Archive for September, 2007

Politicians

The torchbearer

The Times – September 29, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Norman Tebbit discusses Cameron, loss and multiculturalism

Lord Tebbit brought up the white rabbit as we scuttled down corridor after dimly lit corridor in the gentlemen’s club late afternoon hush of the House of Lords. It is the women we pass – of a certain age, two of them in wheelchairs – who greeted him with tremendous warmth. Later, over tea – as formal and English, with the possibility of triangular cucumber sandwiches and oozy cakes, as tea at the Savoy – he tells me that one of the smiling Baronesses had been a real toughie, an ultimate Tebbitian compliment, as the former head of intelligence in one of the trickier countries in the African continent. He is quite the man for a flourish, verbal and otherwise, opening the door for a younger Baroness with a courtly hand gesture; Baroness Amos returns the favour with a rather cool look.

Close up, he has striking, slightly surprising eyes – flecked with blue and grey and brown – parchment skin and a dry, thin-lipped smile. In that museum setting, in his loose pinstriped suit, stooped and limping on one side – a legacy of the horrific Brighton bombing all those years ago, fronds of white hair flapping under his bald pate, he reminds me suddenly and disrespectfully, with his lolloping gait, of Riff Raff, the sinister retainer in The Rocky Horror Show. But let’s blame him for these far-fetched analogies, since Tebbit himself sometimes feels that he is in Alice in Wonderland as he finds himself lost in the labyrinthine warrens of the Lords – even though it is 15 years since he became Baron Tebbit of Chingford.

The man variously dubbed the Chingford Skinhead, “a semi-house-trained polecat” and Count Dracula is disappointingly un-sinister in person: quietly spoken, courteous, exuding an almost Zen-like calm. The views he espoused on the dangers of multiculturalism, which seemed so offensive and had every bien-pensant liberal (including me) branding him a racist, are now part of the mainstream debate, with intellectuals such as David Goodhart, editor of Prospect, and Trevor Phillips, head of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, entering the fray. Phillips’s change of heart over multiculturalism is of particular significance since he once embraced it so enthusiastically, and accused Goodhart of being a “liberal Powellite”. Now Phillips fears that Britain is “sleepwalking towards segregation” and writes: “How we manage the deep differences emerging in our society is a debate we must have… no amount of lecturing from comfortable middle-class liberals will brush away the anxiety felt in many of our towns and cities… the many millions of every race, faith and culture for whom the frictions of diversity are much more evident than its benefits.”

Indeed, so urgent is this debate that Lord Tebbit and Phillips – hardly the most natural bedfellows (Phillips was once moved to ask him, “Would it upset you if I came to live next door to you?”) – recently met for lunch to discuss these very issues: “And at the end, Trevor said, ‘How is it that we used to be at a diametric difference and now we are very much agreeing?’ and I said, ‘Ah, I think the difference is that you’ve understood that I wasn’t talking about whether you’re black or white [Phillips is black], I was talking about the cultures of this country, and you and I share the same culture. You and I are now beginning to see, and I won’t say who saw it first…’” Tebbit pauses for wry effect, “‘that some of the other cultures are a threat to you as well as to me – that we’re both in the same boat.’ And I’m very happy to be in the same boat as Trevor, but I’m cautious about what I say about that because I don’t want to make his life difficult in managing his constituencies, so to speak.”

Lord Tebbit would like to consider himself as colour-blind as someone who is actually blind, such as David Blunkett, whom he refers to thus: “I like David Blunkett – we’re quite good friends although I think he was a fool in his personal life. But someone like David is vulnerable and I think it’s very sad what happened to him.

“But, anyway, being blind, David does not know when he meets someone whether they’re black, yellow, green or candy-striped. He assesses them on what they say, how they react and things like that. I’d like to think I do the same. Does this mean that I would like to live in Brixton? No, I wouldn’t – because the culture and the way of living in Brixton is not one that appeals to me.”

He goes into one of his favourite analogies comparing humans with dogs: “Humans are pack animals and we prefer – as kids do – to be in a pack with other dogs, so to speak, like us. And I do prefer that. Now does that mean that I discriminate against people? No. I’ve got a lot of very good, close Jewish friends, for instance. In fact, I got into a business venture with some Jewish friends where I was known as the statutory gentile because I was the only one who wasn’t a Jew. So that’s no problem to me.”

One of his neighbours in West Sussex “whom I’m really quite fond of” is an airline pilot – as Lord Tebbit was – and he “also happens to be black. Now I’m not interested in the guy because he’s black, I’m interested in the fact that he’s an airline pilot so we’ve got an enormous amount in common.” He recently shared a table with said neighbour and his wife on the occasion of his wife Margaret Tebbit’s birthday, when the two couples bumped into each other at a local restaurant… “And, yes, he is black,” he says again, “so there’s no element of that [racial prejudice] at all.”

