The future is not Rosie

Media - Bill Hagerty on the decline of the female editor

As she lies restless at night, pondering her future as editor of the Daily Ex-press, Rosie Boycott may reflect that the indignities she has suffered of late can be assuaged in a number of ways. A thumping great pay-off, for example. Or a metaphorical warm embrace from the paper's new proprietor, although, realistically, the sky will be full of wing-flapping porkers before the new proprietor, Richard Desmond, shares Boycott's journalistic vision.

However, she can take comfort, if precious little of it, from the knowledge that, in terms of the number of national titles controlled, she is the most successful woman editor in history. Few men have edited three different papers - Bob Edwards (Daily Express, the People and Sunday Mirror), Sir Nicholas Lloyd (the People, News of the World and Daily Express) and Richard Stott (the People, Daily Mirror and Today) come to mind - and, in emulating them, Boycott stands alone among the small bunch of ladies who made it to the very top of the slippery pyramid.

Admittedly, she zipped through the Independent like a high-velocity bullet on her way from the Independent on Sunday to the Express. But in doing so, she established a numerical track record that outstripped the female heavy hitters who, in the late 1980s, threatened to make what was then Fleet Street a feminine enclave.

The promise was never realised. Rebekah Wade may restore the balance by increasing the downmarket dominance of the News of the World on Sundays. But if, as expected, it emerges that everything isn't coming up Rosie at the Express, Wade and the previously high-profile Janet Street-Porter - her editorship of the Independent on Sunday has been so anonymous that the other papers have given up sniping at her accent and teeth - could be the last of the few.

The first woman to edit a modern daily tabloid, albeit one that constantly suffers a drubbing from the Daily Mail in the middle market, promised much and certainly delivered some of it. Unlike the flying wedge of women who captured the lower end of the Sunday market in the 1980s, Boycott brought widespread change to a title that had for years been stuck in the mud up to its axles.

She rejected much of the formula content and attitudes of the past and, while one cannot pretend that her left-leaning, ecologically friendly, touchy-feely Express was an all-round success - the circulation figures give the lie to any such claim - it was journalistically original and brave.

Such musings are prompted by a letter to the Guardian written by Wendy Henry, a two-times former Fleet Street editor. Henry berated those who have criticised the arrival at Ludgate House of "a ruthless multimillionaire driven by money and status who uses four-letter words and wants a say in what goes on his newspaper's front page". Express journalists, she lectured, "should get down on their knees and thank their lucky stars that anyone would gamble his fortune on trying to rescue" the woeful paper.

This is the same Wendy Henry who worked for Kelvin MacKenzie as a Sun executive in the 1980s. It was she, according to Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie's Stick it up Your Punter!, who greeted news of the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands war with the now infamous "Gotcha!" No stranger to four-letter words herself, she is to subtlety what Sylvester Stallone's Rambo - or Sylvester Stallone, for that matter - is to sophistication. No wonder she is a fan of Desmond.

Promoted to the editorship of the News of the World, Henry increased circulation with a non-stop diet of sex and savagery. "Sales aren't everything, Wendy," Rupert Murdoch reputedly told her when the paper began to churn even his far-from-delicate stomach. Henry resigned rather than switch from her house of horrors editorial policy, and was soon hired by Robert Maxwell to edit the People, which she proceeded to turn into a newsprint blood-bucket.

Nauseating pictures of the Sioux City air crash in the United States, showing the remains of some of the 109 who died, were followed by publication of a picture of Sammy Davis Jr, his throat ravaged by cancer. In the same issue, front-page prominence was given to pictures of the then seven-year-old Prince William, dressed in school uniform and weeing into a bush. "The Royal Wee" - get it? Maxwell didn't and promptly sacked her.

Two other women editors of the period, Patsy Chapman (News of the World) and Eve Pollard (Sunday Mirror and later the Sunday Express), were conventional by comparison, but Bridget Rowe (Sunday Mirror and the People) was of the Henry school. The only market she knew was so far down it's a wonder she didn't strike oil. Editing newspapers may not be exactly rocket science, but Henry and Rowe never got beyond making stink bombs with a basic chemistry set. In the Nineties, Sue Douglas's brief stint at the Sunday Express tore up no trees other than those pulped to provide the paper it was printed on.

Compared to all these, Boycott's contribution to the trade begins to look both significant and highly cerebral.

Should there be more such rough-and-tough proprietors as Desmond lurking in the wings, one cannot see much future for female editors of the stamp of Boycott. As Henry could sense from her current editorship, of Real Homes magazine (which will soon be featuring, presumably, such desirable residences as the Fred and Rose West abode and Reginald Christie's old gaff at 10 Rillington Place), Desmond would be more comfortable with a woman who calls a spade a bleeding shovel.

Or, indeed, those prepared to get down on their knees and thank their lucky stars.