- Scandal by Amanda Platell
Piatkus, 297 pp, £5.99, November 1999, ISBN 0 7499 3119 1
Behind every great man is a great spin-doctor. Tony Blair has gorgeous pouting Alistair Campbell, exhack, ex-alcoholic, ex-pornographer, all-round thug and family-values man. What a guy! William Hague meanwhile is not a great man and behind him is Sebastian Coe. Lately, however, he has employed the services of another gorgeous ex-hack, Amanda Platell, fun-loving Aussie, the femme fatale of the Mirror Group, ex-editor of the Sunday Express, and now would-be novelist. Some in the Conservative Party were worried that her book, Scandal, with its lurid yellow cover featuring a high-heeled woman treading on another’s toes and its delicious promise of a ‘sexy, scandalous and utterly authentic exposé of the world of journalism’, would prove an embarrassment to poor sheltered William. Thankfully, another paperback writer has proved to be more of an embarrassment than Platell could ever hope to be. One does not envy Platell her new job – look at the material she has to work with – but perhaps she has had enough of the ‘sexy and scandalous’ world of journalism.
I, too, would like to think that the world of journalism was sexy and scandalous. It’s hard to maintain such an exciting fantasy, however, if you’ve ever been in a newspaper office filled with rows of people sitting quietly in front of computer screens. The highlight of the day is ‘conference’, where the selected few read out lists to each other and then have more meetings about how they can attract more adverts for private health insurance. I imagine the average call centre is more sexy and scandalous but we hacks like to think of ourselves as living slightly on the edge, even though the profession consists mostly of desk-bound workaholics. These days swearing occasionally or having a glass of wine at lunchtime is enough to qualify you as a bit of a character. As newspapers become less important, however, journalists become more self-important, especially the ones that report from the front line of their own lifestyles. I don’t mind these delusions of grandeur. I like all the mythology. I like hearing of the bitches and the bastards. I’ve worked for some of them. I mean, what would a newspaper be without its quota of vain, adulterous, self-deceiving whores?
We all love a good bitch. And the best bitches are always the power-players because – let’s face it – women in power, let alone women editors, are still a rarity. We want to know that they only keep their jobs by sleeping with members of the board and go home to their lonely cat-infested dreampads where they wonder if it’s all worth it. We want to know that they squeeze themselves into tacky underwear several sizes too small so that they can manipulate daft men who will do anything for an eyeful of crispy cleavage or a glimpse of cellulite oozing over a stocking-top. We want to know that any woman who has clawed her way to the top has an innate hatred of all other women, especially young and beautiful and talented ones. Yep. We’ve come a long way, baby. Just not in what the blurb to Scandal calls ‘the cut-throat and male-dominated world of newspaper journalism’.
So here we have Sharon. Common by name and common by nature. Sharon edits the Daily Tribune. She is all sunbed orange, tangerine lipstick and pink carnations. Sharon hates Georgina, who edits the Sunday Tribune. Well, she would, wouldn’t she, because Georgina is striking, ten years younger and has – shock horror – succeeded by hard work alone. Never mind circulation. Just look at the figures. In the changing rooms of Harvey Nicks the two women prepare to do battle: ‘Size 16 eyed size 12 with open hostility.’ In some parallel universe I like to think that Max Hastings and Paul Dacre and John Witherow and Alan Rusbridger behave like this. Dominic Lawson may well have said to Charles Moore in some gentleman’s outfitters what Sharon says to Georgina: ‘Well, we can’t both buy this, can we, babe? And I know who looks best in it.’
Both women, you see, are competing for the attention of Douglas Holloway, the executive who will decide their fate. Douglas meanwhile is busy impregnating his mistress while his wife is busy impregnating herself with a sperm sample that silly Douglas has prepared earlier. Add to this Georgina’s lesbian affair with clingy Belinda (‘You know I’d rather take you with me, but the newspaper world isn’t ready for its first openly bisexual editor’) and a dreadful queen who wraps twenty pound notes round his dick when he goes cottaging, and the results are very strange. So is the writing. This is a young trainee being seduced by Sharon: ‘She was so close he could smell her, that salty tang of woman he had read about and masturbated imagining.’
Who will win complete control over both papers? Who will save Georgina from the horrible world of newspapers and lesbianism? I don’t want to spoil it for you but thank God one real man appears, not some poncy sub-editor but Ned the Australian wine-grower. Phwoar! He has beautiful, dancing eyes and ‘sleeves rolled up to reveal forearms ridged with muscle from hard work, not working out in the gym.’ As soon as he pushes her down on the bed ‘she felt like a rag doll.’ And now good old Georgina realises what all that bisexual nonsense had been about. It had been ‘a time of healing ... she could now see that she had been opting out.’