While we are on this subject of colour blindness, he points out that the Tebbits have kept in touch with one of Margaret’s carers from long years ago – his wife was paralysed by the IRA’s bombing of the Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984 – and she is a Pakistani-born Muslim. “So, you know, when people talk to me about some of these things, well, yes, I didn’t have to go and stay with a Muslim family, I actually had one living in the house.”

Lord Tebbit is very clear that the problem is not multi-ethnic, “which is fine, that’s no problem”, but multicultural – which is quite a different matter. “I’ve been saying for years – and been criticised very severely for it – that multicultural societies don’t work and what makes me cross is that for so long if anyone did discuss this issue, they were accused of being racist,” he says.

“A multi-ethnic society can work as long as it is mono-cultural – where it is accepted that all the ways in which we behave, the law, the whole structure, are based on Christian-Judaeo rules and those are the rules of the game. Of course, you can still build your own place of worship and observe your own practices and things like that, as long as it is recognised that the society in which you are living is based on one set of rules. Because if you have two cultures within one geographical place, then sooner or later it is highly likely that one culture will want to spread and push the other out.

“What makes me cross is that people always assume you’re only talking from one direction and yet I’ve said and written many, many times that if you are a young Muslim and reasonably devout and you live in a number of our cities, particularly in the North, and on a Friday night you see the culture you’re being asked to integrate into – fornicating, urinating, drunken behaviour – well, there’s nothing there to pull you in, is there? That’s the great sadness of it. A good Muslim is going to say, ‘Perhaps we should be out there trying to do something about these savages.’ So one of the things that we have to do is clean up our own act.”

Don’t you think now that your line about the cricket test was rather unhelpful? “No, not at all. Ask Nasser Hussain whether he thought it was unhelpful. He was Indian-born and jeered at and booed by Asians born in this country when he was playing as the captain of England. Now, I think they should have enjoyed the fact that they were living in this country where, on sheer merit, there’s this guy who’s the captain of the England cricket team, and it was shameful the way they treated him.

“What I said was that if you want to know how well integrated people are, it’s the cricket test. Look to see which side they’re cheering for. Are they cheering for the country to which they have come for a better life or are they cheering the country from which they’ve come? Are they looking forward or are they looking back? Are they a branch of Pakistan in England or are they…”

Oh, honestly, Norman, surely you can enjoy all sorts of aspects of life in England and still support your old Pakistani team without being viewed as a traitor? What a dreary and monotone world it would be, for instance, if we all ate the same food, dressed alike and read from the same set text. “I was putting it sharply,” he admits. “But I was saying, ‘How deeply are you into this country?’”

We are sitting, as the evening light falls, in a narrow annexe-like room – just large enough for two chairs and a table. As he struggled to find the light, Tebbit growled: “Come into the dark, my dear.” He does like his little jokes but he’s still very much the hardliner, despite the mildness of his delivery, with his concerns about discipline and his belief in corporal punishment and hanging. When we talk about Patrick Magee, the IRA member who planted the bomb that crushed Margaret Tebbit’s life and shrunk her husband’s, Lord Tebbit says, “Of course, I’d like him to be hanged.” Do you still believe in hanging, generally, I ask. “Oh, yes,” he says, adding with a ghost of a smile, “not generally – hahahahaha – only for bad people.”

The photographs of McGuinness and Paisley, newly chummed up and appearing to delight in a private joke, made him feel “cynical”, and he thinks it likely that there will be a consensual move towards a united Ireland. “You know, we could have had peace in Europe if we had elected Halifax rather than Churchill. We could have made peace with Germany and they could have carried on incinerating Jews and everyone would have been at peace, wouldn’t they?

“What I would regret is the fact that people whose first choice would have been to remain in the United Kingdom had been put in a position where that choice was looking shabby [he mutters here about being governed by convicted terrorists] to the extent that they would prefer to leave, but if that was their view and that was the best thing for them, then so be it. It’s not the outcome I would have hoped for, but we very often don’t get the outcome we hope for.”

Although Lord Tebbit does go to church – “Because the rector’s a nice man and it’s a peaceful place and causes me to think about certain issues” – when I ask him whether he’s a Christian, he says: “I find that a very difficult question but I doubt that I’m a Christian because some of the things that I’m asked to believe are not very believable.” He says that, on the whole, he is of a forgiving nature but there are exceptions and he certainly cannot forgive Magee for what he did. He was not happy with the BBC for allowing the former terrorist to appear on a radio programme even though Magee said he was “deeply sorry” for the bombing. “Deeply sorry for what?” he says in a scathing tone. “He has never offered a hint of acknowledgment that what he did was wrong. It’s all very well to say, ‘Sorry, mate,’ and then push somebody over again.

“If he came forward and said, ‘I realise that what I did was utterly, utterly wrong. I am sincerely sorry for what I did and now I want to make public the machinery of the gang I was in and who was giving the orders, and who was my boss, because I want to see them all brought to justice,’ yeah. Oh, yeah, that would be different because then I would decide that he had truly repented. But there’s no evidence of that whatsoever.” Would it have provoked strong feelings in him if the two men had come face to face? “No more than if I had to shoot a mad dog,” he says. “You know, I wouldn’t want to shoot a dog but if a dog is dangerous then I would shoot him.”

