-newspaper grudge matches between female columnists, such as Germaine Greer's description of Suzanne Moore ("so much lipstick must rot the brain. Hair birds-nested all over the place, fuck-me shoes and three layers of fat cleavage") are a bonus.
"They want outspoken women," said Ann Widdecombe. "That's certainly what they wanted from me and I loved it. I never ran out of things to write about."
"It's not a case of women being more bitchy than men, but bitchiness is expected of them," said Georgina Henry. According to Mary AnnSieghart, who writes both political and personal columns for The Times, some newspapers seem to expect a specific type of abuse from the female commentator. "You can get men such as Peter Oborne who can say incredibly hurtful things about people, but while men can be vindictive they tend not to be so personal. They don't focus on whether someone is fat."
Amanda Craig, however, is disturbed by the trend. "When a mail bag is full of complaints about something deliberately offensive, that is seen as a success, which is completely wrong because all you've done is succeed in getting people's backs up and upset them. Just because you provoke no complaint does not mean you are not read.
"It's this unquestioning promotion of envy and spite and self-satisfied silliness which causes readers to lose respect for journalists in general. We could all write that kind of stuff, it doesn't take any brains or courage."
The role of the rude woman, prepared to articulate the cutting and cruel sentiments that readers are supposed to possess, has a long history. The formidable and frankly frightening Anne Scott-James pioneered the female opinion column in the Daily Mail, and Lee-Potter herself took over in 1967, when Jean Rook jumped ship for the Daily Express.
The impact these women had on the lives of readers was held to be immense. After the Daily Mirror's Marje Proops died she was accused of "creating moral anarchy by destroying social constraints", and Mary Kenny announced that "her influence helped to create the moral vacuum that is now the despair of our leaders".
But to their newspapers, such commentators did something special too - they reflected back an image of its readers. Thus, Paul Dacre declared, Lee-Potter "had an unquenchable belief in the goodness and decency of the quiet majority in this country". When she attacked single mothers or Diana, Princess of Wales, or Victoria Beckham she was "only putting into easy, eloquent words what ordinary people were thinking".
If so, ordinary, decent people must have pretty savage hearts. "She did get a huge response from her readers, but whether that was the true voice of Middle England is another thing," said Georgina Henry.
Today, however, a proliferation of newspaper columnists means that no one woman can embody the values of an entire publication. You get common sense from Allison Pearson but not from Julie Burchill, self-deprecation from Zoë Heller but not from Anne Robinson.
If Amanda Platell does succeed to Lee-Potter's slot, she may seem very distant from the Daily Mail's demographic. "Lynda represented the readership, but someone like Amanda Platell who has no children and wears leather trousers and goes shopping on the Brompton Road can hardly be said to do that," said Jane Kelly.
Perhaps anyway, our appetite for vitriol is running dry. "I hate bitchiness," said Mary Ann Sieghart. "I think it's very 1980s." "The age of the angry old woman is over," agreed a Daily Mail insider.
"Expect a bit more caring and sharing now."
THE MIDDLE MARKET & RED-TOP COLUMN QUEENS
SUE CARROLL - DAILY MIRROR
Colloquial queen with a touch of the ladette:
"There's a reason why we're fascinated by Cilla [Black] and Joan [Collins]. Respect. They're a couple of ballsy British broads who've been there ... and are still hungry for more."
VANESSA FELTZ - DAILY EXPRESS
Ex-chat show host who speaks "From the Heart":
"Tragic that the Eccles cake, which melts to buttery oblivion in the mouth, should be elbowed off the patisserie hit parade by the dry and dismal Danish pastry."
ALLISON PEARSON - THE STANDARD
Common sense and satire - often aimed at herself:
" 'Alfie stands up 40 years on,' insists Law. No Jude, Alfie is a sexist pig who appeared ugly even in the Sixties and now looks about as charming as the Vauxhall Viva."
SUZANNE MOORE - MAIL ON SUNDAY
Maverick with a neat line in putdowns:
"Women running Scarlet [magazine] think they are appealing to female fantasy... think they are daring by saying they like sex. That's as daring as drinking Bacardi Breezer."
JANE MOORE - THE SUN
No-nonsense pops at those in the public eye:
"If we're reluctant to go to work, we get on with it because we have to. But when we're reluctant to go upstairs with a man we barely know we simply say a firm 'No' and leave."
CHRISTA ACKROYD - SUNDAY EXPRESS
Harm-no-one comment on "real" people and issues:
"Despite the headlines, women are no different than they have ever been. A survey shows the vast majority still want a fairytale ending, marriage, kids, good job and nice house."
CAROLE MALONE - SUNDAY MIRROR
Veteran peddler of sympathy or scorn:
"Nigella doesn't need her husband's money, but I'll bet she'd have felt a whole lot better at that party if she'd had his support and his hand to hold."Reuse content