Janet Street-Porter: Shame on those who ganged up on Harriet

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The Independent Online

Harriet Harman made history yesterday. She became the first woman to take Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons for Labour, 30 years after Maggie stood at the dispatch box for the Tories. Shameful, really, that we've had to wait more than a decade since Blair made such a big fuss of his "babes".

Coincidentally, the Daily Mail launched a furious attack on Ms Harman earlier this week, when she was photographed wearing a flak vest as she toured her constituency of Peckham to support the Government's community policing initiative. The next day she was submitted to a roasting from John Humphrys on the Today programme, and her constituents were quoted in the press whingeing about the levels of violence on the local streets.

It was a non-event, the kind of rubbish that wouldn't get mentioned if the person wearing the flak jacket had been male. As Ms Harman said herself, she was handed a jacket and she politely wore it – end of story.

So, a horrible start to the week for Labour's deputy leader, who has had to wait a very long time for Gordon Brown to allow her to stand in for him at any important occasion – this time he was otherwise engaged at a Nato summit in Bucharest. Perhaps it was the recent press coverage of the glamorous and talented women in President Sarkozy's cabinet that did it – but Gordon seems most comfortable operating in a predominantly male environment.

Yesterday the Mail predicted more disaster for Harriet in the Commons, claiming that "no-one takes her seriously" and that "the Tories will have a field day". In the event, something miraculous happened – Harriet didn't make a hash of her big opportunity and was judged by four (male) heavyweight political writers posting blogs on the internet to have done pretty well. Scores ranged from a small victory over the unfailingly pompous William Hague to a creditable draw.

Labour might have women in top jobs, like Ruth Kelly, Tessa Jowell and Harriet Harman, but there is still something undeniably masculine about British politics – any extended coverage of Prime Minister's Questions demonstrates that the average MP often behaves no better than a junior sixth-former at a minor public school. That is the mindset enabling someone like Nick Clegg (or Nick Cleggover, as he is now known) to tell us he thinks he's slept with "no more" than 30 women in a magazine interview and not think we might find that information slightly repellent.

Meanwhile, the Culture minister, Margaret Hodge, wants to know why more women are not applying for the top jobs in arts organisations. If women are poorly represented in government, in our publicly funded arts institutions they fare even worse. Apart from Jude Kelly at the South Bank and Vikki Heywood at the RSC, most galleries, museums and arts centres are run by men, and their boards are macho clubs where women are in a minority.

Ms Hodge has a point – but the way to bring women forward is not by introducing more training courses, but by changing the way these places are run. Too often women feel intimidated by the sheer amount of paperwork, the nit-picking level of accountability and the mind-numbing quota of meetings that are deemed to be necessary to large public bodies.

There is another way, with a higher level of delegation and key team players. But we don't see that happening in government, with our Prime Minister characterised as a secretive loner who trusts only a few loyal team members, and a ruling party that waits 11 years before it can trust a female to handle Prime Minister's Questions.

Twitching is better than telly

I never thought I had anything in common with Bill Oddie, but something miraculous happened a month ago. I put up a bird table outside my conservatory window.

At first it was shunned by the local inhabitants, but recently I have spent far more time watching my new visitors than glued to the telly – and it's been a bloody sight more entertaining. Armed with a book of British birds,

I've identified blue tits, green finches, sparrows, blackbirds, goldfinches, chaffinches, wagtails and a glamorous woodpecker, left. Starting last Tuesday, 30,000 people have been taking part in the biggest ever bird survey in Britain (www.birdatlas.net) and the findings will be published early in the next decade. Sadly, my patch of the Yorkshire Dales is already allocated.

* The latest food to be demonised by the healthy eating fanatics is the humble sausage. Medical experts claim that eating 50g of processed meat a day – that's one banger or three rashers of bacon – can increase your chance of contracting bowel cancer by 20 per cent.

At this rate, most of the food enjoyed by our European neighbours will be designated too dangerous for us to sample – from delicious salamis and pates to parma and Serrano hams.

I'm sorry, but swapping a sausage for a tuna sandwich doesn't ring my bell.

This piece of dietary information coincides with the launch of Bowel Cancer Awareness month (is there a month in the calendar when we aren't being asked to be "aware" of something?) and, although I'm sure that we could all eat a little more healthily, the food police and their doom-laden press releases have become a daily occurrence.

Food makes us happy – and I haven't noticed the population of Paris or Barcelona suffering ill-effects from their diet.

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