It is clear that Lord Tebbit is uncomfortable discussing his own injuries, which still cause him pain all these years on. He was left with very little skin on his left side from his shoulder to his ankle, “oozing blood as though I had been sandpapered”, and a gaping hole over his hip and lower abdomen: “Several inches of muscle and flesh had been simply torn away and part of the top of my pelvis had been sliced down too, and a main nerve was severed leaving me without sensation in part of my leg.” Part of his hip was removed to prepare for the skin-grafting operations, which did not take well and had to be repeated. All of this I gleaned from his autobiography, Upwardly Mobile, since he is more forthcoming there than in person, his voice sinking to a whisper when I ask him about his aches and pains. He allows that, “I have injuries to my hip which mean I can’t work in the garden and things like that [he and his wife were keen gardeners]. Sometimes you don’t notice it, you live with it. After all, all of us as we get older [he is 76] get more pain of one kind or another.”

I ask him whether his and Margaret’s predicament gets any easier with time, and he answers a stark, “No.” She does have use of her left hand but it’s extremely limited: “She can just about, with a bit of help, brush her teeth. But she can’t eat or cut anything with a knife and writing is a bit of a problem and after all these years… And, by the way, she’s going to give me a terrible bollocking in a minute because I should have been home by now.”

Does it wear on the nerves, I press on. “It doesn’t enhance life, hah.” Is she still an authoritative woman? “She tells me what to do,” he says, with a smile which is hard to read.

Even those who would prefer not to find a kind word to say about Lord Tebbit are struck by his fortitude in dealing with his difficulties at home, and this was years before the Brighton bombing. He wrote movingly in his autobiography about the reality of bringing up three small children, while working, when his wife was absent during spells of post-partum psychosis. “Even now the memory of seeing her personality disintegrating [shortly after the birth of their last baby] is more painful than any other experience I have undergone. It is hard to describe one’s emotions at seeing the person with whom one has been so close becoming a stranger.”

As a single parent, combining the father and mother roles, he wrote: “I began to understand how a mother, stressed beyond belief, could batter a child.” Now he says: “When you think of the extraordinary thing of carrying a child for nine months and then suddenly in 20 minutes – whoosh! But it’s not quite ‘whoosh!’ because then you’re feeding it and looking after it. I mean, one’s metabolism has got to reorganise itself pretty well, hasn’t it? What is remarkable is that people don’t go potty every time they have a baby.”

Lord Tebbit was a surprisingly modern father (apart from his tendency to deliver the odd sharp smack) – surprising to me but not to him – changing nappies and cooking and helping in the household long before it became a necessity. “As a long-haul airline pilot – when I was away for three weeks and then at home for the same time – my wife was multitasking when I was away and it seemed to be perfectly proper and sensible that when I was back I would do my bit in the same way. I could change a nappy with the best of them.”

His children were not over-impressed by his cooking skills then but perhaps they are less dismissive now. The flat Tebbit monotone is suddenly enlivened when he describes preparing a pheasant casserole, assembled the morning of a dinner party, stewed with apples and a good slug of Calvados. His mother, the daughter of a butcher, taught him to skin a rabbit as a boy and one of his great septuagenerian pleasures is “shooting a bird, skinning it, cooking it and eating it”. He is even working on a Norman Tebbit how to cook game recipe book, as well as a history of Britain’s wars – “All 61 of them!” he exclaims – since 1945.

I wonder whether Margaret ever blames her husband for her disability. “She’d better not,” he chuckles grimly. “I think we both just live with it as it is.” He worries about what will happen to her when he’s gone, although she will be well provided for: “She’s not silly and she can look after herself pretty well and I know that the children would fill the gap, but she would have to deal on her own with all the problems of staff and things like that.” And it would be someone else’s vigil – one Lord Tebbit has kept these long decades – to do the twice-nightly turning of her body to prevent bedsores.

“I don’t rail against it any more,” he says, “it just doesn’t get any easier. It’s the difficulties of travel and the… almost the impossibility of doing anything off the cuff, you know. If I thought about it, I suppose I would feel sad but I don’t let myself because otherwise it’s unbearable. I don’t go down that path.”

In their old devil-may-care days, the Tebbits would just turn up at Heathrow, check the availability of flights and board the plane – usually to somewhere in France – pick up a car and “bog off with our Michelin guide and that was that. But you can’t do that in our situation, which means you become very unadventurous.”

Lord Tebbit’s main complaint about David Cameron – and he has a few – is that he has not experienced enough variety of the different ways of the world. But doesn’t he think that coping with a disabled child has given Cameron a different sort of insight? “Oh yes, that’s certainly so. The emotional side of having a child whose maximum potential is limited is a difficult thing to accept and live with, of course. But then you sit down and you say, ‘Well, how can I do the best for this child?’ That’s one thing if you’re a bus driver, it’s another thing if you’re a wealthy man. I am very conscious of the fact that looking after my wife costs £70,000 to £80,000 a year of pre-taxed income. Now how many people, who have got a disabled husband or wife or child, can afford that sort of money? Very few.”

