Beauty and the beasts: Profile of Anna Ford

She's 52 and still we're asking if she's just a pretty face, says Decca Aitkenhead
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Four slightly grumpy minutes of radio last week afforded us two strikingly different accounts of a broadcaster who has been in the public eye for almost 20 years. The Today programme presenter was questioning Kenneth Clarke about his party's latest campaign poster on Monday, when the pair pitched into a surprising bicker. The word "puerile" was traded, the interview ended in abrupt, sour silence - and Brian Mawhinney was up and off on his BBC-bias charger before the nation had finished its breakfast.

The, by now, fairly tedious debate about political bias on Today focused, on this occasion, upon the presenter herself. Three verdicts were rapidly delivered. At last, went the first, Anna Ford has proved herself more than up to the job - a political heavyweight who can rough and tumble with the very best of them. In short, not just a pretty face.

Alternatively, here was confirmation of a long-held suspicion, that Anna Ford - cool, poised and elegant as she is - has overachieved. Denied the favours of the camera, forced to think on her feet, she was cruelly exposed as out of her depth.

The lamentable third option came from the London Evening Standard: the interview was crap, but who cares? I'd give her one, all right ... or words to that effect.

The week's commentary was not so different from the debate that has always accompanied Anna Ford. Oddly exercised as we are by all newsreaders, she draws an entirely different class of fascination. Auberon Waugh, it is said, kisses the screen when she appears; Peter Jay declared her "the most beautiful woman in England"; Private Eye ran a romantic serial of her infatuation with the veteran newsreader Ronnie Beaujolais (the Eye's name for the late Reginald Bosanquet). Fame indeed.

And Robin Day told her that she only got the job as ITN's first female newscaster because every man wanted to sleep with her.

Every account of Anna Ford's career is informed by her looks. Whether it is held that she has been unduly assisted by her face, or that her talent has been obscured by cynics' suspicions of it, her professional success has always been judged with reference to her crisp, flawless beauty. Her appointment as one of the first female newsreaders should have been an unqualified advance for women; that, 18 years on, we are still wondering whether she's up to the job, must cast as much doubt upon how we treat women in the media as it does on the merits of her interview technique.

When Anna Ford first read the News at Ten in 1978, women newscasters, it is slightly amazing to recall, were considered a bold departure, hitherto rejected for fear they might distract viewers from the important business of the news. But once the BBC had appointed Angela Rippon, ITN needed its riposte. Anna Ford, then 34, was chosen.

One of the things commonly known of Ms Ford's pre-broadcasting life is that she was a student activist in the Sixties. This is technically true; she was president of the Manchester University students' union from 1965-6, but the great radicalisation of student politics was not to come for another two or three years. To have been president in 1968, say, would have lent greater significance to the term "activist".

Born in 1944, she enjoyed a peaceful, if slightly earnest, upbringing in rural Cumbria as a vicar's daughter. Contemporaries at Manchester recall a self-confident, upper-middle-class young woman, notable, perhaps, but not remarkable. More class act than class warrior, her politics were leftish but hardly radical, and her style smoothly controlled. "She was already," remembers one, "a newsreader. Even when she was chairing student meetings, it was always like she was reading the news."

Another remembers her as "almost like an advert, or a character out of Dallas. She was too well spoken, too serious, she would never say f--- , or go crazy, or associate herself with the excesses of student life." She graduated in economics with a 2:2 - "and that's what she was, really. A 2:2."

On graduating, she declined advances from both Granada and the BBC in favour of something more worthy, and was soon teaching sociology and politics in Belfast, living with her first husband, Alan Battles. The marriage was not a success, and by 1974 she was back in Manchester, working for Granada TV. Within two years the BBC had poached her to present Man Alive!; within another two she was reading the News at Ten.

