Watching brief - Amanda Platell suspects Michael Portillo's motives

Portillo screams "It should have been me", Beckham fakes it at midnight and the Today programme gets

Two aspects of Michael Howard's campaign have been remarkable - the genuine appeal of his wife, Sandra, and the unity of the Tory party.

It was a true feat of leadership that Howard had managed to keep the left and right united, the pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics coexisting. There had been none of the backstabbing that will for ever define the 2001 campaign.

Until week three of the campaign, that is, when the one-time Tory minister, all-time wannabe leader and former MP Michael Portillo could bite his lip no longer. On BBC1's This Week and then in his Sunday Times column, he launched an attack on Howard's campaign, his every comment screaming, "It should have been me." Believing it was his destiny to step into Margaret Thatcher's shoes, Portillo has been resentful of every person who has occupied that position, even though, for many voters, he is the embodiment of the perceived arrogance, elitism and nastiness that has haunted the Conservatives. I hate to make such a serious criticism of a fellow New Statesman columnist, but why did Portillo speak out ten days before the election, knowing it would damage his party's chances? Does it mark him out as a man of integrity, or just a cash Conservative?

Few would deny that Robin Cook is a man of integrity, yet despite the most severe provocation on 24 April, when the Mail on Sunday ran leaked documents from the Attorney General claiming that the war in Iraq was illegal, Cook did not turn traitor or cash in on his bitterness. Portillo makes much of the lessons the Tories can learn from new Labour. Alas for all Tories, loyalty is not among them.

Speaking of loyalty, when Tony Blair made his speech on saving Africa, he enlisted none other than the lefty luvvies' favourite, Bill Clinton. Funny that, for a major set-piece speech of his, and just as the Liberal Democrats were launching their Iraq push, Blair didn't ask President George W Bush to share centre-stage with him.

Of all the lies of the 21st century - "I'll still respect Gordon in the morning" or "It's just a bit of colour I picked up in the back garden" - the greatest of them all must surely be that viewers hate confrontational TV. If that were true, we would not be obsessing with whether Jeremy Paxman had gone too far, or been too rude, in his three BBC interviews with the political leaders.

In what is fast becoming the most colourless of election campaigns, Paxman is actually creating news. When he was scathingly described as nothing more than a panto dame, it came close to the mark. For many elections to come, we will be shouting at whoever is leading the parties: "He's behind you!"

I'm not sure what surprised me most. First there was the news that David and Victoria Beckham had failed to injunct the News of the World and their former nanny Abbie Gibson, resulting in the headline: "The rows, the affairs . . . How he threatened to ditch Posh, by the nanny who saw it ALL!"

Then Beckham allegedly called his heavily pregnant wife a "f***ing bitch" and threatened to leave her. Then there was the revelation that this byword for masculine perfection had insisted that hotel staff be roused in the middle of the night to administer a fake tan.

Whether these be the twisted tales of a sacked nanny or a Posh plot for the sympathy vote, any woman who has to compete with her husband for a nocturnal sunbed has my sympathies.

There are moments when the Today programme makes devotees wonder why they even bother, and that moment came for me on Monday, the 90th anniversary of Anzac Day. It is arguably Australia's and New Zealand's most important national day, marking their first major military action during the First World War. Our losses were heavy, as were those of the Turks.The day is important to Australians, as it marks the beginning of our emergence from "king and country" into being a nation. It is also the real starting point for the Australian republican movement, as many Australians cannot forgive the way their troops were used so casually by their British masters.

So, to hear the one interview conducted by Jonny Dymond from Anzac Cove, in which one woman said there was no ill-feeling towards the British, makes you wonder why the BBC bothers spending our money to send its correspondents abroad armed only with ignorance.

There is a lot to admire in Liz Hurley - business acumen, shunning Steve Bing's billions, and her fabulous figure at 40. But we cannot allow her to get away with the claim that she is giving up acting to concentrate on being a mum. Liz's acting makes Madonna's look like Oscar-winning stuff. For her to say she wants to give up the movies is rather like me saying I'm giving up bottom modelling.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Could the future be yellow?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.