At a “State of Britain” speech he gave in May, he dealt a swift swipe to Cameron’s leadership saying: “My own party has now re-branded itself as the party to implement New Labour policies more effectively. God knows there is a need of a party to do that, but I thought it was the Labour Party.” When I ask him to name the Tories’ biggest political asset (Lord Tebbit is still routinely referred to in headlines as the ‘last big Tory beast’), he laughs and says “Very interesting question.” Because you feel there isn’t anyone? “I think we lack somebody of the standing of Margaret.”

After Lady Thatcher’s recent visit to 10 Downing Street, I asked Lord Tebbit what he made of it. “It seemed to me that it was Gordon Brown at his very best… a wonderful mixture of his courtesy and his political nous,” he said down the phone. “After all, Cameron described himself as the ‘heir to Blair’; it’s only natural that Brown should make himself the ‘heir to Thatcher’. It’s the perfect response, isn’t it?

“I’m quite sure that Margaret Thatcher knew exactly what she was doing. She’s first too well-mannered to rebuff the Prime Minister and second, of course, the present Conservative leadership has been at great pains to distance himself from her – and she is, after all, a woman!”

He has no problem with the Old Etonians in the Shadow Cabinet: “It doesn’t matter to me if the guy’s the right guy, whether he was educated at home by his mother, went to a comprehensive or went to Eton. That is not a problem for me and never has been. But what a lot of people will suggest is that they don’t know how the other half lives. David and his colleagues – the very clever young men they have in Central Office these days – are very intellectually clever but they have no experience of the world whatsoever. He [Cameron] has spent much of his time in the Conservative Party and as a public relations guy. Well, it’s not the experience of most people in the streets. That’s the real attack and that’s damaging to him, I think.” Do you like him? “I don’t really know him.” His main beef about Cameron’s stand on the grammar school issue, as someone who directly benefited from that system, is that, “If the argument is that creaming off kids into the grammar schools is bad, then it must be bad to allow people to cream their kids off into private schools, too. My view is that selective education is so good that it should be available for everybody who can benefit from it, regardless of whether they can afford it.”

Where Lord Tebbit sympathises with Cameron is over his “Hug a hoody” speech: “In which, by the way, he didn’t say, ‘Hug a hoody’ any more than I said, ‘On yer bike!’ or Jim Callaghan said, ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ We’ve all got saddled with those.” As he talks about what the New Tory leader was getting at, the Old Tory standard-bearer sounds like a politician of quite a different order. “I think he’s absolutely right to say, ‘You can’t solve this problem of poor social standards by just going at the kid.’ You’ve got to say, ‘Why is he doing that?’ What are the problems with the way they’ve been brought up and their schools and their families and things like that.” You’re beginning to sound quite liberal. “Not necessarily, because I think you also have to be quite tough about it.” Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime? “Well, that was a proper quote and unfortunately he [Blair] has been neither.”

He is withering about Tony Blair and, at last, one catches glimpses of the rabid Tebbit of yesteryear but, it must be said, even here his views sound more mainstream than they once did – his position on Iraq, for example, is now a fairly standard anti-Blair critique. “I don’t think there’s any politician who has done more damage to this country than Blair,” he continues. “He has defiled every institution of government and there is now no part of government – the police, the courts, the Army, the civil service – which runs as efficiently as it did before he came into office.”

For Gordon Brown, on the other hand, Lord Tebbit has nothing but praise: “I think he is a clever man and I have a very considerable regard for him. Yes, much more than for Tony in many ways.” Why? “First of all, I think that he’s not as tacky as Tony. I can’t see him feathering his own nest in the rather awful way in which the Blairs have done. The proverbial holidays in Tuscany with dubious people, shall we say?” Berlusconi? “Yes. [Did Tebbit object, one wonders, when his leader hung out with the likes of Pinochet?] But, no, not poor Cliff Richard who’s flattered or thinks it’s the thing he ought to do. But it’s not in my view quite ‘kosher’. Now I don’t see Gordon doing that. I think he’s still too much a son of the Manse… a principled man in his personal conduct.”

I wonder, with all this talk of actual prime ministers, whether Lord Tebbit feels shortchanged by fortune. There were other factors (he did seem to fall out of favour with Thatcher) but does he feel that he never fulfilled his potential because he withdrew to spend more time at home? “I think that if I’d stood in 1990 when Margaret was brought down, that I would probably have made it [to Prime Minister]. But I wasn’t a political failure because I decided not to continue. Now that may have been a good or a bad decision but it wasn’t a political failure. I could have gone on but perhaps I would have ballsed it up and… you just don’t know, do you?”

Was he, like some of his other Tory confrères, a little bit in love with Thatcher? “No, heheheheh. Not my type. I thought she was a remarkable politician and enormously courageous and very straightforward to work for because she was so secure in her ideas. If you turned on the telly in the morning and something had happened, in Margaret’s government – unlike Blair’s – you wouldn’t have to wonder what she made of it because there was a framework. But of course we had our rows [over British Leyland, for instance].”

