When it comes to journalism Rosie Boycott has done it all. In the seventies she dropped out of her maths degree at the University of Kent to become the founder of Spare Rib, the seminal radical feminist magazine. From there, she went on to have a multitude of journalistic incarnations, including editor at The Express, The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, as well as being the first and only ever female editor of the men’s lifestyle magazine Esquire (UK). Boycott’s career has two defining elements - newspaper journalism and feminism. Of late, both seem to have hit a rough patch. I want to know - where have they both gone wrong?
I meet Boycott in the Victorian greenhouse of a country house at the Port Eliot Literary Festival. She has just finished interviewing Caitlin Moran, author of the best-selling book on feminism, ‘How to be a Woman’. I detect that the interview was not without its tensions. In her book, Moran rails against the Brazilian wax, cripplingly high heels and misogynistic pornography as absurdities that women have come to passively accept, arguing that in the past feminism had been over-intellectualised. The uncomfortable implication is that early feminists, like Boycott, started an imperfect revolution.
Boycott is sensitive about the shortcomings of feminism highlighted in Moran’s book. Speaking to me after the interview, she reflected: “I don’t think Caitlin quite understood where I was coming from, or maybe I didn’t make it clear. I was always convinced that women would not be so enthralled with cosmetics and all that, and yet what has happened now is that they are far more enthralled. One possible theory is that we made motherhood less and less significant; ‘just a mother’ became derogatory. This has so shaken the core of being a woman that women have now become more sexualised to reinforce being female. Quantum shifts have happened that I don’t understand.”
Boycott herself is disappointed by how feminism has turned out. Back in the nineties, she identified the need to “tap into that lunatic female stuff that we’re all victims of,” when she commissioned the hugely successful Helen Fielding column on Bridget Jones for The Independent. And the eighties were no better. “The whole superwoman thing was regressive, I hated that. You know in your heart you can’t run a company and be a full hands-on mother. You say ‘I can do all these different things and I won’t fail at them’ and it’s junk.”
Moran has done a great job of describing the modern female condition, but Boycott feels it’s a young person’s book. There is still a yawning gap for women after their thirties.
“You seem to fall off a cliff,” she tells me. “My baby boomer generation needs a book on how to age. Success is now defined as battling against your age. Recently, Jane Fonda was out in this Pippa Middleton-style dress. Older women like that are terrible role models.”
What kind of women should we look to then? “Lady Gaga is brilliant. She has that ability to laugh, that intellect and a sense of humour. She is very good news for everybody.” So Lady Gaga may possibly be the unlikely saviour of feminism, but what of Boycott’s other passion in life – journalism? How has Fleet Street ended up in such a tangle?
As editor of The Express, Boycott herself knows first-hand the fraught, murky relationship between journalists and politicians. I put it to her that on her first day as editor of The Express she was invited to Downing Street. There is a long pause. I assure her that I am not accusing her of anything. She does recall going over in the first few days: “Yes, that’s absolutely true. At that point I was a member of the Labour Party. Philip Gould was an architect of New Labour. Clive Hollick had just been made a lord. There was no secret about the fact that Labour wanted The Express to be the in-house paper. We were very much in the New Labour family.”
With the public now rather suspicious of any collusion between politicians and the media, I wonder how Boycott feels about once being so cosy with Blair. She maintains that their relationship “never became unhealthy because we didn’t stay on message, though that was their expectation.” She is keen to point out that such a stifling closeness between the newspapers and the government “wasn’t necessarily a New Labour thing,” adding “during the Thatcher era it was said that Central Office could read the leaders, in fact they could more or less write them. For a long time there has been this tremendous collusion.”
Boycott resisted the temptation to allow her newspaper to become a governmental mouthpiece: “I was very keen on Blair, but we never toed the line. In fact the government were much more interested in giving the good stories to the Daily Mail. They were scared of them.” Friction mounted after the early cosiness when Labour came up with a state pension rise of 65p. “To us, it was a source of outrage. We did a front page of a scrunched up packet of peanuts and we launched a petition. We had the state pension put up. The Labour Party went mental. It was amazingly outrageous to them.”
Alongside a re-think of how relationships between the press and politicians should be conducted, the question is now of course how journalism will be regulated in the future. Boycott urges caution on regulation. She takes the recent example of the Panorama care home investigation, in which reporters filmed undercover. “Now strictly it’s a private building and you shouldn’t be filming without the owners’ knowledge. Was it a good or a bad thing? It was a good thing, but it’s bloody tricky. It’s always going to be tricky.”
She is adamant that we should remember the positive side of investigative journalism. The exposure of the whole phone hacking scandal was, after all, a journalistic triumph. ‘Ultimately if we didn’t have Nick Davies from the Guardian, we would not have had any of this. They’d have buried it all.”