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Women on the news

By Fiona Bruce
Ten O'Clock News presenter

Angela Rippon with male newsreaders
Angela Rippon was... the first woman to become firmly accepted by the BBC establishment and viewers alike

Forget their authority - female news presenters are handicapped from the start by a popular obsession with how they look. But Fiona Bruce still regards it as the best job going, and celebrates the formidable women who have gone before her.

These are the most commonly asked questions of a female news presenter. See if you can guess which one is asked of our male colleagues.

  • What do you wear under the desk?
  • How do you juggle family life with work?
  • Do you ever get saucy letters?
  • What time do you get into the newsroom?
  • What is your favourite recipe?
  • How do you keep your sex life interesting after 10 years of marriage? (Well, I was only asked that once but it was pretty gobsmacking.)

Those who guessed number four, go to the top of the class.

The first time a woman read the news was in 1960 when Nan Winton gatecrashed that male bastion for a few brief but glorious months.

Looking back at the response she received at the time, it feels like another age.

But when you consider the questions above, maybe things have not changed quite so much.

Nan Winton

When Nan hit our screens it was a story for every newspaper. "Newsgirl Nan" was an instant celebrity.

NAN WINTON
Nan Winton
When Nan hit our screens it was a story for every newspaper

Much of the coverage was on her appearance.

The Evening Standard, for example, commented: "Miss Winton usually hides herself behind a desk. Pity. She has a 36-25-37in figure."

And then there were dark mutterings from those who objected in principle to a woman imparting the day's events.

In the Weekly Post an article entitled "Girls just can't read the news" stated, "The plain fact is that the news is one of those rare TV items which requires one simple no-nonsense characteristic from its vendor - authority. And how many women do you know who can even begin to appear and sound authoritative while remaining attractively feminine?"

Angela Rippon and Anna Ford

Angela Rippon was the next trailblazer, the first woman to become firmly accepted by the BBC establishment and viewers alike.

And there was no question of her not having authority.

She was a journalist, she was briskly business-like on screen, her pronunciation was unforgettable and she had gravitas by the bucketload.

She could even trip the light fantastic on Eric and Ernie and not jeopardise her status.

Anna Ford quickly followed on ITN.

ANNA FORD
Anna Ford
They took their jobs seriously, and they were taken seriously in return by viewers
The press attention that accompanied these two women was relentless: they were celebrities.

But they were not fluffy. They took their jobs seriously, and they were taken seriously in return by viewers.

Yet still, that mystical - and for some tantalising divide between newsdesk and viewer got a few people a little overexcited.

Robin Day is reported to have said to Anna Ford that she only got her job because the men who employed her wanted to sleep with her.

I would have loved to have heard her (no doubt) withering response.

Private Eye used to refer to her as a "doe-eyed talented auto-cue reader".

Sue Lawley

SUE LAWLEY
Sue Lawley
Sue Lawley was the doyenne of the BBC - Nationwide and the Six O'Clock News

Sue Lawley was the doyenne of the BBC - Nationwide and the Six O'Clock News.

Even the lesbian invasion in the studio could not penetrate her uber-calm professionalism.

But she was not immune to the attentions of love struck fantasists.

The Daily Mail wrote: "Even her sexiness is almost deliberate."

"But she knows, again by instinct more than calculation, that men find the reserve or maidenly modesty in a pretty woman, with a hint of darker passions beneath, more exciting than bawdy sluttishness."

Does she really? Who says?

Jill Dando

I cannot write a piece about women news presenters without mentioning Jill Dando.

I find myself thinking about her often. Not surprising really, given that two of the jobs I do, were done so well by her before me.

JILL DANDO
Jill Dando
What happened to Jill casts a shadow over all of us in this job. I will never forget her

If her life had not been cut short so cruelly - and so irrationally - on 26 April 1999, I would not be doing much of what I do now.

What happened to Jill casts a shadow over all of us in this job. I will never forget her.

When reading cuttings on women who have done my job - Moira Stewart, Sue Lawley, Julia Somerville, Debbie Thrower to name but a few - I could not find discussion of the news itself: what makes news, what the priorities are, the changing agenda, allegations of bias or otherwise.

The recurrent themes are looks, dress sense and childcare.

Maybe these things are just more interesting to readers. I know they are important to me.

News in specs

There is no point in pretending that, as a woman, you will be employed as a woman to present the news if you look like the back of a bus.

You do not have to be beautiful, but you have to be at least presentable.

You have to pay attention to your clothes in a way that your male colleagues do not have to.

Get the outfit wrong and no one will listen to a word you are saying.

Let my recent and thankfully brief foray onto the screen in my specs serve as an object lesson.

I had been on the air for less than five minutes (suffering from an eye infection caught from my two-year-old) and the phones on the news desk began to ring off their hooks as the national press enquired why I was suddenly wearing glasses.

Reading the news in specs became the news.

I found myself in newspaper articles about the perils of conjunctivitis, the subject of radio phone-ins and talk shows.

One journalist even rang me to ask if I was making a feminist stand about women in glasses and their acceptability in modern society.

Dermot Murnaghan, Darren Jordon, George Alagiah and Huw Edwards; Natasha Kaplinsky, Anna Ford, Sophie Raworth and Fiona Bruce
It is a great job. The best. And a bit of sniping and stereotyping here and there is a small price to pay
I began to wonder if I was living in a parallel universe where only I could see myself entirely and all anyone else could see was my glasses!

But glasses, clothes, childcare - these things do not define us, as they do not define male news presenters.

The fact that I am even writing that sentence is an indication that things have not changed out of all recognition since the days of Nan Winton.

What about this from Richard Ingrams in the Observer when Sophie Raworth began presenting on the Six O'Clock News?

"Reading the news, which would once be a job entrusted to a battered old party like Jeremy Bowen will now be done by a sexy young blonde such as Sophie Raworth. When Mr Blair starts to bomb Baghdad, we shall be informed of the fact by a smiling bimbo with a perfect set of teeth."

Unbelievable. But the news channels are full of women news presenters now.

The more commonplace we become, the more unremarkable we are.

It is a great job. The best. And a bit of sniping and stereotyping here and there is a small price to pay.

Nan Winton - who blazed a trail and made it all possible - I salute you.

A BBC TWO series presents the best archive footage from five decades of BBC Television News.

1954-1974: BBC TWO, Monday, 5 July 2004, 1430BST
1974-1994: BBC TWO, Tuesday, 6 July 2004, 1430BST
1994-2004: BBC TWO, Wednesday, 7 July 2004, 1430BST



SEE ALSO
TV newsreader honoured by Queen
12 Jun 04  |  Devon
Ford gets Queen's honour
04 Jul 03  |  TV and Radio
Raworth covers for Ford's ailing voice
24 Feb 03  |  TV and Radio
Sue Lawley: 30 years behind the mike
30 Dec 00  |  Entertainment
Bruce takes Crimewatch job
15 Nov 99  |  Entertainment


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