A battle with The Daily Beast

Did Tina Brown jump or was she pushed?

On 2 August 1999, under the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour, Talk magazine held its launch party. It was “impossibly glamorous”, according to the New York Times, with a guest list that had Henry Kissinger rubbing shoulders with Queen Latifah, Madonna and Salman Rushdie. At the centre of it all was Tina Brown, the founder of Talk and serially victorious media darling.

Brown had every reason to believe that Talk would be a success: she had been editorin- chief of Tatler at the age of 25, of Vanity Fair at 31 and of the New Yorker at 39, overhauling editorial boards and boosting circulation beyond expectations each time. In the end, Talk folded after the advertising slump that followed the 9/11 attacks, but not before it had published a series of scandalous interviews, including one with Hillary Clinton in which she blamed her husband’s philandering on childhood abuse.

In 2008, after a brief spell as a talk-show host for CNBC, Brown founded the news website the Daily Beast, which was supposed to be her proof that she could win on the web as she had in print. This decision had little to do with money – the advance for her biography of Diana the previous year was, she said, “not unadjacent” to $2m – and everything to do with ambition.

However, something clearly got lost in translation from print to online. Since the Beast’s disastrous merger with the moribund Newsweek in 2010, which was repeatedly criticised in public by her business partner, Barry Diller, Brown’s illustrious career has floundered.

And, on 12 September, it seems to have come to a sudden stop with the announcement that Brown will not have her contract renewed at the Beast. She is now devoting her time to ensuring as dignified a departure as possible.

What made Brown so irritating to a horde of jealous and grudging admirers was her ability to navigate a respectable media career and at the same time intersperse it with unashamed gaudiness. The launch of Talk magazine at the foot of the Statue of Liberty was tacky and her book The Diana Chronicles was deemed not “literary enough” to befit a former editor of the  , yet she endured.

One of Brown’s most engaging talents is her absolute commitment to that antijournalistic device, the ad hominem attack. In an article she wrote for the New Statesman in 1974 about her Oxford finals, she referred to a fellow student as a “tiny self-possessed figure with wall-to-wall halitosis”.

More recently, she described the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, on Twitter as “a creepy, lisping, giraffe-necked liar”. Because sometimes a political attack just won’t do.

Happily for those of us who enjoy personal takedowns of malodorous students and the president of Syria, Brown won’t be retiring into obscurity. With characteristic initiative, she has established Tina Brown Live Media, an events business specialising in conferencing. Such a venture did risk leaving her with a tiny amount of leisure time – a risk that she has negated by agreeing to write a memoir, reportedly titled Media Beast.

So, we needn’t feel bad for Tina Brown, who has conquered and rebuilt so many worlds and remains as rich, well connected and happily married (to the former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans) as any lifetime media mogul could hope to be.

It is not surprising that she would leap straight from the industry that has fallen out of love with her and into another. But did she jump or was she pushed?

Tina Brown speaks at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in her capacity as editor-in-chief of Newsweek The Daily Beast. Image: Getty
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.