Surely it's time to end this bitching

How did so many highly intelligent women allow themselves to be fashioned into the repellent role of ranter?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Business as usual in the popular press yesterday, as the period of mourning for Lynda Lee-Potter came to an end. Ripping off their black armbands, the harpies were back at their business of full-page ranting. In the Mail on Sunday, Lauren Booth attacked her half-sister Cherie Blair (nothing new there), in the Daily Express; Carol Sarler attacks me (nothing new there), in the Daily Mirror; Sue Carroll had Abi Titmuss in her sights; and in The Sun, Jane Moore took a pop at Julia Roberts. For decades now, Fleet Street has used women to attack other women as a way of selling newspapers.

We've come a long way since Marge Proops dispensed sensible advice in the Daily Mirror in the 1960s, and when this chapter is written in the history of popular journalism, the people who are going to emerge as third-division tawdry characters who brought about a real lowering of standards won't be the City Slickers, gossip columnists such as the 3am girls, the hacks who hounded Diana and her sons, or even Kelvin McKenzie with his xenophobic front pages. It will be a band of female columnists in the popular press, starting with Jean Rook and Lynda Lee-Potter in the 1960s, right through to the motley crew from Vanessa Feltz to Allison Pearson and Christa Ackroyd willing to churn out this rubbish today.

Even a serious newspaper such as The Times prints a ludicrous column on Saturdays entitled "from the exercise bike" by Amanda Platell, another fully formed ranter who has been signed to the Daily Mail. Isn't it interesting that elsewhere in the media women run major television and radio channels, edit the red-tops and occupy key positions (although no editor's chairs) in the quality papers. Women report from war zones around the world each day, present financial and city news, and anchor political programming on all channels.

Yes, we've come a long way since all that fuss about sexy newsreaders 30 years ago. In the 1960s, every newspaper had a woman's page, from Femail, started by Shirley Conran in the Mail, to the huge and distinguished coverage of a wide range of issues in the daily women's pages of The Guardian, by writers including Jill Tweedie and Mary Stott. After a while, however, women's pages were thought to be an irrelevant ghetto, and now we read newspapers where features and columns are integrated into the whole. But a curious anomaly remains, and that is the use of the "star" female columnist occupying a page in which she sounds off about current issues in pithy bite-sized paragraphs, and cuts down to size any well-known woman from soap stars to royalty who is deemed to have got above herself.

Much heart-searching has been taking place within government about the fact the women are still failing to penetrate the glass ceiling, and the number of female CEOs running FTSE 100 companies is pitifully small. Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, talks of better maternity pay and concessions to lure women back to work. But to create a climate where women see taking control as the norm is going to require a sea change in the popular press.

Unless newspapers allow women writers to talk to their readers in a tone that is several decibels lower than an angry shout, the image will continue to be propagated that high-flying women are just targets to be shot down by these professional critics within the sisterhood. Before you start sending me letters about pots and kettles, I admit I've written for half a dozen newspapers since my first columns in the Mail back in 1969, and over the years I have occasionally slipped into rant mode. But surely it's time to move on, and the death of Lynda Lee-Potter should mark the start of a new era.

How did so many highly intelligent women allow themselves to be fashioned into this repellent role of ranter (largely) by male editors? Were we so desperate for money and profile that the only way we could feed our egos was by betraying our sex? And what about the cumulative effect of all this bile that's been dished out for the past 35 years? I'm reasonably thick-skinned and have had the dubious pleasure of being trashed regularly by female columnists from Amanda Platell to Carol Sarler to Miss Lee-Potter herself.

These feeble barbs had about as much impact on me as a wet tea towel, and 99 per cent of the British public have far more important matters on their mind over breakfast or on the train to work than whether I am mutton dressed as lamb, a deranged mother-hater or just an ugly hypocrite. But other, more sensitive women have admitted they've cried, and even Princess Diana was stung by Lynda Lee-Potter's remarks about her cellulite. Can you imagine the past three decades differently, if we'd been treated to acres of columns in the popular press by mouthy men trashing other chap's diets, haircuts, choice of clothing or partners? Of course not. By writing this puerile drivel, female writers have allowed women to be treated as the secondary sex and supported the status quo, ie men at the helm, men with a different, more serious agenda.

I would like to hope that, just as women's pages disappeared decades ago, we can lay the female columnist to rest. First of all, we live in an exciting time when prominent men such as Tony Blair and David Beckham are quite happy celebrating their feminine sides, looking after babies and sporting jewellery. The idea that there's one way to run a family, bring up a child or wear your clothes is outdated. In our multicultural society, families are elastic concepts, stretched and strained as we seek to accommodate old and new ways of doing things. So the idea that one white middle-class, middle-aged woman can talk to the readers of her newspaper and sum up just how they feel, is plainly ludicrous.

When Lynda Lee-Potter wrote her first columns in the Daily Mail, egged on to spar against Jean Rook in the Express, she was just part of a circulation war in which men bought newspapers and their wives read them afterwards. Now men and women buy different newspapers for different things, and this has been reflected in the many sections on offer, from property, to cars, to gardening. The mid-market press has been slow to tune into the changing demographics of its readership, and this could be one of the reasons why circulations are in decline.

Anger, too, is not an acceptable way of operating in this time of the industrial tribunal and political correctness. If men or women were to address their fellow workers or relatives in the tones adopted by Carol and the gang, they would quickly be reported to the head of human resources. As we are discovering in Iraq, and in Israel, conflicts these days are not solved by aggression, by defining a conflict as a "war". In the 21st century, disputes will be solved through patient discussion and low-key considerate negotiation.

There are plenty of things for women to write about, to communicate with men and other women. But can it be done in a caring, sharing kind of way please, and may we declare the death of the Bitch?