NS Profile - Melanie Phillips

Once a liberal, she now fulminates from the pages of the <em>Daily Mail </em>and has become the gove

Perhaps it's all the Guardian's fault. "The Guardian made me what I am today," Melanie Phillips has written, to describe her 21 formative years on the paper (including the Observer, from when it came under Guardian ownership in 1993). She meant, of course, where the liberal views she once espoused came from. Even today, as a star Daily Mail columnist, she denies that she has become right wing, preferring to call herself a "progressive".

But one finds that there may be more psychological truth in this statement than she realises, as one tries to understand why the woman who began as a cheerful reporter - "Don't you find sex relaxing?" she once asked a male colleague - has become a highly paid regular at Curmudgeon Corner in the snug bar from hell. Now Melanie Phillips is forever lashing out at modern teaching methods and bemoaning the break-up of the family; she who, 25 years ago, won the Young Journalist of the Year award for exposing the inhuman treatment of immigrants is now wondering if we are being too generous to refugees and asylum-seekers. Her new book, The Ascent of Woman: a history of the suffragette movement, is unlikely to be kind on the suffragettes.

It could all be because she thinks she was let down, betrayed even, by the liberals on the Guardian. On her first day after she was appointed news editor, Phillips fainted at her desk. The Guardian being a liberal newspaper, no one actually had any practical ideas about what to do, and it fell to a visiting Falkland Islander to leap forward and loosen her bodice. This could have been Phillips's first realisation that liberals are good on theory but not so hot on practice.

So she seemed to set about trying to save the paper. Near the beginning of 2000 she wrote in the NS: "Over the past 15 years or more, I have come to the conclusion that great harm is being done to some of the most vulnerable people in our society through the collapse of normative rules of behaviour - harm which I think is inimical to a liberal and civilised society. This position is said to be reactionary." For 13 of those 15 years, Phillips had been writing for the Guardian or its sister paper, the Observer.

When it launched its tabloid-size feature section G2, she wrote to the editor, Peter Preston, saying that she had never been so ashamed of the Guardian. And when the editorship became vacant she informed the leading candidate, Alan Rusbridger, that he would doubtless be relieved to learn that she had decided not to apply for the job. After his appointment, Rusbridger sent her to the Observer, where she was known as "Mel P, Stern Spice" on account of her severe black clothes, her closely cropped hair and her grim, unsmiling and myopic expression - an endearing vanity made her avoid wearing glasses. And, of course, for her prose.

In those days, the Observer was the equivalent of Siberia for Guardian journalists. The problems at the paper which, after the Guardian takeover, had three editors in as many years must have reinforced her dismal view of how the liberal elite could not be trusted to run anything properly.

Her views aroused such anger among Observer readers that the letters editor had to keep many of the scariest letters from her: "you're a Nazi" was a moderate term of abuse. Having failed to save the Guardian, Phillips seems to have set about saving the world instead. In 1996 she applied for the editorship of the Times Educational Supplement. As she considers teachers largely responsible for the nation's intellectual and moral failings, it would have been an interesting appointment had she got the job. When she left the Observer to join the Sunday Times in 1998, there was probably rejoicing in the streets of Hampstead. And now, as a star columnist on the Daily Mail, there must be bunting all over the Home Counties, joyous welcome for a sinner who repenteth, celebrating her conversion on the road to Guildford.

She is evangelical about her grand mission "to defend liberal democracy". That means, paradoxically, using conservative weapons. There is something almost biblical about her warnings of the doom that awaits us unless we turn on to the path of the right (not necessarily the same thing as the path of righteousness). "Radicalism or revolution are likely to implode and leave us worse off than before," she warns.

Her Jewishness is very important to Phillips - her home in Stamford Brook, west London is kosher; she has written that "I have never classified myself as a follower of any sort of 'ism', apart from journalism and Judaism"; and in 1985, when she was 34, she wrote a play in which the heroine was a thirtysomething Jewish journalist. Her husband, Joshua Rozenberg, now the Daily Telegraph's legal affairs editor, once listed among his light holiday reading for the beach A Documentary History of Jewish immigrants in Britain (1840-1914). Indeed at times she seems like one of The Just, the select and anguished group of Jews who, Orthodox believers think, have all the weight of the world put upon their shoulders by God.

She has an angst to grind at every opportunity, from Start the Week until Late Review. The Moral Maze, Any Questions - all and any programme that needs an opinion now rings Melanie Phillips.

The headlines and flashes for her twice-weekly Mail articles give you an idea of the range and depth of her professional despair: "The BBC and gender fascism", "War and the deficit of trust", "The subversion of British citizenship", "Why are we destroying childhood?", "Locking up the British mind".

It must be hard going, even on a six-figure salary, to be so relentlessly anguished, which might explain why her articles can sometimes verge on parody - "Don't let the killjoys ruin this Christmas" was one of her festive offerings in the Daily Mail. But it is a measure of her influence that her "defection" to the more staid areas of conservatism (she has become a friend of Prince Charles; and she recently attended a dinner given by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors - you can't get more staid than that) has aroused so much anger and such feelings of betrayal. Abuse has been heaped on her, and not just by teachers. Julie Burchill has implied that Phillips suffers from sexual frustration and Suzanne Moore has suggested that she should get out more (Moore's own move to the right, from the Guardian to the Mail on Sunday, provoked much less comment).

When Phillips joined the Guardian from New Society magazine in 1977 as a 26-year-old reporter, she fitted in to the newsroom very well. Like most other members of staff, she was Oxbridge-educated (St Anne's College, Oxford). She sat with three colleagues, all of whom smoked continually, but not a word of complaint passed her lips. She gave parties at her house in Stamford Brook, and there were four different kinds of quiche on offer. She sent her two children, Gabriel and Abigail, to private schools. All in all, she seemed a Guardian journalist straight out of central casting.

Phillips was always of an organised, serious bent. The furniture in her house is very organised and the decanters all have little labels on them saying whether they are full of whisky, or sherry, and the like. A bemused guest recalls being given a drink "of less than pub measure size". She and Joshua used to lock their bedroom door every evening when their children were younger, forbidding them from entering until 7am the next morning. Young Gabriel, who became a reporter on the Times this year, was writing rather middle-aged and pompous letters to the national press about Albert Camus and quoting Edmund Burke even before he sat his GCSEs. One editor recalls giving a talk to boys from St Paul's School and being roundly lectured to by Gabriel when he was scarcely out of short trousers.

When Phillips joined the Guardian, Peter Preston took a shine to her. She was groomed for higher things. The tantalising dream of being the paper's first woman editor beckoned when she was appointed news editor in 1983 to give her management and production experience. At the same time, Rozenberg was given a senior job at the BBC. The glittering couple seemed set to run the two bastions of liberal journalism.

But things did not go well. Her tenure as news editor was generally regarded as a disaster long after the drama of her first day. Her imperious style, which brooks no argument - so effective in her writing - was less effective when dealing with other people. At the same time as her news editorship failed, a similar misfortune seemed to befall her husband, who also found himself sidelined at the BBC. The glittering prizes that had seemed so near were dashed from their grasp. More liberal betrayal.

When she finally left in 1998, she wrote that the Guardian and Observer had been her "family". No wonder she feels so strongly about the breakdown of family life.

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