You can't ditch 'the Bitch'

... which is why the would-be First Ladies of Fleet Street want Lynda Lee-Potter's title. Marcelle D'argy Smith backs the favourite

In a thoughtful article, which bemoaned the way intelligent women columnists in Fleet Street behave towards other women, Janet Street-Porter made a plea: "There are plenty of things for women to write about, to communicate with men and other women. But can it be done in a caring, sharing kind of way, please, and may we declare the death of the Bitch?"

In a thoughtful article, which bemoaned the way intelligent women columnists in Fleet Street behave towards other women, Janet Street-Porter made a plea: "There are plenty of things for women to write about, to communicate with men and other women. But can it be done in a caring, sharing kind of way, please, and may we declare the death of the Bitch?"

Now that the anachronistically entitled but stunningly well-paid job of First Lady of Fleet Street is up for grabs, do any of us suppose, for one brief moment, that the new incumbent will not, in some form or other, start out as a Bitch? The late Lynda Lee-Potter, for all her journalistic insights, talents and ability to get into the mind of the Daily Mail reader was a Bitch of the first order. She mentioned the size of Cherie Blair's thighs so many times in her columns that even The Guardian's David Aaronovitch, (not a man given to Bitch-watching) was moved to comment.

What makes women newspaper readers leaden-hearted is the fact that male newspaper editors still love the hideously old-fashioned idea of women clawing and bitching at each other. They don't give a damn if the remark is clumsily written, poorly observed and shamingly hurtful. If they can persuade one female journalist to show the flaws in any part of another woman's body, home, life or loved ones, they'll clench fists and yell "Yeah, Grrr-eat!". It's the newspaper equivalent of naked women mud-wrestling. So "Bitch", as we speak, is still in the job description of the next First Lady. And despite the Sun's larger circulation, she's going to be working for the most influential and quoted newspaper - The Daily Mail.

Its editor, Paul Dacre, has the pick of the Fleet Street female crop to choose from. Yet, when you narrow it down to what Dacre and the Mail really want, I think only one name fits the bill. The First Lady should be a supremely confident, experienced, highly opinionated, easy communicator who understands her editor, her readership and good writing. She should be smart, tough, intelligent, original, fearless, politically aware, champion family values (Paul Dacre is one of the few men on Desert Island Discs to mention his wife), think fast on her feet, be manipulative, versatile, full of ideas, passionate, provocative, animal-loving - and possess the ability to be bitchy.

We've probably guessed that Carole Caplin, ( Mail on Sunday) Ulrika Jonsson, ( News of the World) Jane Moore ( Sun), Lorraine Kelly ( Sun) and Lauren Booth ( Mail on Sun) are not in the running for this job. But they do have regular newspaper columns. It saddens me that I can't think of any high-profile male columnists of whom such stunning lack of writing talent or originality is required. Blokes have to be clever, humorous and on the ball to write for The Sun. Men who pack punch, like Littlejohn and Clarkson. But maybe the lack of wit and wisdom of Moore, who's a beautiful blonde, and Kelly, who does telly (always a comfort) simply doesn't matter. They give Sun readers exactly what they want - which is tiny, easy-to-digest, junk food.

What of the other telly women, Vanessa Feltz and Esther Rantzen? Rantzen had an on/off mini-love-affair with the Daily Mail. Heaven knows they love high-profile women. But we know the real Esther too well now. She's vulnerable, looking for a man, not aggressive or hungry enough these days, And she's too publicly old for the job. Vanessa Feltz is a decent, extremely clever woman. But she fell from television grace, and we know too much about her life. We know her size and shape. And that's a drawback, because she'd be unable to make remarks about famous fat people.

What of Janet Street-Porter? Julie Burchill? Brilliant journalists, original thinkers. They're far too maverick, quirky, difficult to handle, left-wing (though you never know with Julie), and independent. I probably know more about the London drainage system than they know about family values. There'd be blows in the editor's office. What sells newspapers would be a meaningless concept to them. They write what they want to write. There'd be no bending of values for the Mail.

What of The Mail on Sunday's excellent Suzanne Moore, poached some years ago from The Guardian? She bent as required. Not much, but a lot for someone of Moore's integrity.

You'll still get first class pieces - like her recent Clare Short interview. And she'll do the required rants on Prince Charles, Prince Harry's drinking, and Amanda Holden's lack of grace. But her heart's not in it. You feel she doesn't watch daytime telly, and isn't ambitious for tabloid life. And she doesn't do Bitch unless it's Germaine Greer.

The Daily Mail's Melanie Phillips is too dense, intense, and humourless and, anyway, she's already there.

I'm a big Allison Pearson fan. She gets it right most of the time. Her book I Don't Know How She Does It was a deserved best seller and she's one of the few female columnists I turn to immediately. Yet maybe, she lacks that edge, that ambitious, rough, insensitive, edge that is a First Lady requirement. Pearson does give a damn and the FL can't.

