Middle aged women are supposed to have this dreadful,Botox face with the sheen of a hard boiled egg

Mary Ann Sieghart

Mary Ann Sieghart - Credit: Archant

Outspoken feminist journalist Mary Ann Sieghart tells Pat Parker about her lifelong love affair with Suffolk

Throughout her childhood, summer for journalist and broadcaster Mary Ann Sieghart meant one thing – idyllic weeks exploring the Suffolk coast as her family holidayed at Thorpeness.

For a precociously intelligent child, who by age 12 had decided to be a political columnist for The Times, those three August weeks were exhilarating and carefree. “We’d be thrown out of the house after breakfast and didn’t come back till teatime,” she says. “We were completely unmonitored by our parents, and we’d hang out in gangs, like in Just William. There were no roads, so we could just bike along the sandy tracks. It was tremendous fun, and we loved the sense of freedom.”

She still has close links with the county. Her mother, Felicity Ann Sieghart, has lived in Aldeburgh for 25 years, having spent summer holidays in Suffolk as a child in the 1930s. Her brother William, an entrepreneur and publisher, has a home at Thorpeness. Mary Ann’s daughters, Evie and Rosa, also spent blissful holidays in Suffolk, often staying with Felicity Ann, who was known as “Granny Seaside”.

The Siegharts are a high-achieving family. William founded National Poetry Day. Felicity Ann has been chairman of the National Association for Gifted Children (who she first consulted for guidance on how to educate her children) and ran Aldeburgh Cinema in the mid-1990s. “She took over from Lettie Gifford and ran it unpaid,” says Mary Ann. “She turned it round, brought it back into profit, and launched the annual documentary festival, which has proved a great success.”

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Aged 76, Felicity Ann hit the headlines by scoring two holes-in-one during the same round at Aldeburgh Golf Club.

Mary Ann went to primary school in Epping. “I kept being bumped up classes because I was so far ahead of my age at reading, writing and maths, and I was getting very bored,” she says. Eventually, she found herself in Year Six at the age of eight.

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If school could be boring, home was not. Her father, Paul, was a human rights lawyer who campaigned for the creation of the Data Protection Act. “He wasn’t an easy man, but life at home was very stimulating, because at lunch or supper he would announce, ‘I have to work on reforming the House of Lords. What do you all think we should do?’ It was a bit like preparation for an Oxbridge interview when you’re nine. But it was jolly useful. There were four of us within six or seven years of each other and we’d argue. It was very competitive, and hard to get a word in edgeways!”

Essex education authority refused to let Mary Ann take her 11-plus early, so her parents sent her to private school. She passed two GCEs aged 11, and later entered sixth-form aged 14.

It was not a happy time. “I was bullied and ostracised for being clever and so much younger than everyone else in my year. It was pretty horrible, and made worse by the fact I was boarding, so I had nowhere to escape to after the school day. I think gifted children should be able to go to highly selective schools, so they don’t have to be accelerated and feel out of place.”

She won a scholarship to Oxford at 16, and gained a first in PPE (philosophy, politics and economics). She quickly found a job with the Financial Times, and, after spells on Today and The Economist, achieved her childhood ambition joining The Times in 1988, aged 27.

She stayed 19 years, making a name for herself as a political commentator and interviewer and rose to assistant editor.

As a lobby journalist she tended to stand out, not least because there were few female journalists in Westminster in those days. MPs and ministers were eager to bend her ear. Little did they know that, much of the time, she had no idea who she was speaking to!

This is because she suffers from a neurological disorder known as prosopagnosia, or face blindness, which makes it all but impossible to recognise people by their facial features.

“I was the world’s worst lobby correspondent. I’d be surrounded by men in grey suits and I never knew who any of them were. They’d come up, saying, ‘Hello, Mary Ann; how are you?’ and I wouldn’t even know if they were Tory or Labour. I used to love party conferences, because they had to wear name badges!”

As a child, she’d had trouble recognising faces. “I remember reading an Enid Blyton book, where the children had to point out a baddie and thinking, ‘How can they do that?’ I just thought it was something I’d get better at as I grew older, but I never did. Then when I was about 40, my husband was reading an article about face blindness and he said, ‘Oh my God, this is you!’ I’d never heard of it, but I did some research and got diagnosed.”