Georgina in her compulsory La Perla underwear may be based on Platell herself but she remains a bit of a mystery. Everyone loves and likes her but I couldn’t work out why. I think we are meant to like her simply because she isn’t Sharon, but Sharon – a composite of various female tabloid editors – gets my vote. I had heard the stories Platell retells here about a notorious editor of the Express who insisted on having her assistants get her designer dresses and then change the labels from a size 16 to a 12. But I’ve also heard far worse ones and was sorry that they weren’t here. Years ago I was even summoned by the great woman herself and told by one of her minions that I would be paid an awful lot of money if I could come up with a story that included all her preoccupations at the same time. ‘She likes,’ her bow-tied flunky told me earnestly, ‘royals, shopping, anything that bashes men. Oh and trends, she loves a good trend.’ I failed miserably.
I also have to say, disappointingly, that in my experience the women with the most fearsome reputations have always been the most charming, as well as more supportive of female colleagues than many of the more self-regarding Women’s Page types.
Yet Platell understands only too well the backdrop to her novel. When I worked for the Independent she was still at the Mirror Group, which then owned the paper and deliberately and systematically stripped it bare. The philistine management of the character based on David Montgomery is lampooned here by Platell, who understands that newspapers shouldn’t be run by people who despise journalism. In those days we were all supposed to report to something called the Academy of Excellence, where we would be taught how to be proper journalists. This actually meant teaching us how to do other people’s jobs as well as our own: it was merely an exercise in staff reductions and cost-cutting. Any recruitment could always be done at a later date if necessary, with the new staff receiving lower salaries. It was seriously believed that there was no need for journalists to specialise: any old reporter could review a film or a play or a book or write a column. Multi-skilling meant doing everything: not only should journalists write on every subject, they should also write headlines, do the layout, scan pictures and do all the production work. No more subs. No more picture desks. No one to check anything. One picture of a drug addict slouched in a doorway went to press with what the designer had written underneath it: ‘What are we going to say about this poor bastard then?’
Of course this is the real scandal, though hardly sexy enough for a bonkbuster. Similarly, the real story of ‘women in journalism’ – I met Platell at the founding meeting of that organisation – is far more complex than anything here. I don’t blame Platell for being suspicious about sisterhood – I’ve been burned often enough by those who preach female solidarity in public. Obviously women behave as badly as men and Platell, I know, has repeatedly not been taken seriously because she is good-looking and therefore stupid. But still we have to ask why women are so under-represented in positions of power on our national newspapers.
Class politics is relevant here: the broadsheets are still governed by a clique of public school boys who think that anyone who doesn’t know the latest Test score is a waste of time. The irony is that despite their content, the tabloids have employed and promoted more women. The tabloidisation of the broadsheets, and the endless feature writing needed to sustain this repositioning in the market should therefore be good news for women, but there is a tremendous amount of snobbery about it all. In any case women should no more be shoved into doing endless celebrity interviews than men should. We will have got somewhere when as many women write leaders as write articles saying that their own divorce qualifies as a news event in itself. Women must get out of the habit of typecasting themselves and then complaining that they have been typecast.
It’s obvious to anyone who gets out of the office that newspapers are old-fashioned places that pretend to themselves that they are entirely modern just because they use new technology. The working practices of most papers make it virtually impossible for women who have young children to work full-time for them, although there is really no need for the culture of presenteeism that many of them insist on.
What will inevitably change things is those elusive female readers. Even the Sun is thinking of putting the Page 3 girl out of her misery. It fears it will lose its core readership but thinks it might attract younger, upwardly mobile female readers. Calculations like this, pored over by advertising and marketing experts, will affect the future of newspapers as much as a few token women at the top end of the profession.
Scandal, though, cannot be judged in these terms. It is not a publication by Women in Journalism. It’s a trashy little book, though for my taste not trashy enough. In the end the best woman wins, whereas in real life the best woman got fired for dishing the dirt on Peter Mandelson and now faces the Herculean task of sexing up William Hague. I wonder if this is the terrible karmic fate of any journalist who becomes too cynical about their trade. If you really hate journalism you don’t write longingly about this self-obsessed little world: instead, you become a spin-doctor, spinning the lie that there is no longer any discernible gap between the medium and the message.