They still see one another. “Some days she’s on good form and some days she’s not. She can lose her place, so to speak. Sometimes she just finds it difficult to remember what’s going on that day… all the things that have happened today.” A Socialist friend of mine recalled a dinner at Chequers years ago when his hostess, Margaret Thatcher, fed Margaret Tebbit and he was struck by how kindly and unselfconsciously she performed that task.

This is a fascinating time to catch Norman Tebbit. While he is so out of step with the desperate modernising attempts of his own party, at least some of his views seem so much less outlandish than they once did. In common with almost every journalist who has met him – of differing political and racial complexions – I, too, found him a great deal more personable than I expected, with no hint, for example, of the homophobic ranter of yesteryear. He could not have been more patient and willing to engage in most issues I put to him, however combative my line of questioning. But witnessing how easily he slipped into conversation with the photographer and his assistant (both male), I sensed that he probably prefers the company of men to women. He says, when I ask him about this (his autobiography is full of roistering incidents, as a young man, involving rather yobbish behaviour under the influence of drink): “There’s a time and a place for everything – mixed company over a dinner table and things like that – but, yes, I do enjoy my time with the lads, always have done.” So do you think you’re still a bit of a lad in a way? “I’m not sure about that,” a final gallows laugh. “Perhaps a retired lad.”

Opinion, Women

Yes, we are bovvered

The Times – September 25, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Why do so many teenage girls play up to the slutty, binge-drinking image promoted by lads’ mags? Whatever happened to hard-won feminism?

It was a column last year by Rosie Boycott, the writer and broadcaster, that first sounded an alarm bell. She was reeling from having read Nuts, one of the younger lads mags (read by schoolboys as well as young adult males), in which every woman who had achieved something in her own right – other than possessing a great pair of boobs – was routinely dismissed as a boot-faced minger or dyke. Dame Ellen MacArthur, who had just achieved another nautical first, came in for a particular drubbing: “a miserable, sobbing, whining bitch in a boat. . . basically a frigid dyke-looking, yachting c***”.

The bells started to clang in earnest when the respected Sydney Morning Herald’s weekend supplement devoted an issue to Generation Sex: the Rules of Engagement in the New Age of Raunch, which talked about teenage girls performing oral sex on strangers or pretending to be lesbians to “thrill the guys . . . welcome to the latest sexual revolution where porn is pop, feminism is a dirty word and girls just wanna have fun”.

Fenella Souter, the writer of the cover story, pronounced that “sexiness has become the new political correctness and it has profoundly shaped the way young people see everything from sex and relationships to pornography and personal power”. She wrote about the rise of pole dancing as a mainstream exercise activity (a London friend told me she was horrified to hear that the parents of a schoolfriend of her 16-year-old daughter had consented to lay on pole-dancing as birthday-party entertainment), the popularity of burlesque clubs showcasing (ironic?) “striptease that knows how to laugh at itself” (the New Exhibitionism) and mentioned a recent UK survey of 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 in which 63 per cent considered their ideal profession to be “glamour model”, posing nude or seminude.

In last year’s wave-making book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, American author Ariel Levy asked: “How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish good for women? Why is labouring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering? And how is imitating a stripper or a porn star going to render us sexually liberated?”

When I commented on the “interesting” outfits (think of Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver) of one of the girls in my younger teenage son’s circle, his knowing friend said: “You mean, she looks like a slut.” When I protested (hypocritically) that that wasn’t what I meant, he said: “But you don’t understand: that’s exactly what she wants to look like.”

Teenage girls are a paradox: why is it that while they outstrip boys from primary school to university, they also outdrink the boys (girls are now officially bigger binge drinkers than boys, and their numbers are growing), dress like tarts and apparently behave like them too?

A friend told me that at her daughter’s mixed private school 15-year-old girls are giving fellatio to boys in the loos for a fiver. I heard from two different sources about girls at inner-city comprehensives performing the same act in classrooms. Time and again I hear that despite their academic achievements girls are turned off the idea of emulating their careerist mothers: instead they want nothing more than to be a Wag, or at least marry someone rich enough to support their shopping habit.

What is going on? Is the pornogrification of mainstream culture partly to blame, where even serious actresses such as Nicole Kidman and Maggie Gyllenhaal pose in their underwear for magazine and advertising shoots? A culture in which lad mags such as FHM, recently condemned for publishing a picture of a topless 14-year-old girl without her permission, are apparently sent thousands of similar pictures by girls of themselves every week. A culture in which the website of Bliss magazine (target age 14-17) invited girls to send in photographs of themselves to be marked out of 10 “on looks and pullability”.

Is there some correlation between the misogyny of lads’ magazines (Zoo reported that the singer Courtney Love had “nasty, lumpy breasts” and had “an awful lot of sex” with her “previous owners”) and the fact that boys are doing less well than girls at school? And are girls (who still want to be considered “fit” and fanciable) compensating for outstripping the boys by dressing like strippers and behaving like baby hookers?

