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Monica Porter

Weird Bunch

Press Gazette, 5 September 2003

‘Sisters, why are we such a weird bunch?’

Eccentricity is rampant among women journalists, says Monica Porter

Attending a recent bash given by the professional networking and social organisation Women in Journalism, I looked around at the large assembly of hackettes and was struck by one very obvious point. Women journalists are the most indefinable, diverse group of women in any occupation. Take any other category – women schoolteachers, say, or dinner ladies, businesswomen, female lawyers or PR girls, and it is possible to have a general image of what they will look and sound like, how they will dress and behave. But the concept of ‘woman journalist’ defies characterisation. The individuals milling around, chatting and sipping drinks at the WIJ gathering were of so many contrasting types that it was hard to believe they all earned their living doing much the same thing.

There were slick, power-dressed ones, who clearly regarded journalism as a glamorous profession and lived up to the image, and there were dowdy, rumpled ones who looked as if they’d just crawled out of sleeping bags. Some could have passed for canvassing Tory MPs, others for suburban housewives – and then there was Esther Rantzen, who is a cross between the two. We are not so much a recognisable breed as a motley collection of creatures who, on the surface at least, have little in common. Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. The public may try to stereotype us, but that’s a hopeless task. We can be Lois Lane or Lynda Lee-Potter or anything in between.

What complicates matters further is the indisputable eccentricity which is so rampant amongst women journalists. I do not doubt the existence of eccentric women shop-keepers, receptionists or hairdressers, but I have rarely, if ever, met any. On the other hand I’ve known a whole plethora of distinctly peculiar women journalists, all on a very small number of Fleet Street newspapers. I don’t know whether it is their being in the newspaper world, with its oddities, obsessions and distortions, which causes these women to go a bit funny, or whether an innate eccentricity drew them, magnet-wise, to a life in journalism. A chicken or egg question which might, perhaps, form the subject of an essay for some student of that fashionable field of academia, Media Studies.

While bizarreness in behaviour and/or appearance might not necessarily enhance your career prospects in, for example, merchant banking or open-heart surgery, it is no handicap in journalism. On the contrary, sometimes a person’s very bizarreness is their main source of success. Anyone who doubts this should consider the case of Julie Burchill. Her unconventional (and well-publicised) private life aside, the woman purports to idolise Stalin, claiming he was a truly wonderful man. The last I heard she even had his portrait on her wall. No doubt she knows about the Gulag and the murdered millions, but realises there’s a lot of mileage to be had in our trade from this sort of trumpeted perversion. I mean, it’s something that would stick in your memory, isn’t it?

One feature-writer I know has based virtually the whole of her not insubstantial professional reputation on the fact that she is, quite simply, mad. This has definite advantages in feature-writing. For a start, it takes a slightly mad person to draw out the subtle strains of madness which exist in a lot of quirky interview subjects, so she’s got a head start on any sane and sensible interviewer. She gets some good copy which others would probably miss. On the downside, she is wont to go off the rails from time to time, angering colleagues, upsetting celebrities and generally frightening the horses.

Another hackette, a showbiz specialist, has clearly spent too long rubbing shoulders with the glitterati. Like a star from the golden age of Hollywood, she refuses to divulge her age to anyone; on official forms requiring a date of birth she generally writes ‘none of your business’. There is a certain air about her of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard – a vague mix of the imperious and the dreamy – and one can argue that with her wild and inscrutable past, she is at least as intriguing as the luminaries she writes about. Her idiosyncratic character has never been a drawback in her career. When you’ve got A-list contacts, you can be as outlandish as you like.

While the combination of single, middle-aged Englishwomen and cats is a well-known source of peculiar behaviour, when you add the ingredient of ‘journalist’ into the mix, the whole thing reaches a new level of dottiness. Then, besides the pet moggies lording it in the home, the china cats on the mantelpiece, cat pictures on walls and cushions, and cat tea-mugs in the kitchen, there are books about cats to be written and reviewed, and whimsical articles to be penned from the perspective of The Cat. In short, what would be a mere passion is turned into a profession. (It doesn’t happen much with dogs, for some reason.)

Far from criticising this streak of eccentricity which runs in so many forms through our journalistic sisterhood, I think it should be celebrated. After all, it has a long and noble tradition. My favourite exemplar from times past was the intrepid Phyllis Davies, one of the first female crime reporters, who worked for the Daily Mail in the 1930s and 1940s and had a madcap originality. She began a 1938 report from Halifax with the immortal intro: ‘In the teeth of an icy wind and driving rain, I patrolled tonight one of the loneliest roads here as a decoy for the slashing maniac who has for days been terrorising this town.’ Never mind that the ‘Halifax slasher’ turned out not to exist.

In the 1950s Phyllis had a breakdown and spent some time in a mental hospital. She died a few years ago in an old peoples’ home on a Northampton council estate. But to the bitter end, she regaled her fellow pensioners with tales of ancient derring-do. Maybe they believed her, maybe not. But she certainly made their old age more colourful.