Angela Rippon and female firsts:
contribution to television news
by Gillian Murray
At the recent Women in Film and Television Awards held in London in December 2013, Angela Rippon, television journalist and presenter, picked up a lifetime achievement award. It honoured what WFTV described as an ‘outstanding contribution to the industry’ in her work as a practising journalist over the last 50 years. Rippon is perhaps most celebrated as the ‘first’ female news presenter to hold a long-term post on a national news programme. Presenting the BBC 9 o’ clock news from 1975-1981, and winning newsreader of the year three times from 1976-1978. Looking back at her career, from her work on a local newspaper to international recognition as reporter and broadcaster, provides an opportunity to reflect on the status of women in television news and how women have negotiated sexism and ageism in the industry since the establishment of television in the mid-1950s. In particular, I want to discuss Rippon’s career alongside the idea of ‘female firsts’ and the complex process of remembering women’s contribution to television history.
In women’s history there is much debate over the value of celebrating female firsts (you only need to whisper Maggie Thatcher to get that debate rolling). As I discuss with my students, surely it is not enough to replace a list of ‘great men’ with a list of ‘great women’, we need to understand why women have frequently been written out of history. So, as well as celebrating female pioneers, we need to put their work in appropriate historical context. Another favourite pastime of historians is to point out that the person popularly celebrated as ‘the first’ is actually part of a longer trajectory, and I’m certainly not going to pass up on that opportunity here! Among the women celebrated as the ‘first’ female newsreaders in the UK are:
- Barbara Mandell, read the ITN lunchtime news bulletin against the backdrop of a painted kitchen in 1955. Although her tenure as newscaster was brief, she maintained a position as one of two female reporters alongside Lynne Reid Banks.
- Armine Sandford, read the local news for BBC West in 1957 for a brief period.
- Nan Winton, read the 9 o’ clock news on Sundays for the BBC in 1960. She was removed and reinstated three times.
- Mary Marquis, was the main anchor for the BBC’s Reporting Scotland team from 1968-88.
I’d also like to add Pat Cox to this list, female newscaster for Midlands ATV from 1956-1965, who had a lengthy career compared to her contemporaries and, unlike later female newsreaders, was not accompanied onscreen by a male anchor. As I’ve written about elsewhere, Cox was integral to the establishment of ATV in the Midlands and well loved by Midlands viewers.
This plethora of first ladies reveals that the 1950s were a productive time for women in television news. Thus, rather than being the ‘first’ to break through patriarchal production values in the 1970s, it is perhaps better to understand Rippon’s appointment as the first to reverse the trend of marginalising women within production practices that were characteristic of the 1960s. It also suggests that regional broadcasting was an important vehicle for launching women’s careers, and that, since there has been little research done on regional news archives, there is still a lot to learn about women’s contribution to television. These things considered, the celebration of Rippon as the ‘first’ female newsreader has less to do with her place in history and far more do to with her arrival into national broadcasting amidst the fraught gender politics of the 1970s and the resulting media frenzy that has shaped her career.
Angela Rippon’s legs and sexism in the ’70s
Although rightly remembered as an era of feminist activism, with protests against beauty pageants, struggles for equal pay and attempts to smash the glass ceiling, I have often felt that activists in the 1970s were fighting the unequal legacy of the late-1960s sexual revolution, as much as they were challenging long-term structural inequalities. The sexual revolution had given licence to the media to take liberties with women’s bodies on an unprecedented scale. Thus a particular form of licentious sexism that greeted Angela Rippon (and Anna Ford, employed as an ITN newsreader in 1978) when she began to read the news. Articles in the popular press discussed Rippon’s lips, the twinkle in Ford’s eyes, fantasised about them reading the news in black leather and, of course, called for their legs to be on view. Rippon’s response to the latter, a tongue-in-cheek, high-kicking performance on the Morecambe and Wise Show (1976), has become the stuff of television legend and is itself indicative of how she sought to counter, or naturalise, this particular form of sexism. This generation of women certainly achieved a staying power that was denied to previous generations.
In the 1950s women like Pat Cox had built their careers in newscasting from a background in drama school. As television was recognised as a mass medium in the 1960s and was subject to increasing scrutiny (such as the Pilkington Report, 1962), journalistic credentials were increasingly sought for television readers and reporters, thus disadvantaging those who had taken alternative routes into news broadcasting. However, by the late 1960s women were taking opportunities to build their careers in the newsroom, as men had done, from positions on local papers. Rippon was one of these women, starting at a local paper (Westward Local News) and progressing to Westward Television, before moving to the BBC and, from there, making the move from regional to national broadcasting. Nevertheless, although these solid career foundations allowed Rippon and Ford to ride out the sexism they faced in the 1970s, by the late 1990s they faced another barrier to the longevity of their career, Ageism.
Ageism and the neglected memory of women’s television history
The sidelining of women once they reach 50 has been an increasingly important part of discussions about women in the media. Anna Ford has perhaps been more vocal on this point than Rippon, writing in the Guardian last year:
…the invisibility of women over 50 isn’t just a problem of representation on television. It’s far more deep-seated than that. It’s to do with levels of misogyny that lie so deep as to remain unrecognised and as yet not fully explained.
Recent programmes, discussions, campaigns and academic research show encouraging signs of taking the longevity of women’s careers seriously. Jane Garvey’s recent series Getting on Air highlighted these issues; and, following a sustained criticism from campaigners, the BBC appointed Mishal Husain to its flagship Radio 4 news programme Today. Vicky Ball (University of Sunderland) and Melanie Bell (University of Newcastle) have been awarded funding by the AHRC for their research project ‘Women’s Work and Working Women: A Longitude Study of Women Working in the British Film and Television Industries (1933-1989)’.
As part of tackling ageism in broadcasting we also need to redress the memory loss of women’s contribution to broadcasting. In Rippon’s case, we need to celebrate her achievements throughout her life in broadcasting – not just her youthful legs. Rippon herself has mentioned that newsreading was only a very small part of her career and that while it made her a household name, she did not find the work that rewarding. Reading her later interviews, I get the sense that the jobs she has enjoyed most have been those where she had the freedom to stray from the autocue and to get involved in the process of making television. She has worked on an impressive range of programmes, including Antiques Roadshow, Top Gear, Dancing on Ice, as well as writing children’s books and a volume on Mark Phillips. However, I am left questioning: how far was this variety necessitated by the need to negotiate sexism and ageism, which means women making lateral career jumps while male counterparts are able to retain the same positions? Angela Rippon’s lifetime achievement award is something to be celebrated, but, despite being the first female newsreader, she continued to have to negotiate sexism and ageism, in this respect the essential memory work on the complexity of her career has yet to begin.
 References to the contemporary newspaper articles can be found in Patricia Holland, ‘When a woman reads the news’, in Helen Baehr and Gillian Dyer (eds) Boxed In: Women and Television (Pandora, 1987) pp.134-5.
Gillian Murray (Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, firstname.lastname@example.org) is an interdisciplinary researcher working between the seams of History and Media Studies, with a particular interest in Gender and the development of visual technologies in the twentieth century. She recently completed her PhD on the ATV regional news collection held by the Media Archive for Central England; focusing on the various ways ‘ordinary’ women, as well as those paid to work at ATV, were made visible in the Midlands News and questioning to what extent they were agents of cultural production. She is now seeking funding to extend this research to other regional news collections.