As the mother of teenage boys, I felt out of touch with what is going on in the heads of teenage girls and wanted to know what they made of all the contradictory messages in the media. Were they – like Catherine Tate’s bolshy schoolgirl, Lauren Cooper – actually deeply “bovvered”, despite their protestations not to give a damn? Why are self-hating eating disorders on the rise, for instance, affecting girls as young as eight? What effect do scenes of drunk and disorderly girls have on Muslim families at a time when it is imperative that our different communities should be pulling together? Does it push them into being even more conservative where their own daughters are concerned?

It occured to me that Women in Journalism, the campaigning organisation which I was involved in setting up in 1995, might be interested in investigating these issues. Some years ago Ann Treneman (Times parliamentary sketch-writer) legal journalist Fiona Bawdon and I worked together on a WIJ conference exploring the ways in which high-profile women were written about in a completely different way (ie, demeaning and trivialising) from men.

That made a splash, partly because the research was so damning but also because it was relevant to people beyond our own membership. Could a conference on teenage girls have a similar impact? The WIJ committee and chair, Sue Mathias, deputy editor of New Statesman,were immediately persuaded.

Fiona Bawdon was game to do the bulk of the work and immediately started researching. The British Library provided the venue and 100 schoolgirls and boys from around the country to participate in the summit (although the British Library has strict guidelines on what can be discussed on their premises, and sexual practices among teenagers in the presence of a teenage audience is verboten. This was a disappointment, as sex among teenagers was one of the aspects that most “bovvered” me).

During the time that we were planning this campaign, I travelled with Cherie Booth on an assignment in Pakistan and Afghanistan and was impressed by her ability to coax the most recalcitrant women and their daughters into talking about awkward issues. Might she be interested in participating in WIJ’s conference on teenage girls? The answer was a resounding “Yes!” Back in England, Cherie was incredibly supportive behind the scenes and on the day of the conference she was a galvanising moderator, quizzing panelists who included the token “baddie” and only man, Ed Needham (former editor of FHM), comedian Shazia Mirza and – the undisputed star of the event – the teenage actress Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays Sasha in Hollyoaks. Nathalie, who is very beautiful herself, said that she is attracted to people’s personalities more than their looks, and: “I take comfort in knowing that people’s pictures are airbrushed, however beautiful they are,” to applause from the largely teenage audience.

What was striking about the conference was how reluctant the boys were to speak out, even in the more informal context of the break-out groups that took place after the main event. When I was a schoolgirl in the Seventies, at the height of women’s lib, we tended to shut up in the company of boys and let them opine away. What has happened since? If the audience had been stuffed with public school boys, as well as girls, would the gender difference have been so marked? At my sons’ single sex school, for instance, no boy got lower than a B in this year’s GCSEs: does this make them more confident about the value of what they have to say? Is it a class issue as much as a gender issue?

The debate in the panelled part of the conference focused almost exclusively on body image. It had been Cherie’s clever idea to hold the event during London Fashion Week, and this may have had an impact. What hasn’t changed from my time as a teenager is that boys (and men) say they are not attracted to skinny girls as much as to those with curves. Teenage girls, meanwhile, apparently remain convinced that they are never thin enough.

When Cherie managed to winkle out the clam-like boys, they made it clear that they are not fooled by the airbrushing of celebrity women on the covers of magazines and that they are not looking for this sort of fake “perfection” in real girls, let alone lusting after a “size 0” fashion paradigm. Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunity Commission, implored them to communicate this message to the girls: “Preferably without laughing”.

One of the schoolgirls in the audience made the point that “perhaps boys are more complacent than girls because they know that they will do better in the workplace anyway.” Watson chimed in with the depressing fact that even after 30 years of so-called equality, “for every £1 a man earns in the work place, a woman earns 17 pence less” and encouraged girls to ask their prospective employers whether their company had carried out a gender review: “You must make sure that you get paid the same as the men in the same job.”

In my break-out group on relationships, drugs and alcohol – with students aged 16 to 18 from St Thomas More school in Bedford – the teacher, Munira Sader, head of media studies, got the ball rolling by saying that when she first started at the school five years ago the girls tended to be more serious, but now “it seems to be a badge of honour to bring in photos showing how drunk they were at their parties.”

Both boys and girls commented on how Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse were getting more publicity and kudos from their bad behaviour than they ever did before. One of the girls, Imogen (an aspiring journalist, as it turned out), said she was sickened by the photos of 12-year-olds posting pictures of themselves on social networking websites dressed in their bikinis. A classmate said she was overreacting, since she sometimes sticks similar holiday snaps on the likes of MySpace. One of the boys questioned the research relating to girls outstripping boys academically – and wanted it to be more rigorous, with a breakdown of results at single-sex schools as well as private versus state schools.