Prosopagnosia affects about 3% of the population, to varying degrees. “Mine’s medium. At least I can recognise my own family. Some people can’t even recognise their own children.”

It has caused endless embarrassment over the years. “I remember sitting in a restaurant, waiting for a politician to arrive, when a man at another table started waving. He came over with a big smile, asked how I was and suggested a drink. And I was thinking, ‘No, please, I’m going to have to introduce you to my guest and I’ve no idea who you are!’ So I did my usual tactic of asking what he was up to, in the hope it would give me some clue. And he replied, ‘Well, I’m still your agent!’”

She’s lost count of the people she has inadvertently offended. “I’m terrified of catching someone’s eye in case I don’t recognise them.”

Following a film plot is difficult because she cannot distinguish between actors. “I have trouble with the good-looking ones as their faces are so symmetrical. I can never tell Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp apart!”

She has trained herself to rely on other clues, such as voice, glasses, hairstyles or beards. “That’s fine until someone changes their appearance. I love it if someone has a great wart on their face – that makes them really easy to recognise!”

A libertarian centrist, unaligned to any political party, Mary Ann is credited for helping persuade The Times to support New Labour after the 1997 election. She had admired its then leader, Tony Blair, since the 1980s. “I marked him out as a bright spark, and he was rapidly promoted. I remember telling the editor he should meet this guy.”

As the election approached, the editor asked her to make the case for the paper backing Labour, and Michael Gove, then her deputy, to argue the case for the Tories. “We had this big debate. Neither of us won, but after the election the paper did start backing Blair.”

I can’t resist asking what the controversial Mr Gove was like. “I liked him very much, although I didn’t agree with him politically. He has exquisite manners and is impressively articulate and intelligent. We all thought he’d go into politics eventually, and so it proved.”

She still admires Blair. “I hugely admired what he did to help make Britain a more tolerant and modern country, such as the equal age of consent for gays and civil partnerships. I thought he was a breath of fresh air. I think history will judge him less harshly than at present.”

Mary Ann attracted attention during the ’97 election. She found she had no option other than taking five-year-old Evie to the parties’ early-morning election conferences before dropping her at school. “Some colleagues thought ‘good on her’, if the parties aren’t going to be family friendly, why not make a stand?” Others said it was a publicity stunt. “It wasn’t at all.”

It was, and still is, she says, hard for women to make it to the top in political journalism, because Parliamentary hours make it almost impossible with a family. She believes the relative dearth of women MPs is due to the same problem.

“You’d get this attrition, where the women lobby correspondents, who were just as good as their male counterparts, would go off and become health or education correspondents, while the workaholic males, who were perhaps prepared to let their wives take the strain at home while they did the late-night sittings, rose to be political editors. And it’s still happening.”

Perhaps because she was one of the few women to succeed in a male-dominated world, and has been outspokenly feminist, she gained a reputation for being ambitious. Private Eye parodied her as Mary Ann Bighead.

She has no hard feelings, “but on the other hand I think it does display a certain misogynistic attitude in Private Eye. I’m a lot more self-effacing than most of my male colleagues. In order to be successful in the cut-throat world of journalism, you have to at least appear as confident as your male colleagues. If you don’t, they walk all over, but if you do, you’re branded big-headed. You can’t win!”

Many thought she would be the first female editor of The Times. So in 2007 it was a surprise when she took voluntary redundancy. “I just realised that if I stayed until I was 50, I’d probably stay another 20 years and not do anything else. If I left at 45, I’d still have the chance to do other things, which I’ve done.”

She is chair of think-tank the Social Market Foundation, which has influenced Government policy, such as the design of Universal Credit. She is also launching a digital start-up firm.

She is heartened by a new wave of feminist writers, such as Caitlin Moran, but still believes women are under-represented in journalism and politics.

Even today, the media places too much emphasis on women’s appearances. “You’ll read that Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, is the sexiest woman in the world, when looks have nothing to do with her job. If anything, it’s getting worse.

“And nowadays, in order to be beautiful, you have to look young. Middle-aged women are supposed to have this dreadful, face-lifted Botox face, with the sheen of a hard-boiled egg. It looks so artificial, and turns them into Barbie dolls. It’s no longer OK for women just to age, whereas for men it’s fine. Where on earth did that come from?”

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