“Keep buggering on” – Women in News and life as a female journalist

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Disco panel

Some enterprising high-ups at work have launched a series of events in which high-profile women in different areas talk about their careers and interests. I am surrounded by kick-ass women doing very good jobs, but I also spend most of my day at my desk so don’t get to talk to many of them outside Twitter very often. This was an opportunity to step away from it and hear a varied panel having a chat about their careers and problems. And then have some beers and a natter, which was excellent.

  • Rachel Richardson, editor of Fabulous magazine (chair)
  • Deborah Haynes, defence editor at The Times
  • Deidre Saunders, agony aunt at The Sun (legend)
  • Victoria Newton, editor of The Sun on Sunday
  • Emma Tucker, deputy editor of The Times
  • Eleanor Mills, editorial director of The Sunday Times & chair of Women in Journalism
  • Tiffanie Darke, editor of Style magazine at The Sunday Times

Pretty bloody good panel for a first event.

My friend Sarah, who used to work at The Times, got a bit confused as to why Dear Deidre was at a Women in News event, but it’s more about the company than news, and, as it turns out, Deidre started out as a hack in any case. It was a brilliant talk and here are my notes from it.

Deidre: Dad wouldn’t let tabloids in the house. I created newspapers for cats at 8: news and features. I was obsessed with papers. My husband called it tunnel vision. I worked in student journalism at university and couldn’t wait to start.

A really bad problem came a few recessions ago. A man lost his job, then his wife, his home and he had two kids. He smothered them to death then tape recorded a message to me and shot himself. People think you make these problems up – we don’t. A lot of problems are very serious and heavy. We don’t put them in the paper every day as you want them to be entertaining and attract readers, but it is there.

I work with a team of six counsellors. Every problem is answered, by Tuesday. If you emailed me a problem on Tuesday morning, you’d get a reply by the evening. It helps enormously to have a team to spread the load. We also have counselling supervision to download and make sure you don’t get sucked in.

I’m probably not good at solving my own problems, but I have  friends and other agony aunts to turn to.

Emma:  The FT had so few women that I got to make it up myself, and they didn’t know what to do. I’d been in Strasbourg and Brussels for 18 months then got pregnant. My then boss – who I can’t name as he edits a national newspaper – grabbed his diary and went, “But what about my sabbatical!” The foreign editor said, “How could you do this Emma, just when we’re trying to get more women in foreign postings.” I had two babies in Brussels, but the second time round the editor had learned his lesson and went over the top.

I had lots of money from a generous foreign correspondent allowance that doesn’t exist now, so we could hire a nanny. I had another baby in Berlin, took a year off, then realised I needed more time and took three years off. Then I got a job as property editor. It was deliberately chosen because I rang up the then editor, Anne Spackman and asked, “how many days do you go in the office?” She said two, so I took it. Later I went on  job share – I’ve  tried every permutation.

A lot of women start out in news, then shift to features. You have to change the nature of the work you’re doing to manage home life. When I got the deputy editor job, I asked the boys if it was ok my working longer hours. “Yeah.” They get a bit annoyed but I see them at the weekends.

I came in through the graduate scheme, but I still think the local newspaper route is really good. It teaches you what news is, how to write a news story: walking the mean streets of Newport can be hard work.

There’s never been a woman deputy at The Times before and it would be terrible to mess up. I’d let you all down! I want to do a good job, support the editor and make The Times a better paper.

Deborah: I lived in Iraq for three years from 2004. 95% of the time it’s fine! Admittedly I had to change hotels three times because they kept getting blown up. If you’re cool with the scary bit and don’t let that consume you, you’re perfect to work in a war zone: correspondents are nuts and have a strange tolerance for stuff.

When I first went to Iraq in 2004, I had been working for AFP, the French news agency and hadn’t been given hostile environment training. I had no clue that a high velocity bullet can penetrate concrete so, unlike in the films, you can’t hide behind a wall. I went out on the street and saw all the fire going on overhead, so I went up on to the roof of the hotel. I saw a rocket going overhead into the hotel opposite, then dove into some corrugated iron.

War corresponding is not a boys club any more, it’s 50/50 (globally). Initially men might go out as they are first on call, then woman go out and show they can kick ass, and then they’re out here all the time. We’ve got this enduring spirit that means we do as well as the men. But back in the defence world in the UK it’s different. I went to a meeting this week that I was almost barred from because of a story The Times ran, and I was the only woman in the meeting room. All generals, all correspondents were men. There’s an advantage to embedding with troops in being a man; nowhere for showers, loos can be embarrassing, but if you don’t mind they don’t mind.

