writer, broadcaster, portfolio woman

A ‘curly Labour poodle’ bites back at her bullies

The Daily Mail is vindictive, hypocritical and misogynous – and I should know

The Times, April 25th 2003

When I first told my colleagues I had agreed to propose the motion “The trouble with this country is the Daily Mail” in a debate last night, their responses came in one of two forms: either, “That’s brave!” or “Are you crazy?” For, as all journalists know, the Mail is famously vindictive. Anyone who dares to criticise it, or even disagree with its world view, is trashed in its pages.

I don’t relish the prospect, and I don’t doubt it will happen now. In the past, after daring to take on the Mail, I have been described in its pages as a “curly Labour poodle”, a “show-off” and a “fawning Blair media groupie”. I only managed to stop it running a story claiming that I had had a fling with Tony Blair before he was married by warning that I would sue. I rather wish I had not now: I might have made a lot of money.

No one enjoys being insulted. But bullies need to be challenged. If everyone is cowed into silence by their intimidation, they win.

I had a preview of the bullying nature of the debate yesterday morning, when the Today programme asked me to argue the case with one of my opponents, Peter Oborne. Despite having been perfectly friendly beforehand, he launched into the most vitriolic personal invective on air. “Mary Ann Sieghart!” he exclaimed. “You’re just a glamorous, upper middle-class snob who goes to the Groucho Club and doesn’t understand normal people. You’re bossy and domineering and authoritarian!”

It was odd, because I had not said a word about him, only about the paper for which he occasionally writes. And he was the one who was being domineering. But he simply was not prepared to engage in the argument. Like the organ he writes for, he was determined to make it personal.

The Mail is horribly personal in much of its journalism, particularly when women are the target. Famous women are always being castigated for not making the best of their looks. They are either too fat or too thin, they have cellulite, they pop out for a pint of milk without putting on make-up, they dress badly, they have a bad-hair day. When they react to the criticism, perhaps by having plastic surgery or dieting, we read great swaths about the botched Botox job or the anorexia they now suffer from.

A piece about Caroline Aherne a couple of weeks ago accused her of being “deeply insecure about her appearance”. And why might that be? Apparently “she rarely ventures out unless she has a thick coating of make-up”. Well, I don’t blame her.

The article went on, without a trace of irony, “Two years ago, after pictures of her sitting on a beach in her swimsuit appeared in a tabloid newspaper, she underwent a breast reduction operation in a bid to slim down and help her feel less self-conscious.” Then she suffered depression. Do these journalists feel no shame about the pain they cause?

The snatched swimsuit photos are particularly pernicious. Last month the Mail ran a double-page spread of pictures of 24 famous women caught on the beach, comparing their real age with their supposed “swimsuit age”. Poor Judy Finnigan, who is already 54, and surely not expected to look like Pamela Anderson, was described as having “let herself go. Overweight and lacking muscle tone, she could be aged 60.” Ellen MacArthur is apparently “chunky” and “matronly”. For goodness’ sake — she has sailed round the world single-handed. Of course she’s chunky! But anyway, these women are not professional models or actresses. Why should they be expected to look good in a bikini?

Yesterday, we had half the pictures all over again, alongside models wearing similar bikinis — 32 near-naked women on one double-page spread, in a paper that is always complaining about “pornography”.

You might have spotted something else odd about that spread. Only one woman (Halle Berry) was black. Mail journalists know that they will hardly ever get a story into the paper about a black person unless he or she is criminal or famous. (The only — honourable — exception was the Mail’s campaign over the Stephen Lawrence murder, but then Stephen’s father was the Editor’s decorator.)

So here’s an anecdote that illustrates what used to be the typical Mailattitude towards black people. A friend of mine, who was working there, had been asked to find and interview a woman who had been raped and was prepared to relinquish her anonymity. My friend eventually discovered the perfect candidate: an intelligent, articulate 39-year-old who had taken a short cut home and been raped by a stranger.

The journalist interviewed the woman, told her boss every detail of the victim’s story (which had been backed up by the police) and he was thrilled. “We’ll do it as a series over five days,” he promised. But when, at the end of the conversation, my friend let slip that her rape victim was black, his reply was “F***!” Then he suggested that the victim must have made it all up. The piece never ran.

I haven’t even started on the Mail’s attitude towards working mothers. We are wicked, neglectful and selfish people. If the Mail had its way, we would all be putting on our pinnies in the morning, toning up our bums and thighs until lunch, then baking cakes (which we must not eat because they’ll give us cellulite) until our husbands get home at night. But it’s all right because, according to the Mail, we are all going to die of breast cancer anyway.

Perhaps I would mind less if the paper were less hypocritical. Paul Dacre, the Editor, is currently in hospital. I won’t reveal the cause, as he is anxious to protect his privacy. Why, then, did the Mail devote an entire page and huge picture last week to how “tired, frail and pained” Barbara Windsor looked on a trip to her doctor? We all know the actress is ill. We don’t need to know precisely how ill she looks. If we’re going to get personal, you, Mr Dacre, of all people, should understand that.

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