A dangerous talent, as seen on TV

PROFILE: Janet Street-Porter; Another dramatic exit from Janet. She can't help it, Polly Toynbee says, she just is larger than life
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Janet Street-Porter is giving no interviews. It is part of the severance deal to keep her lips uncharacteristically zipped. That comes as something of a relief to this cowardly journalist, since interviews with Ms Street-Porter are notoriously akin to close encounters with a blowtorch.

Indeed, behind her at the Mirror Group, she leaves scorched earth and a blast of scorn. Live TV, a three-month-old cable channel run by the group, is Hello! magazine on speed: celebrity interviews, doorsteps, parties and happenings on video loops. However, while Street-Porter, Live's managing director and founding spirit, was on holiday, the managers bought rugby league for the channel without consulting her. So that heralded the end.

Last Sunday, when news of her departure was about to break, some journalists were telephoned by insiders, getting their knives in first. I telephoned to receive my own earful of this poison, and this is a taste of what I got: "If she is in the top five per cent of broadcasters in this country, what a parlous state we're in. No wonder Murdoch is cleaning up. Long on office politics ... universally loathed... barking mad fag hag... At the BBC, she had all that internal support to protect her... here, she was exposed. Here, it's what you deliver. She had a clear screen, a free hand and the programmes were no damn good. She was a nightmare, which is fine as long as you deliver, but it was unwatchable. Talk to Rachel Purnell, she quit working with Janet here." Some epitaph. But such is the charming cut-throat world of some of the media.

However, from Rachel Purnell, who until Friday was Live TV's head of programmes and starts work at MTV on Monday as senior vice-president, there came a very different blast. (This is a world in which everyone talks in decibels of hyperbole - think Edina in Absolutely Fabulous). "I really, really, really like her. I've worked with her for eight years and she gives you great breaks, takes great risks. If you bugger up, you bugger up. It's great to have a dynamic boss and she's a celeb. Yeah, sure she screams abuse. It's all shout, shout, shout until it hurts, then it's 'Oh, I'm really sorry'. All the men are used to behaving like that, and worse, but they just aren't used to a woman doing it. For me, with children, and when my father was sick, she was just so understanding as a boss. Actually, since we've been at Live TV together, she's been spookily nice to me. I adore her. Don't get me wrong, I never said she wasn't difficult. But she has the talent."

Street-Porter has a great many equally passionate admirers, supporters and good friends - among them Alan Yentob, who beat her to the job she told everyone she desperately wanted as controller of BBC1. John Birt, BBC director-general, with whom she first worked at LWT, and Jane Hewland, with whom she invented the ground-breaking Network 7 youth programme, are among many who seem to put up with her impossibilities and still champion her charm and her achievements.

In this world of swirling abuse, paranoia and white-knuckle anxiety, not many people want to be quoted, even (or maybe especially) when they have nice things to say about one another. One of her friends said: "The TV world is full of poisonous players, but she is definitely not one of them. Sadly, she's her own worst enemy. Says the wrong thing, does the wrong thing, bad at office politics. She's made the wrong choices. How did she get from running a pounds 40m BBC department to running a two-bit vanity cable channel nobody ever sees? There are many, many ways of being sent mad by the BBC, but she quit in a fit of pique. If she goes to work for one of the independents now, she'll find it very hard. But all this is sad, so sad. On the trouble-to-talent ratio, she's worth every bit of trouble every time. But inside, she's insecure."

Now 48, she was born Janet Bull, daughter of an electrical engineer and a local government clerk. At school in Perivale (such an unhip suburb it's almost Essex), she got 11 O-levels and four A-levels, despite intensively clubbing her way through her teenage years. She studied architecture until dropping out for journalism, married three times, and wherever she went and whatever she did was so impossibly much larger than life that nobody forgot her. She couldn't help being brasher, noisier, hipper, more outrageous, not as "an act" but because it is the way she is.

But she is also unpredictable. Who would expect her to be president of the Ramblers' Association, an avid walker? Driving ambition took her from newspapers to notoriety in chat-show television - Saturday Night People - from where she jumped to the other side of the camera. She wanted to be first female director-general of the BBC.

Her first success, Network 7, was a new kind of youth television - manic, with a blaze of quick-fire images and the impossible (for adults) new technique of running words along the bottom of the frame which bore no relation to what the reporter was saying. For the BBC, she devised Reportage, with the camera now on the floor, now on the ceiling, making the (adult) viewer queasy. But her methods have entered the mainstream. "It's everywhere. You can see Janet's influence even on the Money Programme," a colleague said. She won a Bafta award for originality. She won the Prix Italia for the very brave television opera production The Vampyr. She made Life Swaps, and Rough Guides with Magenta Divine. She brought Ruby Wax to the BBC, alongside some flamboyantly dreadful turkeys like Style Trial.

Her outburst at the Edinburgh Television Festival last month had all the hallmarks of her foot-in-mouth problems. A chaotic speech (she is not known for linear thought) grabbed the headlines with one crafty phrase about television's domination by the four M's: male, middle-aged, middle class and mediocre. It drew some wry and weary sighs. What, exactly was Live TV, then? The cutting edge of quality?

Bookies would give very long odds now on her ever moving into the DG's panelled office at the BBC. So what next? Has she beached her career in the shallows of cable? It may look like catastrophe, and perhaps she is never going to get a big institutional job, but she can still be a programme maker who matters. The burgeoning plethora of television is not overburdened with risk-taking talent. One insider taps the side of his nose knowingly: "She'll not be short of offers."

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