In Helmand, with the British and Marines in Marjah, which was nicknamed “bleeding ulcer”. We were on a recce for a school. You get these touchy-feely marines who build schools, then combat marines who are like, “What the hell?” We passed a lot of poppy crops. It’s a sign that you are not in a friendly area. One combat marine got shot in the leg. I dived to the ground and thought that it felt like a movie. I lay there and all there was for cover was a weed. I remembered one of the marines wanted to get up and help me. I was drawing fire, because of my blue bullet-proof jacket.  I screamed at him, “I’m fine, I’m really scared but fine, stay down.”

Another story: a guy shot his foot off cleaning his rifle.

Victoria: I don’t have any stories like Deborah’s; the closest thing I’ve come to being bumped off by is a vol au vent. I had lots of role models though. At the Sunday Mirror I had Bridget Rowe, a scary domineering woman who bossed all the men around so I didn’t think there were any problem with woman editors,  then I came to The Sun where Rebekah was deputy.

What tends to happen is women have babies, come back, take time out, but we’re trying to change that.  I’d gone from editing the double spread of Bizarre for 5 years, then features for three months then Rebekah told me I had to edit the paper Sunday for Monday. I was terrified. But each week your confidence grows, then I got really excited about it and then I was deflated on Monday when I had to go back to my normal job.

Eleanor: Big issues facing women in 2014: at Women in Journalism, we’re looking at portrayal of women in newspapers under the hashtag #mediasexism. But also examples of where it is positive. We want women who have agency, not as victims or arm candy. A female eye on the news list is helpful to point out if every woman featured is a rape victim or mistress. Also, up representation of women in the deep end of the newspaper. More female bylines in comment and news. We also get a lot of women in tabloids complaining about a macho culture that is actively hostile.

WiJ has just done results on the number of front page bylines by women, the FT was one of the worst.  Yet the Daily Mail has more bylines by women and yet… Women can internalise misogyny. When I was at university, it was more unisex, everyone wearing DM boots etc, but now it has become polarised. The way the lads behave, “laddish” has reached a different level. We need to give beacons to those young women.

Greatest mentor is John  Witherow. He kept me on track whiles I had my kids. I had two babies while I edited News Review. I went in one day and couldn’t hack it, so instead I worked at home on Wednesday. It meant I could go to nursery and singing group. (A later chat with people showed Wednesday is a good day for working from home: Friday or Monday are too “Oh, she’s clocked off for the weekend already”)

One always has regrets. I should probably have done more news: I’ve always been a features girl. There’s a problem around the male culture, male long hours. For the younger generation of men, they have same work-life balance issues as women.

Tiffanie: Style is a dream job, that’s why I’m hanging on. It came with a lot of resentment from the rest of fashion industry because I never paid my dues doing the fashion editor’s ironing, or whatever it is you have to do for 10 years now before becoming a stylist. I came up through news features.

I was working on News Review when 9/11 happened, an amazing time for news features. I was there for a year, then John called me in and told me I had a new job. I had deliberately taken the job at News Review as I didn’t want to be pigeonholed in lifestyle features. I turned Style down. I then got a steely stare and John said I’d be a fool to turn it down. He handed over an empty flatplan, told me to go away for three months and invent a women’s magazine.

It has traditionally been a hard sell to get fashion into news. In our old building, news was at one end, and Home and the supplements were at the other. They were known as the Shallow End, and Style was the Playpen – not helped by Isabella Blow traipsing through with lobsters on her head.

Fashion is about identity, empowerment, women discovering who they are and their place in the world. It’s an art form and it should be available. There’s an element which is hyper-silly, but it’s an incredibly addictive subject.

I made an epic error in the beginning. There were Dior t-shirts saying J’adore Dior, but I couldn’t find anyone cool in London who was wearing Dior. I commissioned a writer to write “Who adores Dior?” She went to Cricket, a famous Wags boutique in Liverpool, and got the woman on record to say only Russian prostitutes wear Dior.  The head of Dior saw the article and rang up from his beach in St Tropez or wherever. They withdrew all LVMH advertising the next day.

Parenting seems to be an ongoing issue in our careers despite strides made by flexi-working etc. Where will we be in 20 years time?

Deidre: I was packing to go into hospital to give birth to my youngest when I got a call asking for a piece. I said I was having a Caesarian. They replied, “It’s only routine surgery!”