Carol Sarler on the Express is interesting. She's a first-class investigative journalist, who used to work regularly for The Sunday Times magazine. She's extremely compassionate (but hides it beautifully). But she's so damned clever and versatile that she's metamorphosed into a first-class ranting, bitchy, tabloid journalist. I suppose it pays the bills. However: a) I suspect she's OK where she is; b) I fear she's overdone the bitchiness. And she's known as a very tough woman. Dacre would not love her. It's unlikely she could be sold to Daily Mail readers.

The Mirror's Sue Carroll is another clever, never-to-be-underestimated, woman. She's a fast thinker, a very good journalist and with her Sun editorial background certainly has a terrific feel for what readers want. But she's not for Dacre.

Ann Leslie is a dazzling reporter who's won the James Cameron Award for outstanding journalism. Simply the best. You wince over her political writing and cry when her cat dies. But she's already there. Forget Polly Toynbee on The Guardian. She's regarded as far too clever, passionate about Serious Issues, left-wing, and political. She wouldn't touch the job with a bargepole. And the feeling is assuredly mutual. I don't think the Indy's Deborah Orr, who writes with such sensitivity and clarity on subjects like the homophobic killing of David Morley, could face the change of pace.

So who's got everything Dacre wants? Who's going to be top of the tabloid heap? Amanda Platell, of course. The Mail have already signed her, on an exclusive basis, and she's been writing one or two articles a week for some months. She's got "It". She's certainly worked her passage. And boy, she's versatile.

She's been Editor of the Sunday Mirror, was William Hague's spin-doctor, and had a column on the left wing New Statesman. She's good on television and can effortlessly run Jeremy Vine's BBC2 programme in his absence. Her new television programme, which she's co-hosting with Piers Morgan, began on Saturday. The word for months in the Mail features department has been that "Dacre loves her". She'll write about Strictly Come Dancing, her cat's eating disorder (the Mail animal thing is de rigueur) and be funny and sentimental. She'll tackle a mother's right to know about abortion, the NHS, the state of Gatwick airport and she'll take the required pop at Sarah Ferguson's lack of taste (but it was a pop, not a rant). Platell is unmarried but she espouses family values to the point that Dacre must be dancing round his desk. She obviously can and will do Bitchy.

You can't Ditch the Bitch overnight. Yet I feel Platell has been hired for her smarts, vitality and versatility rather than for her catty comments. Could it be that Street-Porter and I will be singing "Ding Dong The Bitch is dead" as the new First Lady of Fleet Street decides to use the other considerable weaponry at her disposal? It would be very post-modern.


Said that it would be "unthinkable" that she would become the next Lynda Lee-Potter. Has already set out her stall at the Daily Mail with "Why we women just love an ugly man" (a response to the news that Sir John Mortimer had fathered a child with Wendy Craig) and "My bosses from hell - and they were all women".


Aided by a hair-style rarely seen since the retirement of the Liverpool midfielder Terry McDermott, Leslie is a fearless Mail foreign correspondent and columnist, and has won 11 British press awards. She says her "ability to play the bird-brain" has stood her in good stead.


Known as a writer as much as a columnist, Pearson is a columnist on the Daily Mail stablemate the London Evening Standard. She has also penned some observations for Paul Dacre himself. In one Mail column she noted: "One in five British women will never be a mother. A sad fact and a worrying one."


Lynda Lee-Potter once observed of the News of the World scribe and former paramour of Sven Goran Eriksson: "Selfless is not the word that comes to mind about an acerbic woman who always seems most concerned with what she wants and rarely wastes time on anyone who isn't a hunk or useful."


The Daily Star's Feltz has been the subject of enough column inches but is not slow to dish the dirt herself. But does she have ideas above her station. In a recent soaraway Star column she moaned: "Listen up, Mr Beckham. I don't WANT to write about you, your miserable wife or your sprogs. I'd rather focus on Tony Blair."


The Mirror's Carroll clearly worshipped Lynda Lee-Potter. "As a columnist she was a complete inspiration. Who do we look up to now? She was the guru". Carroll can do nasty too, on Martine McCutcheon for example: "When a former EastEnders star says they're off to Hollywood, it means Hollywood nightclub in Romford."


The Express's Sarler has a delicate style, demonstrated by her description of Prince Harry last year: "He rarely lifts a finger unless it's to feel up a cheap tart in a nightclub." She also elegantly referred to two women in a rape and sexual assault case two years ago as "unedifying lumps of white trash".


Writing for The Sun hasn't prevented Jane setting out a feminist agenda. "Jordan is still a woman who trades on her fake breasts," wrote Moore, "...who seems hell-bent on revenge against those she feels have slighted her in lust, and who only seems to find validation in men salivating over her."

James Reed

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