Why I will never be Melanie Phillips

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 12 April 2011 in Diary
What's happening to commentary has echoes of what has happened to feminism in the past: the moderate voices are being drowned out by the 'write to incite' brigade

I have something to get off my chest: I am not Melanie Phillips.

But neither am I a Laurie Penny, a Jan Moir, a Liz Jones, a Julia Hartley-Brewer or a Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

This is not a public identity crisis. I am just increasingly fed up of the space given to caricatures of women on the left and right when the female blogosphere is so desperately under-represented.

Last night, I attended Steve Richards' Rock 'n' Roll Politics at Kings Place (I recommend it highly to anyone who enjoys a bit of live analysis). Guests Jackie Ashley and Tim Montgomerie got into a discussion about blurred lines between the old definition of Left and Right.

Ashley noted that since moving from broadcasting to column-writing, she is often encouraged to take a stronger argument one way or the other, despite sometimes seeing fair points from both sides.

There is an increasing trend to 'write to incite'. Strong opinions or characters get traffic. Write something that gets people angry and you will see a sharp rise in website hits. Get someone high profile to write an even angrier response and you are laughing.

But this form of writing can be – and I repeat, can be (not is) – irresponsible. Can you name one female columnist for the Daily Mail that represents sensible, centre ground opinion?

Now, I am no means trying to do the sisterhood down. I am all for women having a strong voice that challenges the status quo. But when this voice is manipulated and taken to extremes to get attention, you perpetuate the notion that this is the only way for a female voice to get noticed (and kill off demand for a moderate voice).

You also isolate those who find it difficult to connect to politics already. Political apathy is becoming chronic – some suggest turnout at the AV referendum could be as low as 15% in parts of the country.

How is suggesting "the difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance" or asking "how on earth Lefties can like football?" meant to re-engage anyone? It might get you a hit in the short-term, but long-term it makes those with more tentative opinions feel cut off.

I also mean no disrespect to the women I name at the top of this blog. They are all talented journalists who have worked hard to get where they are and often express their real opinions in a very eloquent manner.

But I find some of their more extreme pieces hard to swallow. Can Melanie Phillips write under a headline that "gays risk becoming the new McCarthyites" and not know that she is courting controversy?

Can Laurie Penny – who is a well-respected blogger nominated for the Orwell Prize – honestly criticise marchers on 26 May for "munching houmous and listening to some speeches" in Hyde Park, rather than going out and looking for a kettle to get caught up in, and not realise how dismissive that is towards many who are making a protest about their loss of livelihoods? Can she honestly write that the student protests are "a leaderless protest with no agenda but justice" and not feel a little tongue in her cheek?

Of course, there are respected female voices that don't always play to controversy – Rachel Sylvester, Polly Toynbee or sketchwriters like Ann Treneman were just a few names bandied around in my office. But I would also love to see more coverage given to some of online's best moderate female voices – not least our own Sadie Smith and Tory Francesca Preece.

Sadie actually put it very well recently when she said to me: "The desire for shock-jocks instead of the mainstream pundits dumbed down the [feminist] movement while making it more exclusive at the same time." 

There is more demand for opinion nowadays. And one of the best ways to supplement a journalist's income is to become a pundit. To sit on a Sky or BBC sofa and give your personal opinion on Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, often with a party political slant.

The lines between news and comment have become increasingly blurred. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

We just need to make sure that the female voice does not become manipulated to sit on the political extremes.

PS. Of course, this argument is not just about women – male commentators and bloggers can act in just the same way. In fact, it doesn't have to be a genderised debate at all. But I will leave someone else to put that argument should they so wish to.

PPS. Want a bit of eye-rolling female reportage? See here: http://bit.ly/gJMsRg

Tags: Blogging about blogging, Feminism, Journalism, Laurie Penny, Melanie Phillips, Student Protests

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