Nicola Sturgeon accused the Daily Mail of taking Britain back to the 1970s after the tabloid featured a picture of her with Theresa May under the headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” following their summit on Monday.
The first minister’s spokesperson was one of a string of politicians to criticise the tabloid over the headline, which attracted hundreds of complaints of sexism – although Downing Street refused to be drawn into the row.
“Brexit may risk taking Britain back to the early 1970s, but there is no need for coverage of events to lead the way,” Sturgeon’s spokeperson added.
The Mail, meanwhile, hit back, telling its critics to “get a life”, and arguing that its treatment of the meeting to discuss a second Scottish referendum was meant to be “light-hearted”.
But more than 300 people complained to press regulator Ipso over the coverage, including a double-page spread inside that focused on the two leaders’ clothes and an article by Sarah Vine headlined “Finest weapons at their command? Those pins!”
Ipso said its hands were tied unless either of the politicians themselves complained, but at an official briefing to journalists, the prime minister’s spokesman, James Slack, would not be drawn on the controversy surrounding the Mail, where he was political editor until recently.
“You would not expect me to comment on what newspapers should or should not put on their front pages,” the prime minister’s spokesman said at a lobby briefing.
There was understood to have been a debate over the headline among the senior editing team at the Mail, which decides what to put on the front page. In the absence of editor-in-chief Paul Dacre, who rarely works on a Monday, his deputy Ted Verity was understood to have taken the decision, despite some fears that it would attract attention on a day when the Mail’s other front page story was a scoop about the NHS.
However, Dacre sanctioned a forthright response to the criticism on Tuesday in which a spokesperson for the Daily Mail asked whether the “po-faced BBC and leftwing commentariat, so obsessed by the Daily Mail” had “lost all sense of humour … and proportion?”.
“For goodness sake, get a life! Sarah Vine’s piece, which was flagged as light-hearted, was a side-bar alongside a serious political story,” the statement read. “It appeared in an 84-page paper packed with important news and analysis, a front-page exclusive on cost-cutting in the NHS and a health supplement devoted to women’s health issues.”
Yet the front page was changed for later editions to include the words, “Sarah Vine’s light-hearted verdict on the big showdown” and “Legs-it” was not mentioned in the Scottish Mail, which focused on the “frosty” relationship between the two leaders instead.
This decision by the all-male editing team to blame the female columnists provoked further accusations of sexism. ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, tweeted that “the decision to pin it on a woman” was “perhaps most upsetting”.
Vine herself appeared on the BBC’s World at One to defend the front page. When the columnist said: “In the piece I don’t just talk about the legs,” presenter Martha Kearney responded: “No, you talk about the jackets too.”
Kearney also pointed out that while the serious news story made up about one-third of the coverage, “Legs-it” dominated the front page and two-thirds of the inside pages.
The Mail also defended itself against accusations of sexism by saying, “For the record, we often comment on the appearance of male politicians including Cameron’s waistline, Osborne’s hair, Corbyn’s clothes – and even Boris’s legs.”
Vine said that newspapers were often rude about male politicians’ appearance, including about her husband, Michael Gove. “I’m perfectly happy to stand by what I wrote. I wasn’t horrid about them. I didn’t insult either of them.”
However, Sturgeon’s spokesperson was less sure. “It is slightly surprising that when the first minister of Scotland and the prime minister of the UK meet to discuss the key issues of the UK’s departure from the EU and giving the people of Scotland a choice over their future that the main focus should be on their legs and what they are wearing,” a spokesman said.
Yet several politicians pointed out the difference between holiday shots of Cameron in shorts or Boris on a bike. Those to have described the coverage included Labour MP Harriet Harman, who called the coverage “moronic” and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Both Yvette Cooper and former Labour leader Ed Miliband accused the Mail of reverting to the 1950s, and the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson also took to Twitter over the front page.
Moronic! And we are in 2017! pic.twitter.com/LTGEZdtNo3— Harriet Harman (@HarrietHarman) March 27, 2017
It's 2017. This sexism must be consigned to history. Shame on the Daily Mail. pic.twitter.com/V3RpFSgfnO— Jeremy Corbyn MP (@jeremycorbyn) March 27, 2017
It's 2017. Two women's decisions will determine if United Kingdom continues to exist. And front page news is their lower limbs. Obviously pic.twitter.com/AMp0YvtISa— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) March 27, 2017
Ipso said most of the complaints accused the Mail of discrimination, a clause of the editor’s code that is meant to outlaw using “details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability... unless genuinely relevant to the story”.