Nice redesign, shame about the readers

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The Independent Online
THE Daily Telegraph redesigned its centre pages last week, moving "Letters to the Editor" to a more prominent position. It looks cleaner, more modern - but the Telegraph's attempt to heave itself into the late 20th century has been fatally undercut by its readers, whose views are as eccentric and rebarbative as ever.

Wednesday's paper contained one of those letters which sounds so much like a spoof that it can't possibly be one: "Sir - Why is the British Broadcasting Corporation allowing the use of metres and centimetres in the weather forecasts?"

After moaning that "this sloppy practice can only confuse viewers", the letter ends with this wonderful sentence: "As an airline captain I am used to converting into centimetres, but prefer to use yards, feet and inches in my life at home". This conjures up an irresistible picture of the domestic arrangements of Telegraph readers, irritably fending off the assaults of the modern world with a 12-inch ruler while bemoaning the disappearance of those grand old red telephone kiosks which smelled so fragrantly of stale urine.

FEW subjects, though, are quite so guaranteed to get Telegraph readers steaming as the shortcomings of modern women. In the classic tradition of fin de siecle sexist abuse, T White of London W10 launched this attack in Friday's paper: "Sir - Women have disgraced their gender. As the nation agonises over its criminal young, women should shoulder a large portion of the blame." Deserting their role within the family, they have turned into "vociferous females" who "flaunt their prowess at being able to swear like a man, drink like a man and much else".

I take "much else" to include all those other bothersome things women now do, such as working to support themselves, standing for Parliament so they can take part in the political process - even getting jobs on papers like the Telegraph, which has had two female deputy editors in succession. Back to the home with them, says T White: "A good education is never wasted by motherhood". Such sentiments belong in the 1890s, where they would have found a sympathetic hearing at misogynist magazines such as the now-defunct Punch. If the Telegraph doesn't want to go the same way, it should sack its readers at once.

IT COULD be argued, of course, that many of the Royal Family's current problems arise from its refusal to acknowledge that women's roles have changed. This applies as much to the royals-by-marriage, the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York, as to the Queen and her sons. Few women I know would be impressed, as Camilla Parker Bowles apparently was, with the Prince of Wales's announcement that her greatest achievement was to love him. Fergie's financial problems, splashed all over the tabloids this week, stem in part from the expectation that the Queen would go on picking up her bills, as she is said to have done in the past.

"Friends recall that after she separated from Prince Andrew she had to submit her household accounts to the Palace for inspection - and that even such ordinary items as crisps and biscuits were being questioned and queried," the Daily Express revealed in its report of an exclusive interview with the Duchess. Following much the same script as the Princess of Wales, Fergie told Ross Benson that "I am strong" and "I will not let them get me down" - declarations that sat oddly with her acceptance of special treatment on her flight to Washington.

Three first-class passengers were moved to make way for the Duchess's party, although she had paid only for club. Her decision to take her daughters out of school for the trip cost the taxpayer pounds 2,655 for a bodyguard, while US state security is paying for her flights within America. Few women, strong or otherwise, expect or accept largess on this scale. If the Duchess is unhappy with the Palace, the taxpayer and the tabloids raking over her expenditure, the solution is staring her in the face: get a job.

NEITHER the Duchess of York nor the Princess of Wales makes a convincing feminist icon, although there have been attempts to co-opt the latter to the cause. Diana certainly hasn't wasted her education on motherhood, as she emphasised in a speech this week. "I believe that children are our future," she announced, quoting a song by Whitney Houston.

Fergie, meanwhile, was being a model mother to Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice on the plane to Washington, "looking after them, helping them with their drawing, putting their headphones on, choosing the videos to watch". Both women, in different ways, make a parade of motherhood and cling to their victim status: "Palace out to ruin me" was the banner headline in Friday's Daily Express.

This is sometimes taken as a critique of monarchy, finding popular expression in the view that there's something very wrong if it cannot find a role for someone as caring as the Princess of Wales. The Royal Family's treatment of Diana is perceived as unfair and elitist, as though it's an inherently democratic institution which just happens, in this case, to have broken its own rules. Where will it all end? Next thing we know they'll be insisting on the importance of the hereditary principle and male primogeniture.

Anyone who is tempted to see Diana's complaints, or Fergie's, as an attempt to reform the monarchy or a mild feminist statement ought to bear in mind what each of them is really seeking: attention, privilege and lots of money. Whether her overdraft is pounds 1m or the pounds 3m it was said to have risen to by Friday, the Duchess of York remains firmly within an ancien regime whose other jewel is that debt-ridden entity the Conservative Party (pounds 11.4m to the Royal Bank of Scotland in August last year). Do these bankrupt institutions really deserve their hold over us?