It’s been a funny couple of days on the old mass meeja front. Setting aside the appearances of James Murdoch, and his father, Howling Mad, at the Leveson inquiry into press standards in the UK – which is the best soap opera ever, bar none – there has been another little spat to grapple with.
Mary Beard, the erudite classicist, is currently to be seen on BBC2 presenting her new series, Meet the Romans.
It’s a fascinating series that, as she explained in last night's episode, looks beyond the ‘friends, Romans and countrymen’ speechifying of white toga-clad politicians and philosophers in the Forum, to what ancient Rome would have been like for its rather more ordinary denizens.
Beard’s knowledge of her subject is beyond doubt and her enthusiasm is infectious. It's top stuff.
Her ‘problem’, so it seems, is in not being a supermodel. Well, that’s according to AA Gill, TV reviewer for The Times, who, in essence, said that she was too ugly to be on the goggle box.
Still, it meant that he didn’t actually have to review the programme. Beard does not wear make up or dye her hair: in other words: she doesn’t kow-tow to certain conventions.
As her own riposte in the Daily Mail made clear, she’s comfortable as she is.
And she make some excellent points about confidence and ‘inner beauty’ too.
Although she did very nearly chuck a spanner into the works at the end by throwing in a caustic remark about Gill not having been to university. Not all us have been to university – but we don’t all go around being terrified of and offensive about those who did.
This must have been quite hard to swallow for the Mail, which is on a permanent trip to make women feel insecure about their looks and their bodies.
On the same day it launched itself into self-flagellatory mode with a piece on 'life for a month without my beauty regime'.
Regular readers here might remember my own admissions on the pots and potions, but reading this, it rapidly becomes clear that Anna Pursglove's beauty regime is probably not what most women would think of as a beauty ‘routine’.
A brief sample will make the point. “Among my favourite monthly treatments,” she writes, “are microdermabrasion (where the skin is treated with exfoliant crystals to remove dead cells), Keratin (long-lasting) blow-drying, Shellac (long-lasting) manicures, eyebrow threading and eyelash tinting, plus waxing (legs and/or bikini line, depending on the amount of flesh I plan to show that month).
“Then there’s the ‘occasionals’ list including chemical peels, laser thread-vein removal on my face, spray tans, semi-permanent eyelash extensions and teeth whitening.”
Blimey. I know that this is all fab in the service-based economy in which we live – girls: get out and have your legs waxed for the sake of the economy – but I very much doubt it’s what the majority of women will think of as their basic routine.
Now I love an occasional massage and I love having my hair done – both are wonderfully relaxing – but that’s the limit of what I’ve ever had as treatments (although being a reasonably sensible individual, I’m not going to fall into the ‘never say never’ trap).
But let’s get back to Gill and the Times.
This latest nastiness comes just a couple of years after his “dyke on a bike” comment about openly out presenter Clare Balding, which was also in what was supposed to be a review of a TV programme in which she was touring parts of the UK on a bike.
Nor is it the first time he's had a serious dig at Beard for her looks.
Yet only today, in his appearance at Leveson, Howling Mad claimed that Margaret Thatcher didn’t understand the threat from trades unions and costs to that “iconic” title.
Things have come to a pretty pass when what was once the nation’s paper of record has been taken to such a Murdochian low as to countenance regular bouts of infantile bullying within its pages.
But then, this is a proprietor whose answer to the supposed ‘elitism’ that he has railed against is to make a substantial contribution to the dumbing down of public discourse in the UK.
Yes, people can easily avoid buying his titles or the books he publishes, or watching his TV channels. But the impact of that general dumbing down – and Murdoch is not alone in shouldering blame – is felt even by those who directly avoid his works.
The dumbing down has also been boosted by the growth of communications technology and 24-hour TV. The development of 24/7 news leaves printed news media needing to fill pages with things other than stories that are hours late.
One option is opinion. Sensation is another, cheap tactic to gain readers (and advertising).
The Mail is expert at it, even to the extent of publishing such outlandish, tear-your-hair-out articles that gets social media in a tizzy and thousands more people clicking on link to read the madness. This is usually written by a shrill woman in such a way as to demean women in general and any woman who dares describe herself as 'a feminist' in particular, and it generates massive traffic and more advertising.
The Guardian plays a different game, giving a regular platform to a particular kind of female writer who confuses feminism with misandry, nurses attitudes that are close to US right-wing Christian fundamentalists – and an utter intolerance and contempt for any woman (particularly) who disagrees.
So the Times is not unique in this sensationalist approach – its particular tragedy is, as mentioned above, that it used to be the newspaper of record.
However, while I’m not remotely interested in calling for Gill sans his head, there is the question of response.
Like all trolls, he has the capacity to get under the skin simply by being nasty. And he’s probably loving every minute of having created this latest little shitstorm. So should one just ignore him, denying him what he craves – the oxygen of publicity?
Or should one challenge such behaviour, which is, frankly, no different to that of a playground bully?
‘Sticks and stone may break my bones’ and all that rather misses the point that words can hurt very deeply indeed.
Personally, I found the burst of confidence that hit me around 12 years ago was a big help.
Before then, I’d been called names in the street simply for, like Beard, not looking like Claudia Schiffer. You’d barely believe the lack of self awareness of some of those doing the name calling. The only oil paintings they’d have come out would have been the nightmarish visions of Hieronymous Bosch.
I’ve also been on the receiving end in print. In spring 1998, on the basis that I was the sports editor of a national daily at the time – and the only woman in such a position – I was interviewed for the Observer by a young, fellow female hackette.
But there was to be no sense of sisterly solidarity.
Unfortunately, I no longer have the printed article, but it was bang out of order. Not only did it put words in my mouth – perhaps I hadn’t been remotely interesting enough – but her main issue seemed to be with how I looked.
And I recall one comment suggesting that, once you’d reached such a career pinnacle, perhaps one didn’t actually have to bother.
It was cheap, to say the least. Unprofessional and unethical are other words that spring to mind.
In subsequent years, I’ve developed a rather thicker skin. It’s particularly important online.
Only a couple of weeks ago, responding innocuously to a comment on the website of a particular news publication, I was lambasted for my looks. I’d signed in using my Facebook identity and it showed the picture that I currently have there as an avatar.
I responded simply by pointing out that the individual in question was a typical coward, hiding behind anonymity and no avatar to provoke comparisons with, say, George Clooney.
The thing is, though, that if you don’t respond in some way, you leave them thinking they’ve ‘won’.
They’re pitiful, but perhaps ignoring them and letting them think that they’ve successfully upset you is the real oxygen they seek.
Thankfully, I’m comfortable enough in my own skin these days not to be upset.
Sometimes I wear make up – sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I dress in a more feminine fashion – sometimes I don’t.
It doesn’t depend on how I think other people think I should dress, but on how I feel and, to an extent, social conventions about where I’ll be working and who, if anyone, I’ll be meeting in the course of that work.
My own revenge over the Observer article has not occurred yet. But they say that it’s a dish best eaten cold. It’s in the freezer even as I write.