This is, by any standards, a striking ascent. Suddenly, Anna Ford was a household name, a celebrity - the full extent of which can be glimpsed by the manner of her engagement announcement. A sugary clip of the coy couple, Anna Ford and a young ITN reporter called Jon Snow, made the "...and finally" item on News at Ten. (The relationship lasted scarcely longer than the bulletin.)

In 1981, when TV-am launched, it was inevitable that she should be one of its "Famous Five", along with Angela Rippon, Michael Parkinson, David Frost and Robert Kee. When the station began unravelling two years later, she was the first to be sacked - an event which provoked her to hurl a glass of wine over the perpetrator, Jonathan Aitken. The extent to which this, in truth pretty modest, show of temper titillated the public, is testimony to our fascination with her ice-maiden persona.

By then, she had been married for two years to Mark Boxer, a debonair, successful publisher and cartoonist, with whom she had two daughters, Claire and Kate. In January 1988 he was told he had a brain tumour and given 10 years to live. By July he was dead.

A year later, the BBC persuaded her to return to read the Six O'Clock News, and in 1993 she began presenting the Today programme, which she continues to do for some six weeks of the year.

It is not easy to get colleagues to talk on the record about Anna Ford - even if they have something nice to say, which tends to be rather rare.

"Put it this way," one former colleague sighed. "There are some presenters you work with, and some presenters you work for. She is most definitely of the latter."

An almost unnatural absence of humour or personal warmth, and a glacial aloofness, are common criticisms. Intellectual shortcomings are another. "She likes to think she is clever, takes herself very seriously - and is desperate for others to be of that opinion too," commented another former colleague. "She has these strident left-wing views - but I'm afraid they're rather crass."

These views, which have veered to the left since student days, have at times brought her into conflict with the BBC. Last year she was rebuked for writing to the Guardian to criticise Jack Straw, and at the last general election she publicly accused her employers of sexism, for failing to give female staff heavyweight stories.

But her lifestyle often contrasts with her commitments. She has been linked to establishment figures such as Nicholas Soames, the Tory MP, and Frank Johnson, editor of the Spectator, sends her children to private schools, and crossed the picket line at the BBC during the 1994 strike. Strong opinions, goes the criticism, do not amount to political sophistication, and it is this lack of intellectual rigour, coupled with her brittle manner, that lets her - and her listeners - down on Today.

In her defence, her colleague John Humphrys argues that "the whole point of having two presenters is to offer something different. You've got a boring, grey-haired middle-aged Welsh fart like me, and Anna is manifestly none of these. She is great fun to work with."

If Anna Ford has professional shortcomings, the peculiar pressures of her role must be held properly to account. When television saw fit to appoint women newscasters, it did not select female versions of the middle- aged male veteran journalists already in the job. Having become, at 34, an overnight celebrity, feted for her glamour and good looks, how was Ms Ford to acquire grit and gravitas? The Nicholas Witchell solution - a return to the field as a hard-news reporter - was less of an option for a woman increasingly defined as a studio figure.

Similarly elusive for those first female presenters was the genial bonhomie which, in a James Naughtie, bespeaks relaxed authority. The fate of her early contemporaries is instructive. It was hard to take Angela Rippon seriously once she had high-legged it on Morecambe and Wise, and Selina Scott's soft-focus stroll through the Highlands with the Prince of Wales destroyed her credibility in a fashion that Jonathan Dimbleby, for all the sycophancy of his royal documentary, escaped. Small wonder Anna Ford feels it necessary to maintain a fiercely frosty dignity.

David Nicholas, the man who appointed her in 1978, has admitted that her looks "certainly weren't a handicap". Whether or not they have been a handicap for Anna Ford is more debatable. She has said she looks forward to growing "beyond an age where a woman's sexuality is thought dangerous", and quite likes "the idea of being the first woman to read the news with grey hair".

That she made these comments last year while posing for Vogue in a Valentino ballgown might be thought a little disingenuous. But if the media has traded on her glamour from the outset, we can hardly be surprised if she feels inclined to do the same.