Where the girls and boys were unanimous was in their view that the media should be more responsible and focus on more positive role models from their generation: “Why is it that it’s the young people who behave badly who get the most attention?” They were amazed (and thrilled) when the adults pointed out that if they wrote in to complain (and threatened to boycott the publications), they would actually make an impact.

It was the perceived hypocrisy of the press that really seemed to bother them. One made the point that boys who drink and have lots of sex are treated very differently from girls who indulge in the same behaviour.

At the end of this session it was my turn to be thrilled when three girls approached me – Lisa, Imogen and Daniella – and said that, despite all their criticisms of the media, they still wanted to be journalists. What did I think of my profession and could I help?

Their first effort appears on this page today, and they’d better keep to their side of the bargain and produce a school magazine that will put Fleet Street’s efforts to shame. Girl Power, indeed!

— A longer version of this article will appear on the new Women in Journalism website, which is being launched next week.

It’s hard being a teenager

Cherie Booth, who chaired the “Am I Bovvered?” conference, is impressed with teenagers today

It may be unfashionable to say this, but I think the younger generation are great. As a mother of four I know I might be biased, but the more young people I meet, the more I am convinced that our world is in safe hands.

The teenagers who attended the Women in Journalism event – many of whom had travelled hundreds of miles to be there – confirmed my views of our young people. They were passionate, articulate, confident and frequently funny.

But what also came across loud and clear was that they felt it was hard being a modern teenager. While there might be more opportunities than ever, they felt themselves under more pressure to excel – whether it’s how well they do in their exams or how they look.

And as well as talking eloquently about their lives and the pressures they were under, there was consensus, too, at the negative picture of teenagers that the media painted.

They felt that there was too much concentration on the bad rather than the good, and that too few stories actually quoted young people or included their perspectives accurately in the debate. And there was a worrying consensus that the media reinforced unrealistic attitudes to beauty and body shapes.

The summit was primarily about teenage girls but plenty of boys made the effort to attend and express their views as well. The young women talked about the pressure they feel to diet and look good; others, including young men, called for more honesty from the press, and an end to passing off airbrushed images as reality.

One girl told the conference that she’d spent the summer on endless diets to look good on the beach and had ended up losing lots of weight but feeling dreadful. She wanted more coverage aimed at teens about good nutrition, rather than just shedding calories.

The teens said they often felt stigmatised and misrepresented by the media. But as one summit speaker pointed out, the new media gives today’s teenagers huge power to set the terms of debate themselves. It’s an opportunity that I am sure they will increasingly take. As last week’s summit showed, if you give young people the chance, they have a lot to say that’s worth hearing.

— CHERIE BOOTH

All those years of feminism, and girls still expect to be judged on their looks

Girls are now bigger binge drinkers than boys and get drunk more often.

They seem to be becoming more sexually assertive, too – behaviour also more usually associated with young males.

On the websites of magazines aimed at teenage girls, readers as young as 13 are posting pictures of their “buff boyfriends”. Readers are invited to “feast their eyes” over galleries of “lush lads”, many of whom are posing shirtless.

Readers are asked to vote on whether the teen boys displayed are “Hot lads or mingers?”; “Sexy, or sling him?” On the website for Sugar magazine, 13-year-old Jordan poses, still wearing his school tie but with his shirt undone to expose his torso.

Chloe explains that she sent his picture: “cuz es sxc a gr8 [trans: because he’s sexy, a great] boyfriend has a great body . . .” But while girls are increasingly matching (or surpassing) teenage boys drink for drink, and drooling over pictures of the opposite sex with their clothing askew, talk of widespread “gender-blurring” seems to be exaggerated.

Yes, young girls are adopting some behaviour typically seen as “male”, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve left behind behaviour typically seen as “female”, such as worrying about their appearance. Far from it.

Teenage girls at the Women in Journalism summit complained of feeling under intense pressure to match the unrealistic images of beauty shown in the media. And it seems that they are not alone.

In one study of 3,000 young women, half of those aged 16 to 25, and a quarter of the 10 to 15-year-olds said the media makes them feel that “being pretty and thin” is the most important thing for a girl. Worryingly, it seems that rather than gaining in confidence with age, the older girls feel this pressure more strongly.

Girls are far more critical of their bodies than boys. In this spirit, Bliss magazine had on its website a survey asking its readers (girls aged 14 to 17) to rate ten different bits of their own bodies (boobs, bums, tummy, thighs . . .), with the options being “Happy”, “Unhappy” or “Hate ’em”. They are asked to rate their overall looks, ranging from “Beautiful” to “Ewwww”. It’s hard to imagine a publication aimed at boys running such a survey – or, indeed, any boy filling it in.

Again, no doubt because they expect to be judged on looks, girls are more likely than boys to post pictures of themselves and their friends on social networking sites such as MySpace.

Girls feel equally disrespected by both boys their age and politicians. Nearly three-quarters of 16 to 25-year-olds say they aren’t treated with respect by the media or the fashion industry, either – which doesn’t stop their being highly influenced by both. Many teenage girls are keen to work in exactly the industries they criticise: 14 per cent of 16 to 25-year-olds want to be TV presenters; more than a third of 10 to 14-year-olds want to be models.

