Hero or villain? It depends on your sex

Two defectors, two press portraits: 'Howarth' as the man of conscience, 'Emma' as the wicked witch. When will women get equal treatment?

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Women are treated worse by the press than men - the news will hardly make you choke on your muesli. An influential group of women in print, called Women in Journalism (WiJ), celebrates its first anniversary by publishing research comparing the press treatment of women and men. Yes, they find, women are sadly traduced.

Their prime example is the defection of two Tory MPs - Alan Howarth and Emma Nicholson. They called her a "wicked witch", "frightful bitch", "menopausal", "vain and silly", "muddled pseudo-feminist" and even "not the first women to fall for Ashdown's charms" (while the Daily Mail, of course, went straight for her private life and found a wronged wife). She was throughout called "Emma", though nobody called Howarth "Alan", a revealing and patronising habit in all the press - viz Virginia, Gillian and Harriet.

So "Emma" endured scorn and vindictiveness, jokes about her voice and appearance, while Mr Howarth, though vilified by some Tory papers, escaped any personal abuse, comments on his appearance or investigation of his private life. The worst he got was from the Sun: "batty", "bizarre" and "eccentric".

It was not just the tabloids. Consider the magisterial Hugo Young, grand old buffer of the Guardian: "The Howarth Testament insinuates itself into the party bloodstream and will dominate its body politic at Blackpool. (He will be the subtext of all consciences. Other decent Tories should listen to him and wake up)."

But what did Archbishop Young have to say of the MP of conscience who did listen and wake up? "Emma Nicholson is an admirable woman but not a serious politician. Her defection is a dramatic gesture, gratifying to her personal opinions and fulfilling a psychic need, but it will have the opposite effect from the one she wants to make." Now even if Ms Nicholson's brain were to be found inferior to Mr Howarth's, what's all this "psychic need" and "dramatic gesture" stuff? Just up-market code for silly, vain and menopausal. (In case you were wondering, yes, the Independent can be smug. We ran a rousing defence of Ms Nicholson, denouncing her sexist detractors.)

Most news decisions are still taken by men. Eighteen out of the 19 national and Sunday papers are edited by men. Most newsrooms still feel heavily male-dominated, testosterone-driven, with laddishness oozing from the very templates of what makes news. Much of the sexism runs as if written into newspaper word-processing programs. Hit the right buttons on the terminal, and out pops "attractive brunette", "fun-loving vivacious blonde", "well-groomed granny" and all the rest of the cliches that diminish women of every rank and profession by commenting on their appearance and character.

So far, so good. All except chauvinist pigs can agree on this. Does it matter? Market researchers tell us that readers detect most of it, as these days they are sceptical and sophisticated in the arts of deconstructing all forms of bias, sexism and mendacity in journalism and advertising. Perhaps. Though it only takes listening to a phone-in to start tearing your hair out at the things people believe because they have read them in the papers.

And if readers are so damned clever, why do most read such terrible newspapers? But the mysteries of newspaper buying habits, much brooded on by us and every other organ, do indeed baffle.

What makes so many women buy the Sun, even when they say overwhelmingly that the Sun is worst on women? What makes an intelligent person read the near-tabloid Times - because it is dirt cheap, when four other broadsheets offer twice the quality for only a few pence more? But journalists are not allowed to grumble about the readers, any more than politicians are supposed to complain about the stupidity of the voters.

When it comes to standards, WiJ has a serious problem which it acknowledges elyptically. There are now several women news editors and much of the copy is written and subbed by women. The onward march of women through the ranks of journalism has not been marked by a noticeable improvement in fairness, decency or honesty. Quite the reverse. What a blow it was that the News of the World should be the first national with a female editor - just as Margaret Thatcher's emergence was not quite what the sisters had in mind when calling for more women in power.

Casting a look around the packed room at the last WiJ party, there were a great many influential women: star writers, deputy, assistant and associate editors. They don't run the show - yet - but this group is not a flock of alternative feminists bleating from the sidelines. A leading light is Eve Pollard, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Express; she is just one of many women now at the heart of the press establishment.

So, the question has to be asked: do women bring to journalism any better values than men? If they are no better, who cares if they get their trotters in the trough alongside the lads of the press? Personally I couldn't give a fig if the editor of the Mail was a woman or a man, unless the Mail changed its anti-women and other beastly ways. Many members of WiJ may be what they call, mysteriously, "post-feminist" - footloose and value- free? I hope not.

Women in Journalism is still finding its feet intellectually. Its leading members are awkwardly aware of the dilemma, as they survey a room full of women who work for every sort of scurrilous rag. How do you build sisterly solidarity out of that? The research they published yesterday takes them one important step into the realm of pressing for higher standards, at least for the treatment of women by the press. Next step - a code of ethics for the treatment of everyone.

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