Unleashed and unrepentant: Fleet Street's bitch goddesses

They're the Wednesday witches, the queens of mean – the female columnists from whom no woman is safe. But they operate under a strict code of conduct, says one leading exponent

Carol Sarler
Sunday 13 July 2008 00:00

On Wednesday morning the model Saskia Porter took a hefty slapping from the columnist Sue Carroll in the Daily Mirror. Porter had been outed for knocking eight years off her real age and, according to Carroll, this was "a crime against women". Over at The Sun, Jane Moore picked on the self-absorbed Lily Allen for sending "yesterday I had a runny poo, too-much-information missives" across Facebook.

Both, this week at least, were splendidly outdone by Allison Pearson in the Daily Mail, who amused herself with speculatively casting a new Dr Who sidekick. Not Charlotte Church: "She doesn't do deep space – only deep fried." Lily Cole? "Already looks like an alien." Sienna Miller? "She could go out with several boyfriends at once in parallel dimensions. So, no acting needed at all."

(Oh, go on: smile. You know you want to.)

And so the wheels of the "Wednesday witches" – a sobriquet attributed to Diana, Princess of Wales – trundle nicely along as women, gloriously paid for their contribution to newspaper sales, are horrid to other women.

Waspish gossip has always been a staple of female intercourse: Bette Davis, Maria Callas and Edith Piaf were all fangs and claws at the sniff of a rival, and while Dorothy Parker could snipe at the best of men, she reserved her more memorable jibes for women, as in the famous review of Katharine Hepburn: "She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B."

What is newer is the harnessing of the bitch to the public prints, a whole page at a time, with spleen to the fore. Jean Rook, the Daily Express inspiration for Private Eye's "Glenda Slagg", kicked it off in the early Seventies, closely followed by Lynda Lee-Potter in the Daily Mail (both emerged, perhaps not coincidentally, during the infancy of contemporary feminism), and now there is not a newspaper that dares publish without.

The qualities like to pretend they are above it but they are not: Catherine Bennett (Observer), Libby Purves (Times), Vicki Woods (Telegraph), and India Knight (Sunday Times) are all perfectly capable of an elegant spear to a fellow breast, while brave is the woman who steps on the tetchy toes of Janet Street-Porter of this parish.

Courtesy of a greater directness of language, however, it is the tabloid queens of mean who tend to define the genre – one in which my own tour of duty, divided between the Sunday People and the Daily Express, lasted 12 years until 2005 and produced not a shred of remorse or regret.

When friends asked, how could you?, the answer was, "really rather easily". Furthermore: the misconceptions were, and continue to be, theirs not mine.

The first is that we are but puppets of editors, usually male, whom we seek to please by manufacturing the invective they demand. In fact, for invective to work it has to be real; fraudulent spite shows from a mile. So it is actually the other way around: editors hire those who are already choleric and simply seeking an outlet for it.

The second misconception is that we tip ordure only over women, when we are just as critical of erring men. The false impression is created because only we weigh in against women at all; male columnists know that for them to do so is a no-no across the political spectrum – to the right it is "unchivalrous", to the left it is "sexist". Almost entirely in our hands, therefore, girl-bashing becomes that for which we are noted.

The third, and the most important, misconception is that no woman is safe from our scrutiny. The truth is that our targets are carefully selected and that there are many women granted immunity by unspoken consensus. But to understand how that works requires a recognition of the most defining characteristic shared by these women writers: their age.

This is not peculiar to the female of the trade. It is a rule of Fleet Street's thumb that a fully-rounded journalistic career is divided into two parts: one spent discovering the world, often by reporting, and the other spent, only later when thus armed, trying to make sense of it. This is why, with the single exception of Johann Hari (of The Independent), there is no worthwhile columnist of either sex under the age of at least 40 and often a good 20 years more.

So when you take that general rule and apply it specifically to a woman columnist of the early 21st century, you know exactly who you are up against: one who has, as Jean Rook proudly claimed, "clawed and scrambled" her way up, partly because her era decreed that she had to and partly because – maybe fancifully – she saw herself as a trailblazer.

The women she likes, not surprisingly, are those she perceives as comrades in pluck: the strong, the no-nonsense and the hard-working. You don't, therefore, often read her sniping at Dolly Parton or Princess Anne; even Joan Collins gets the "national treasure" treatment. And it is noteworthy that Charlotte Church went unscathed when she worked hard, but felt the barbs once she slacked and became silly.

Useless, mindless celebrity may be admired on other pages of the same newspaper but, within the dizzy pluralism that governs the tabloid press, it cuts no ice on ours.

My own bitch-fest was at its peak during the era of the Spice Girls and my venom was entirely genuine. I had a daughter and a serious, grave fear that her role model would not be her tough old boot of a working mother but some soppy, vapid dolt like Victoria Beckham, to whom – then as now – I have never given an inch.

As for Heather Bloody Mills McCartney: rich by dodgy men, famous by unwise marriage and no proven merit beyond, she was ripe for the picking on. Her "achievements" were a throwback to times from which we like to think we led the escape – which may be untrue, unfair and unkind, but nonetheless she never stood a chance. I do not recall ever discussing her with other women columnists, though most of us know each other; still, as one, without meeting her (certainly not!) we unleashed the savagery.

It is, I concede, a power open to abuse and mistake. Lynda Lee-Potter once had a pop at Mo Mowlam for "letting herself go" – although no hypocrite she; Lynda herself was immaculate – only to discover that the offending puffiness was due to treatment for a brain tumour. Mo forgave her; poor Lynda went to her grave, in 2004, never forgiving herself.

On balance, however, and still unrepentant for my own part in the vitriol, I would hugely miss it if it stopped. A world where women's behaviour is monitored, policed and judged by the values of Misses Carroll, Moore and Pearson might well be imperfect. But for the majority of women – better known here as readers – it could be an awful lot worse.

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