BOOK REVIEW / Long skirts sloshing in the mud of Fleet Street: 'Battling for News' - Anne Sebba: Hodder & Stoughton, 18.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
IT IS 1861. For the past two years Miss Wrenford, the sister of the Times correspondent in Italy, has successfully filled in for her bedridden brother. But now she is requesting to be given assignments in her own right. The paper's manager replies: 'My Dear Madam, Your letter did not find me on duty and my colleague who was acting in my absence very wisely skirted the impossibility of saying 'no' to a lady - for that is what I am obliged to say, though I do not doubt your ability to do well what you propose.'

Three decades later, Flora Shaw presents herself to the same newspaper. She is supremely capable of providing much needed 'colonial stories,' but hiring a woman remains forbidden. It is finally agreed that she can write a fortnightly column, but unsigned: no one is allowed to admit that what appears in print comes from the hand of a woman. Moreover, Shaw is provided with no facilities, not even a desk. Undeterred, this doughty Victorian lady plonks herself down on the office floor to pen her copy.

In her informative book, Anne Sebba chronicles the last century and a half of women trying to make it in a particularly unyielding male preserve - so unyielding that certain ineluctable attitudes linger to the present day. The bulk of the volume is heavily laced with anecdotes, many of which will no doubt surprise its readers. The unsigned report, for example, announcing to the world the outbreak of war in Europe, in 1939, was filed by Britain's Clare Hollingworth; only 27 years old at the time, she actually landed the scoop while in the course of pursuing her very first professional assignment.

And then there is America's intrepid Marguerite Higgins, of the Herald Tribune. In 1944 she reached Dachau just ahead of the US army and jumped out of her Jeep - only to find a watchtower filled with grim-looking SS guards pointing rifles and a machine gun at her. Not knowing quite what to do, she called out to them firmly, in German, with instinctive calm, 'Come here, please; we are Americans.' After a moment of silence, as they stared intently at Higgins, the 22 bemused SS men lowered their weapons and walked down from the watchtower to surrender to her.

The hurdles for ladies trying to get into the profession during the last 150 years were legion. For starters, it did not help that women were barred from going to university until 1870, by which time a degree had long since become almost a requirement for journalism. In addition, there was the enduring opprobrium levelled at females being in the kind of employment that often required working late at night in such close proximity to men.

Yet more difficulty lay in the strict modes of dress. The turn-of- the-century London journalist Emillie Marshall observed that long skirts 'invariably sloshed around in the mud of Fleet Street', while the high-buttoned or laced boots, accompanied by unwieldy hats 'speared to the hair by two stiletto-like hat pins with murderous points' resulted in, all told, 'a sore handicap to news-gathering'.

Underpinning Sebba's generally thought-provoking book are questions that have been debated for more than a century: are women more inclined to be emotionally affected, and therefore more susceptible to bias, when covering certain subjects?

Sebba's view is that times have changed, and so has the relevance of such questions. When covering a war, for instance, should we not now be asking if what takes place at the front line is really more important than what happens to the local population? Equally, could it not be that partisanship is, in certain instances, actually an essential ingredient of good journalism?

Not only are the questions changing, but also so are some of our ideas about good reporting - much to the credit, suggests Sebba, of women reporters.