A triumph of the wet-dream school of journalism

Sunday was a bleak day for women. And it was the media wot did it. When the Sunday Times published a list of the 500 most powerful people in Britain, it included only seven women among its top 100. (Of these, only four were there on their own merit, while Barbara Amiel and Cherie Blair are married to powerful men, and the Queen was born into influence.) It was an infuriating catalogue that immediately had you challenging the omissions: where was Margaret Jay, leader of the House of Lords? Helena Kennedy, chair of the British Council and formidable lawyer? Or Sue Nye, the Anji Hunter of No 11?

The Power List was bad. But there was worse. On the same day the Observer, whose liberal credentials suggest its role as a champion of women's rights, featured an interview with Charlie Dimmock that bore the sticky paw prints of a Hugh Hefner Playboy.

Lying on a bed, wearing only stilettos and a few artfully placed petals, the television gardener stretched her Rubenesque limbs. The accompanying interview took the fulsome lass's nipples as its starting point ("they really are an important part of the story," panted the journalist Andrew Smith in justification) and proceeded to unfold a tale of tits, braless T-shirts and damp vests that was more schoolboy's wet dream than journalist's analysis. Every anecdote starred Dimmock's uncorseted breasts - or rather, their effect on her television producer, his researcher and a group of lecherous bar-proppers.

Throughout Dimmock was presented as a dimwit, a jolly and passive recipient of men's leers and even, in the case of her producer, "a little cuddle". This interpretation entirely ignored how the 33-year-old presenter has carefully fashioned her celebrity out of a series of photo-ops that included her lying naked in a bath-tub filled with popcorn, and posing, attired only in ivy leaves, as Botticelli's Venus on the cover of the Radio Times. But the green-thumbed goddess was given no credit for piloting her career through the choppy waters of media adulation: no, her Observer questioner wanted her dumb as well as blonde.

Dimmock played along: "What, me, a sex object? Me, with the bounciest braless breasts on show on national television?" But if she was being disingenuous so was the Observer. Beneath a fig leaf of chattering-class references ( to the "zeitgeist"; the premature weaning of British men; our cult of celebrity) the interview was nothing but a prolonged builder's wolf whistle, an exercise in reader titillation that revealed nothing about the gardener in question but everything about the escalation in our appetite for sex. As Dimmock's striptease over the past few months has shown, a revealing decollete gives way to a flash of thigh which in turn leads to a naked spread: the goalposts keep moving, and soon we shall have the Naked Gardener, starring a Charlie Dimmock digging weeds and sowing seeds in her birthday suit.

A television personality is bound - indeed is expected - to be an exhibitionist. Yet Alan Titchmarsh never felt he had to reveal his hairy pectorals or sinewy thighs to his millions of viewers. I doubt that Titchmarsh is any less ambitious or determined than his female counterpart. Dimmock, alas, merely sensed that, though the feminists may have battled and the Playboy bunnies may have hopped out of view, a woman, in order to attract and hold our attention, must still exhibit her body not her brains.

The Observer proved her right. It also proved that, dress up smut as journalism, and you can strip a woman to her bare essentials and have your tongue hanging out at the description of her nipples. But worst of all, this so-called liberal broadsheet offered what was at once a confirmation and an explanation of its rival's lopsided Power List. For who could believe in the power of women, when one lay sprawled naked beneath a prurient camera lens subjected to the questions of a prurient hack?

This article first appeared in the 04 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The eminence rouge