Editor-At-Large: My best birthday present – grown-up women on TV

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The Independent Online

It's my birthday today, and what better way to spend it than by celebrating the return to our television screens of the older woman? Moira Stewart, and Arlene Phillips got the heave-ho earlier this year, and, until recently, the entire BBC News department only employed one female presenter in her fifties: Maxine Mawhinney. Thousands of viewers complained when Alesha Dixon proved a lightweight replacement on Strictly – eventually Darcey Bussell was airlifted in to add some gravitas. Arlene was given a new dance show to host and, acknowledging the public mood, Mark Thompson ordered executives to sign up more mature women. Julia Somerville, Fiona Armstrong and Zeinab Badawi – all over 50 – are said to be on the verge of signing new contracts to present the news. Hoorah!

Apart from glamorous females of a certain age, who were the winners, losers and key figures in 2009?

Loser: Marriage

By last February the number of us getting hitched had slumped to the lowest level since records began 150 years ago. By 2010, singletons will be in the majority. The average wedding costs £21,000, twice as much as a decade ago. Last week David Willetts, the Tory shadow minister for the family, said: "Instead of it becoming just what you do in your twenties, it has become like scaling Mount Everest, a sort of great moral endeavour... We are in danger of heading towards a society where middle-class people get married." Making marriage more affordable is being heavily promoted by the Tories in the run-up to the next election.

Loser: Ian Tomlinson

By the end of 2009, no charges had been brought in connection with the death of Ian Tomlinson, who was unlucky enough to be walking home from his job as a part-time newspaper vendor in the City of London on 1 April, when he strayed into the confrontation between G20 summit protesters and the police. When I pointed out that Mr Tomlinson was an alcoholic, I attracted criticism – but I was only pointing out why he didn't move swiftly away from a volatile situation. I wrote: "The police have been trained to deal with drunks, just as they are trained to deal with demonstrators. Ian Tomlinson wasn't a threat to public order. I can't understand why anyone would want to hit him, especially not an officer who is paid to protect ordinary citizens. Mr Tomlinson deserved some respect and understanding, and he clearly didn't get any that night."

Winner: Sarah Brown

Gordon once said he didn't do celebrity culture, but Sarah's different. She chose Naomi Campbell as her heroine for Harper's Bazaar, cultivated hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, and hosted all-girl dinners to promote her favourite charities. We were told she went to Erdem for posh wear and Accessorize for cheap headgear, and she even indulged in a spot of folksy US-style charm to introduce her man at the party conference. Will it work? The jury is out – but her career prospects look excellent.

Losers: Politicians

My experience of appearing on Question Time has been one of struggling to get a word in edgeways between MPs reciting from pre-memorised notes, exuding a smug air of "expertise". After last May the programme will never be the same. Quite simply, the public fought back over MPs' expenses. The high point was when Margaret Beckett implied that ordinary folk wouldn't understand why MPs needed to claim allowances, wittering about having to pay rent for her grace and favour home and the problems of running three residences simultaneously. That was a complete non-starter with the good folk of Grimsby. We need younger, more ethnically diverse, more working-class men and women to believe that being an MP is a decent job, and not the preserve of self-important freeloaders. Let's channel our fury into getting the dodgy ones de-selected and start again. Not every MP is rotten – we want decent MPs to do the job we pay them for, running the country and finding a way out of the recession.

Most overused word: Sorry

The most shocking case of child abuse in 2009 was the story of Baby Peter, who died from more than 50 injuries inflicted while his mother did nothing to save him. "Dear Judge," she snivelled, "by not being fully open with the social workers, I stopped them from being able to do a full job. As a direct result of this my son got hurt and sadly lost his short life... I am truly sorry."

An uneducated 27-year-old doesn't use phrases like "direct result". It didn't ring true. The first person in her life was herself, then her repulsive boyfriend. Her "sorry" was blatant self-pity.

