The bimbos of journalism

In all the why-on-earth-did-shedoit debate over Cherie allowing Marie Claire into her boudoir, no one has come to what for me is the obvious conclusion. A woman who sleeps under a fringed Toille de Jouy bedspread, who thinks pixie boots and three-quarter-length jackets are fashion must-haves, who lacks the con?dence to apply her own lipstick, quite obviously does not read women’s magazines.

Maybe she doesn’t have the time, what with the career, the kids, the duetting with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

But I would bet it is something a little more weighty than “101 ideas” which is causing those squabbles with Tony about keeping on the bedside light.

As she looked over the Downing Street ballustrade to see a journalist and photographer had wandered into her private quarters, Cherie apparently paused. If they’d been from a newspaper, no doubt security would have soon been feeling their collar. But my guess is she calculated: “Oh well, it’s only Marie Claire, they won’t be too hard on me?” If I show them my untidy living room, my shoe collection, introduce them to my homegirl, Carol, throw in a few ahh-making references to Leo, they’re sure to play nice. Surely such girlie intimacy will not be traduced in print.

And, to a degree, Cherie was right.

The brilliant Barbara Ellen wrote her Day In the Life almost entirely straight (or maybe it was just subbed that way). Faced with the scoop of her life – evidence to suggest that perhaps Carol really does rub Cherie down in the shower – Ellen hushed her normally barbed tongue.

It is notable that her subsequent behind-the-scenes piece for The Observer was far more funny, politically astute and revealing than the anodyne Marie Claire copy. But then I do not know what Cherie’s minder, Fiona Millar – after she had stopped hyperventilating into a paper bag – made Marie Claire do to tone it down.

Since New Labour came to power, it has vigorously courted the women’s press. Within months of the election, magazine editors were swooning to receive an invitation to a Downing Street soirée. As an editor then myself, I went to half a dozen and, after the initial novelty had worn off, found them strangely pointless gatherings.

At the ?rst, six years ago, I remember how thrilled we all were to go through the famous door, to enjoy the hospitality of this spangly new women-friendly Government and meet its hoards of female ministers in their ill-cut skirt suits.

We were most excited of all about meeting Cherie. She was so warm and engaging, so very normal, her features in animation so much more attractive than her photographed gurns.

And her conversation was so very unguarded. I heard one editor ask if she would be happy if her daughter chose to become a model and was mildly astonished by Cherie’s maternally disloyal reply.

No doubt many editors, like me, left feeling excited by our new proximity to power, ?attered that the Government actually seemed to care what we thought. Oh, the campaigns we could launch, the in?uence we might have over policy for the betterment of our readers.

But back in the of?ce, as soon as you made a request to Government press of?cers, it was clear by their patronising tones – one No 10 woman had an infuriatingly rude way of eating down the phone at you – that magazines were very low on their agenda. And if you expected Cherie to appear in a shoot or concede to an interview – as even Alexandra Schulman at Vogue discovered – you could expect a dose of high-handed derision.

YET STILL THE Downing Street invitations kept coming, not to mention sundry ones from ministries. But I was yet to discover why we were being invited. The annual post-Budget women-only event at No 11, where we stood around waiting for 10 minutes in Gordon’s presence, was particularly puzzling. How were we, with our three-month lead times, supposed to cover the Budget? It was a gathering in Baroness Jay’s of?ce at the House of Lords where I ?nally lost my patience. As liveried ?unkies circulated Twiglets still in their M&S plastic packaging, we editors gossiped largely among ourselves.

Shaking my hand as I left, the noble baroness gave me a smile of utmost condescension and intoned: “Do ring if we can help. We can be quite chatty, you know.”

We women editors were regarded as the bimbos of journalism. We weren’t there to get the story. We were there to be ?attered, to be made to feel generally favourable to Labour. So that when the election came, you could be offered a little ?reside interview with the PM, would quiver prettily at the privilege and all Tony would have to do to ensure a warm headline would be to throw you a titbit about a girlfriendly subject like being a dad.

But then I must say my fellow editors at these events very often behaved like bimbos. The worst culprits for toadying were those from the glossy monthlies. Maybe they can’t help it. Perhaps they are so used to air kissing designers in Milan to guarantee advertising, attending J-Lo’s wedding chez Donatella in exchange for favourable coverage of both, running coverlines like How Geri Got Her Fabulous New Body beside pictures showing a star who looks both mad and ill. What better fodder for government spin doctors? It has to be said that British women’s magazines, when they do politics, do it very badly. Unlike US titles such as Mirabella, Vanity Fair or even US Vogue, there is no tradition of intelligent political commentary in the women’s press. Perhaps US politics is sexier, or just US women are more excited by power.

No one in Britain buys a glossy for political analysis. Magazines which try to get serious – like Red under Sally Brampton – tend to run lowpowered, uncritical and tedious interviews, losing readers in the process.

The last No. 10 ladies event I attended was in the run-up to the war in Afghanistan. Cherie and Tony had just returned from buttering up Saudi Arabia. As the First Couple reached my circle, I couldn’t help – Deirdre Spart that I am – asking Cherie how she could tolerate a country so oppressive that it wouldn’t even let women drive.

Her smile wavered only slightly as she replied. But there was an uneasy silence: asking a political question had breached some unspoken rule. It was broken by a glossy editrice. Gesturing to Cherie’s calf-length Blake Sevenesque leather number, she said, “Where did you get that fantastic coat?”, and then added, glancing down at a pair – one of many, it now emerges – of kinky ankle boots, “and what fabulous shoes!” Cherie beamed.

The conversation was now back on its appropriate course.

No wonder she told Marie Claire to come on up. 

Janice Turner is a freelance journalist and former editor of That’s Life! and Real. She’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Chris Shaw “

by Janice Turner

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