Emma: I know lots of young 30s men want to support their partners and be with their kids, so it’s all changing.

Eleanor: I had two working mothers who were really switched on to their careers, but there is a constant tension between work and life. My children are 9 and 11. It’s different when kids are very young, and older – maybe have a bridge of three, five years out, which isn’t that long in a career. We have to think smarter and be better in how we manage them.

Deborah: I now see colleagues taking paternity leave. Surely it will come a point where it shouldn’t matter, so hiring and promoting is based on talent rather than gender?

How can we promote upward mobility?

Emma: Promote more people. Deloitte don’t give women any choice: they appoint them and then the women did it. Decisions should be made, perhaps. Tiffany: Deloitte also parachutes women in for short periods of time which makes it easier.

Eleanor: Cinderella syndrome: if women sit there in their bunker and work really hard, they think that someone will notice them and invite them to the conference room. Doesn’t work like that. Need to hustle a bit and network, get yourself on the map.

Deborah: I can’t stand the gender talk. It really bugs me. I was on maternity leave when I interviewed for defence editor. You can’t ignore the fact that you’re going to have to go to war zones. James Harding had a frank talk with me a long time afterwards, it went on merit.

Men get promoted based on potential, women get promoted on proof. Is it true, or have you experienced that?

Emma: No.

Deidre: Men tend to apply for jobs based on potential. Women will prove they can do it, and then accept what they are offered.

Tiffanie: I’ve had the opposite experience. At the end of the 90s, when I was starting out, there weren’t many women on papers so they needed to promote them quickly. My first three jobs I had no idea what I was doing when I took the jobs on.

Emma: We had Sheryl Sandberg here for a talk a while ago. John Witherow  became very taken with Lean In, so started coming to conference shouting “Lean in, Tucker, lean in.” He took a punt on me. We have to behave in a more confident and forthright way. It’s not all  the men’s fault.

Eleanor: We have to take in to account that women may not be as pushy. It also beholds organisations to pick those people out.

What have you learned that you wish you’d known when starting out?

Eleanor: Always make another call. Never give up, always persevere. There’s always a way round, you can always get to someone eventually. That marks those who rise up and those who don’t.

Victoria: In your 20s you can be in a huge rush to rise, instead of enjoying it.

Tiffanie: Have in your head where you want to end up, then you can plot your course.

Emma: Keep going. Even if you have to take your career back down, don’t give up. There have been so many permutations in mine, but I’ve kept going. The minute you give up it gets more hard to get back in. Pick a good employer.

Deidre: Trust your gut instinct as a human being. it’s like the old story of the wedding and the church hall: a man goes to report on a wedding and comes back saying “There’s no story, the church hall burned down.” Trust that and go with it. You’re a human being, and your readers are human beings.

Deborah: I wish I’d had more confidence when I started out. I am my own worst critic. Even now I’m thinking why the hell am I sitting up here, which is ridiculous. Have confidence in yourself and know that you’re good.

When have you a risked a punt on something and been pleased with the outcome?

Eleanor: First feature for Sunday Times Magazine, about teenagers and internet porn. It came from a chancing conversation with some teens. It was quite a fruity piece for the Sunday Times to run, some nasty stories, but I was just really horrified by what they told me and what their sexual expectations were. I thought, that matters, that is important. When you hear something that really shocks you as a human being you have to overcome the worry and pitch it anyway. The other thing is talking  about a breaking issue on live telly, that gets the adrenaline going. You have to KBO – keep buggering on.

Page 3

This was the last question of the night, and inevitably, but disappointingly, it was fluffed. Rachel handed the question to Eleanor Mills, who is a staunch opponent of Page 3, and then it was handed over to Victoria Newton. It boils down to research, apparently: “readers love it.” Victoria also cited having a chat with the editor of Vogue (Alexandra Shulman, if it’s the UK version) hearing about the research and saying “then you’d be insane to get rid of it”, it being something so recognisable as a brand.

I used to find Page 3 a hoot when it had the knowing box-outs in which Kimberly, 19, from Whitechapel, would wax lyrical about Proust, but it’s an embarrassing anachronism and I look forward to the day it goes. I don’t doubt the spectre of Page 3 will appear again at later WiN events because it’s something that everyone has an opinion on. 

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One thought on ““Keep buggering on” – Women in News and life as a female journalist

  1. Pingback: Full-Size Snickers Training! Week 5: Short and Sweet | Exotic Maypole

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