Another meaningless sorry came from the Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone in July. Earlier this year, his wife walked out and said she was filing for divorce. Newly single, Bernie put his foot in it by praising Hitler for "getting things done". As a furore erupted, Bernie told The Jewish Chronicle, "I was an idiot... I sincerely, genuinely apologise".

Gordon Brown apologised to the orphans and poor children previous governments had shipped off to Australia up to as recently as 1967, where many of them suffered hardship and abuse. Why? He wasn't responsible, and he hasn't promised any of them compensation either. Saying sorry has become too easy.

Winner: Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry, normally highly socially adept, misjudged the mood of the nation when he said he thought the furore over MPs expenses was a "fuss about nothing important". But he was back in my good books when it emerged he'd shed almost six stone (ie the weight of a small calf) in six months. So much bilge is written about women spending years of their lives on diets, we tend to forget just how hard it is for middle-aged men to regain their self-esteem and their waists. Stephen is a great role model, so hopefully more men will follow his example.

Passing fad: Twitter

The inexorable rise of Twitter from cult to middle-class badge of honour was fanned by nerds like David Miliband, fame-addicted slebs like Demi Moore, below, and techno fans like Stephen Fry. Twitter works for middle-class, middle-aged and work-weary wannabe trendies because it lets them feel they're part of a big happening club, when in fact all they are doing is exchanging mindlessness. Twitter panders to all that is shallow and narcissistic in our society, belittling lives and experiences – one woman twittered while having a miscarriage, and another while her child was dying. Nuff said?

Boor of the year: Martin Amis

Martin Amis says he's based a character in his forthcoming novel State of England on Katie Price – "she has no waist... an interesting face... but all we are really worshipping is two bags of silicone". A bit rich coming from the man who's spent thousands on improving his dentistry! Poor old Amis, reduced to slagging off a woman who will never have read one of his books, or even have heard of him, in order to drum up interest and grab a few headlines for his next opus, due out in February 2010. By hitting such an easy target, he's signing up to the very culture he's said to despise. Amis is a rude snob. And Katie Price, in spite of her disastrous year, still sells millions of books.

Star whinger: Suzy Gale

Thousands of families face a bleak Christmas, but MPs live and breathe in a bubble where hardship is something they quantify differently to the rest of the country. Suzy Gale, the one-woman media extravaganza married to Roger Gale, Tory MP for Thanet North, is enough to make me reach for the headache pills. She's "leading" the disgruntled wives and spouses facing the sack after Sir Christopher Kelly ruled that MPs should not be able to employ relatives. Suzy Gale pockets £30,000-£40,000 a year (a high wage for a PA in North Thanet) aided by one and a half assistants. The fact that an office manager shares the marital bed should not mean that they are the best person to do the job. She tells us: "We offer constituents a team." Voters chose your husband, Suzy, not you.

Must-have accessory: Mumsnet

Winning an election is about cleverly targeting undecided voters, and this time around it's mums. Tony Blair had no trouble appealing to female voters – he was attractive, personable and user-friendly. Gordon Brown, on the other hand, struggles with informality and emotion. Much was made of his failure to answer the biscuit question on Mumsnet – it took 24 hours before he owned up to "anything with a bit of chocolate on it". David Cameron, who followed Brown, is clever at the personal stuff – mixing insights about his time caring for his disabled son, Ivan, along with little details about his home life, proudly telling Mums-net his kids went to state schools. Gordon Brown has a child with cystic fibrosis and his kids go to state schools, he just doesn't parade this. Mumsnet is the modern equivalent of entering the gladiatorial arena – you're never going to win, and the crowd will just bay for your blood.

Not as powerful as he thinks: Simon Cowell

Just because The X Factor final attracted 19 million viewers, Cowell tells us he'd like to turn his attention to staging a series of "bear-pit" prime-time shows about politics in the run-up to the next election. The X Factor is pre-digested pop pap, perfect mindless viewing for a Saturday night. How can these values be applied to a show about complicated issues affecting our democracy? Luckily, he is not planning to run for political office.

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