This year has seen something of an implosion in the British press. A huge scandal erupted in 2011 when it was discovered that News of the World had been systematically hacking individuals’ phone voicemail systems for their stories. The hacking scandal snowballed until it seemed that almost every newspaper had been involved in this illegal practice and as a result, newspapers were closed down, arrests were made, and, being British, we set up an inquiry. How could this have happened? What should we do now to stop it ever happening again? This inquiry was called the Leveson inquiry, and its report was released
I’ll leave a more detailed analysis of Leveson for those much more qualified than I am, but I want to discuss in this blog a small part of Lord Leveson’s analysis which has been virtually neglected by the media: the six pages (out of almost 2000) he spends discussing newspaper treatment of women in the UK.
I believe that in the UK we have a culture that normalises violence against women, normalises the sexualisation of girls and young women, and normalises the silencing and shrouding of older women and disabled women, amongst others. In a twist on the Handmaid’s Tale, it can be argued that in the UK women are seen only for their sexual role. This begins from a very young age as stores market t-shirts to children with logos such as ‘porn star’. It continues until women are past the “acceptable” age of sexual interest, when they become marginalised from our public spaces, fired from TV shows, replaced with younger models.
And the media is seminal in promoting this culture. This takes into account a huge range of sources, from advertisements to the women’s mags we all love to hate. But what I want to concentrate on here is the mainstream British press, as discussed in the Leveson inquiry.
The inquiry was really important for women as the current regulatory system only allows individuals to bring complaints. Thus it had not been possible for a group such as Object to bring a complaint to the PCC about the way that women in general were treated in the media. The Leveson inquiry allowed these worries and complaints to be heard. Leveson makes the point that the inquiry is not there to investigate and to judge issues of taste and decency; as he puts it, a free press is entitled to be tasteless and indecent.
However, the Editors’ Code of Practice states clearly that discrimination in newspapers is not allowed, and also that “details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story”. I believe the extent to which this occurs in the British press was not discussed sufficiently in the Leveson report.
Leveson does mention numerous newspapers such as the Daily Star, the Sport, and the Sun, that regularly portray women in demeaning ways, such as printing an article who’s sole focus is as an excuse to publish a photo of a topless or nearly-nude woman. He agrees that some of this material should be “top shelf material”, stored with pornographic magazines rather than daily news. He accepts that these images “may reflect a wider cultural failure to treat women with dignity and respect.”
Well, this is true. It does reflect a wider cultural failure. But more than that, it manifestly contravenes the Editors’ Code of Practice. When Bradley Wiggins was involved in a minor car accident, virtually all newspapers presented this as an accident with a “woman driver” – in what way was this relevant to the story? As Natasha Walter argued eloquently in her book Living Dolls, studies that show marked differences between the genders, especially if they show women to like pink and be more suited to staying at home, shopping, and cooking, receive a lot more attention in the media. A recent FHM article (okay, a magazine, not national press but…) placed women into three categories, “girlfriend / mother / victim”. Seriously. Every morning, if you turn to page 3 of a national newspaper, a large pair of breasts will stare you in the face. While there’s nothing wrong with breasts, it is not exactly news! Women are routinely portrayed as if their sole interesting factor is the way they look or the way they dress, or the size of their belly or bum or boobs. It’s not good enough. The fact that a woman is the focus of the story is ALWAYS mentioned even when it is of absolutely no relevance to the story is in contravention to the Editors’ Code of Practice. The sheer sexualisation and objectification of women, of a manner and extent that DOES NOT occur to men, is in contravention of the Editors’ Code of Practice against discrimination.
This is not good enough. The media is extremely important in reflecting AND promoting our culture. And right now, they are helping to promote a rape culture in which women are nothing more than their bodies, reduced to a sum of their sexual parts. In a UK where more than a quarter of men believe it is partly a woman’s fault if she is raped when wearing a short skirt, or when drunk (in fact, 36%), a media that does not take rape seriously and constantly sexualises women is not good enough. We deserve better. We need better. We need to be seen not as sex objects, mothers or victims, but as people. People who do incredible things, people who make mistakes, people who do bad things, without reference to gender. We deserve to not be sexualised and infantilised.
The Leveson inquiry was a great opportunity for women’s groups to have their voices heard. It is sad that only six pages were devoted to the issue, and that much of the beginning concentrated on the fact that a free press is entitled to be “indecent”. But what is worse is that only one newspaper appears to have commented on the issue. (Not surprising that it was our left wing newspaper, the Guardian). The fact that no other newspapers have seen fit to comment on it strongly suggests that nothing will change. All that we can hope is that a new regulatory system will allow groups and areas of interest to bring complaints. Then we can regularly challenge our sexist media until we have a media we deserve.