Young women narrow – rather than expand – their aspirations as they get older. Doing well in a career becomes relatively less important and getting married becomes relatively more important as girls get older. Success at work is “very important” to 75 per cent of 10 to 15-year olds, but to only 60 per cent of those who are actually about to embark on a career, the 16 to 25-year-olds.

Similarly, doing well at school or university becomes less important with age.

Although girls are slightly less likely than boys of the same age to be overweight, they are much more likely to be unhappy with their weight.

Nearly half of 15-year-old girls think they’re too fat and a quarter of them will be dieting.

Up to 90 per cent of those suffering with eating disorders are girls – and sufferers are getting younger. The most common age for sufferers is 14-25 but eating disorders have been diagnosed in girls as young as 8. Experts say that one reason for this is that young girls are reaching puberty younger, and starving themselves is one way of trying to stop themselves being viewed sexually. They also say that the younger the sufferer, the more likely it is that their long-term health will be damaged, because their bodies are still developing.

— FIONA BAWDON

We must speak up now

Lisa Caruso, Imogen Betts and Daniella Catanzaro, pupils at St Thomas Moore School, Bedford, are “bovvered” and prepared to make a stand

Did you know . . . not all teenagers are “yobs” and “wannabe WAGs”?

We do have a voice, it’s just ignored. At least that’s what we thought, until we attended the conference at the British Library, and realised that perceptions can be changed.

The conference, titled “Am I bovvered? – what are teenage girls really thinking?”, got us thinking . . .what do they know? They’re not teenagers! Now riled by the title, expecting a boring day of lectures (YAWN), being told about teenage girls’ place in the media and how we are affected by it, we braced ourselves for a patronising experience at the hands of “Women in journalism”. We expected the usual “media talk” . . . women are exploited, that’s the reality of life, it sells – accept it – BLAH BLAH BLAH!

What we got turned out to be an inspiring and thought-provoking day. Within the space of a debate, our whole world turned upside down . . . we realised that we, teenagers, do have a voice. Huh?

Yeah, that’s right! We do have the power to change things.

We were thrown into an open-floor debate (a what, some of us asked). Added to that experience was the celebrity-like nature of the panel; ranging from Cherie Booth to Nathalie Emmanuel (WOW, Sasha from Hollyoaks). The set-up and the chance to challenge the professionals, while gaining answers to our long-awaited questions, was almost surreal. It was, for once, nice to be on the same playing field as the professionals, not as stupid teenagers but as people with valid opinions. Armed with relevant, valid, life-altering questions, or so we thought, we prepared to grill the panel. This was made up of mostly women, the only man there being the former editor of FHM magazine.

Never mind, we thought, he’ll do. He can answer all the burning questions about the exploitation of women in men’s mags.

Boy, were we doomed to disappointment. He seemed to epitomise the latest media trend . . . Dodge the question! Shockingly, as informative and pro-women’s rights as the panel was, there were key areas where the women themselves dodged the question, especially when it came to editorial responsibility for images published in some magazines.

It was interesting to see that the boys in the audience were on our side! Although they didn’t say that until after we had left the venue. Helpful . . . NOT! But typical.

They weren’t shouting FHM’s praises . . . they don’t want everyone to be a size-zero supermodel, Oh, the comfort this gave many of us girls. Imagine what would happen to the size-zero debate if more boys made their voices heard.

There’s a challenge! Among the blurred discussions, all the journalists, and Cherie Booth, surprisingly proved to be approachable, and not the fire-breathing dragons we were expecting. I wonder where we got that from – the media, perhaps? Dove’s underappreciated campaign also caught our attention. The realisation hit us that what Dove was actually doing by allowing “normal” women to model for them was changing the way we view the industry. Taking the proverbial “one small step for woman, one giant step for womankind”.

It’s more companies like this that we need! Entering the conference, we weren’t expecting to enjoy, participate or be heard. Glad to say we were wrong. We did all three, and then some.

We realised that if we dislike something, we (all of us) should speak up. Then they’ll have no choice but to change it.

Now is the time to rebel and oppose what you think is wrong in the media. Now is the time to alter the current perception; and there are people on our side. So that is exactly what we are planning to do. If we want anything to change, we need to begin by making a difference.

We have decided to put together our own version of what we think a magazine should look like. One that defies the regular conventions.

Finally, no more bimbo cover girls. Instead a role model on the cover, one that we can look up to; who has achieved something worthwhile in her life beyond being “fit”.

Our aim is to create a magazine that has purpose, and can inspire girls to strive, have ambition and reach their potential; to show girls that there’s more to life than “getting” with a boy, looking fit and sleeping around. A magazine that can talk about things that matter! Next time you go out and buy a magazine, STOP . . . remember the impact you could have by not buying it! If you do buy it, then remember. See something you don’t like – do something about it. TODAY!!! P.S. Keep an eye out for our Girl Power magazine. Who knows?

— LC, IB, DC