In an ugly world, we need ugly newsreaders
The rise of the husky-voiced, coquettish female newsreader mirrors the decline of that ‘masculine’ value: objectivity.
Much of France is in uproar that its best-known television newsreader, the veteran Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, is to be replaced by the ‘glamorous blonde’ Laurence Ferrari (1). D’Arvor, 60, has presented Europe’s most-watched news broadcast for the French channel TF1 since 1987, and he is something of an establishment figure in France – an equivalent to Jeremy Paxman or Michael Buerk. D’Arvor is known simply, and affectionately, by the abbreviation ‘PPDA’, much like our own ‘Paxo’.
Patrick Poivre d’Arvor
‘Industrial accident at TF1: PPDA knocked over by a Ferrari’, lamented the left-wing newspaper Liberation. To make a comparison, d’Arvor’s dismissal would be like David Dimbleby or Trevor McDonald being supplanted by the BBC’s ever-vacant Emily Maitlis, or that rather attractive cross-eyed looking one from Newsround, Ellie Crisell. In short, France is having its own panic about ‘dumbing down’, with not a little bit of misogyny thrown in.
But is this misogyny misplaced? Female newsreaders are the norm now, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of them are a bit easy on the eye, at least in the UK. Five’s blushing Natasha Kaplinsky shamelessly flirts with the camera. She looks like an expensive cat. The BBC’s Celina Hinchcliffe may be expert on sport, but I suspect her looks, or her husky voice, weren’t a hindrance to her recent ascendancy; ITN’s Katie Derham is a pretty, girl-next-door type; the blonde Emily Maitlis has caught male attention to such a degree that she has actually had two stalkers (2); and Fiona Bruce has consequently been brilliantly lampooned by Jan Ravens in the BBC comedy Dead Ringers for her sultry demeanour and whispery, seductive tones.
Even people who read the weather reports tend to be dolly-birds now. Whatever happened to those grey, old, male meteorologists of yesteryear, who, with beards and spectacles, would read us the forecasts on the telly? John Kettley can now be found relegated to Radio Five Live, and poor old Michael Fish gives the forecasts on BBC South East Today. In their place today on national television is Sky News’s lovely colleen Lisa Burke, or the BBC’s handsome and ebullient weatherwoman, Carol Kirkwood.
Is it sexist to lament the current proliferation of female newsreaders on television? I don’t think so. I think it’s the opposite. What we should be concerned about is the feminisation of television newsreading. And by feminisation, I mean a preoccupation with presentation, aesthetics, comforting and euphemism. News should be masculine. It should be nasty, hard and horrible. It should tell it as it is and, most of all, it should not endeavour to entertain.
One should not equate femininity with females, or masculinity with males. Some of the finest female newsreaders have been masculine, such as Moira Stuart or Angela Rippon, rightly famed and revered for their sober presentation, clear diction and absolute authority. They were not known for their looks, but for the manner in which the audience could trust them, and in the unspoken assumption that they had been hired principally for their talents, not their appearance (although Rippon did not do herself any favours with her famous appearance on the Morecambe and Wise show, in which she famously paraded her legs).
Equally, some of our most heralded male TV news reporters display the worst aspects of femininity: think of the self-regarding Martin Bell and his white suit, and his first-personal politics of attachment; or John Simpson, the roving reporter-as-celebrity, whose dispatches have become as much about him as his subject matters. His reportages today seem seldom different to Michael Palin’s TV travelogues. But at least it is implicit that Palin is on a voyage of self-discovery. If Simpson wants to put on a burkha and pretend to be a woman, then that’s fine. Just don’t pretend it’s news.
Television news has for some years now been experiencing what might be called a ‘credibility crunch’. News bulletins no longer want to inform and seek to impart impartially, but to entertain, to cajole, to scandalise and to titillate. This may be attributed in part to market forces. With so many news channels competing for our attention in the era of Sky+, Freeview and Virgin Media, it may be understandable that networks seek the sensationalist lowest common denominator. This has been happening in the US for some time now, with CNN promoting liberal propaganda on cable networks since 1980, and Fox News propagating an even more outrageously and shamelessly right-wing agenda since 1996. Back here, Sky News is a little more subtle in its conservative tone, Channel Four News less so in its left-wing perspective on world events.
Yet one cannot attribute the feminisation of television news merely to changing economic and market forces. It mirrors a cultural shift – a shift that admittedly may have resulted from economic forces, but which has also informed market forces. TV news has sought to become subjective, not objective; confessional rather than descriptive; entertaining, not informative; aesthetic, rather than ugly. I’ve always said one of the greatest dangers to civilisation in our era of postmodernity are inverted commas used in the abstract sense. Television news has become so partisan and personalised today because we no longer believe in ‘truth’ – merely interpretation and emotion. The sooner we vanquish those detestable, contemptible and contemptuous punctuation marks from our political and cultural mindset, the better.
Newsreaders should not be employed because they are pretty. They should be employed because they are intelligent and can read the news. This is why it was a scandal that Moira Stuart was forced to retire prematurely. She was deemed too old. Not enough eye candy. Women should become newsreaders regardless of their looks, not because of them. By taking on attractive female newsreaders, networks give succour to the postmodernist and sexist misapprehension that the only way to secure the attention of an audience is via surface, not substance.
I don’t want my news to be pretty. I want my news to be ugly, because the truth is that reality is ugly.
Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.
(1) French TV turmoil as ‘Sarkozy’s glamorous blonde’ takes limelight, Daily Telegraph, 10 June 2008
(2) BBC newsreader stalker walks free, BBC News, 19 September 2002
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