The Camilla Parker Bowles of Fleet Street, Robinson has seen off the younger, prettier competition

Whatever else you may think of Anne Robinson, she gives good headline. In the course of the Daily Telegraph's serialisation of her autobiography, Memoirs of an Unfit Mother, she managed to hit every tabloid button.

On sex: "Waking up in a strange bed with my knickers round my neck." (I am still puzzled as to exactly how this could happen.) On addiction: "I would drink anything, even aftershave." On being an unfit mother: "The agony of watching another woman raise my daughter." On love: "Charlie never stopped loving me. Nor did Johnny." On eating disorders: "I weighed less than six stone and had less than two months to live."

You could make it up, actually, but anyone who has ever worked alongside Robinson during her long career knows she didn't have to.

It is as though, in writing this book, she started with the headlines, knowing that to get the six-figure deal she would be required to produce at least five front-page write-offs. But why, when you are one of the most high-profile, highly paid journalists in the country, do you want to expose yourself and your family to this degree of navel-gazing?

Celebrity and money, that's what drives Anne Robinson. And she can't get enough of either, as she proved when she bragged to Michael Parkinson on a recent edition of his show that she would be richer than him. Former colleagues at the Mirror can remember her making boasts on similar lines. That was just before she wrote her eulogy to Robert Maxwell and immediately before it was discovered that he had stolen hundreds of millions of pounds from the pension fund.

The same question - why did she do it? - was asked of Marjorie Proops, the Mirror's famous agony aunt, when she wrote and then serialised her biography. After decades of holding her secrets close - the long and passionate affair with the Mirror's lawyer throughout her marriage, the problems with her son - she, too, revealed all. However many times I asked her, Marje was never able to explain why - and I suspect the same is true of Robinson.

Part of the answer lies in the generation of journalists to which Robinson belongs. These women were constantly having to prove themselves in a hostile world. Every paper had its token woman. It was impossible to rise to the top executive jobs. As Robinson discovered, it was hard for women, and only hard women succeeded.

There is an anger in her generation of female journalists, and understandably so. It was not so much a world of misogyny as simply a place where women did not fit. The hours, the drinking - this was men's work. The career path for a woman began at the secretary's desk and ended writing fashion or social notes, or, for the lucky few, as the paper's agony aunt.

Robinson, like Wendy Henry and Eve Pollard (who became editors of national Sunday papers), became a mould-breaker and a ball-breaker as a result. I know a lot of female journalists who respect Robinson and envy her pay packet, but few who either like or want to be like her, which is a shame, really, because we all owe her and those like her a great debt.

Completely at odds with the typical profile of an alcoholic, she always displayed an absolute confidence in her own abilities and their commercial worth, a quality still rarely found in women. I can remember being told, when I joined the Mirror as managing editor after Maxwell's death in the early 1990s, that Robinson's "deal" was top secret. An old-timer said to me: "Let's just say that Annie's expenses and perks would pay the salaries of the entire back bench."

After fighting hard to keep Robinson at the Mirror, she was finally lured away by News International and took her weekly column to Today. Executives at the Mirror were deeply worried about the effect her loss would have on sales. Both newspapers were surprised that not a single copy was lost by her defection and Today failed to put on a single sustained sale .

The shine started to wear off the "quarter-million-pound Annie", as she was then known, and also the value that editors would place in future on such high-cost, high-maintenance women writers. But, almost single-handedly, she took women into a new pay league. For that, the likes of Julie Burchill, Jane Moore, Carole Malone, Sue Carroll and other highly paid female bylines should be eternally grateful.

Anne Robinson has become the Camilla Parker Bowles of Fleet Street. She is non-negotiable. She sees off the younger, prettier competition, we love to hate her and there's a grudging respect because of what she has achieved and what she has survived.

How much has really changed for women in journalism? Yes, we now have two editors, in Rebekah Wade on the News of the World and Tina Weaver on the Sunday Mirror, but there is no woman editor on a national daily, or on a broadsheet. Current events show that there is still no parity even in the byline stakes. Glance over the front pages of any newspaper during the past month, and the ratio of male to female bylines is still two or three to one. How many women political, diplomatic or defence editors can you name? Most newspapers have "their woman on the front line", but she is usually there to interview the families and get the colour. Women may be at the front line, but they are still not in front-line jobs.

And I would bet Anne Robinson's weekly expense allowance (circa 1990 - I am being paid by the New Statesman, after all) that there is not a single national paper that has even a third of its "war cabinet" - the special desk that co-ordinates the reports - made up of women journalists. When it comes down to it, wars and newspapers are still a man's game.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world