Who is really exploiting Louise Mensch's looks here?

Predictable harrumphing about the Tory MP's photoshoot with GQ.

Predictable harrumphing about the Tory MP's photoshoot with GQ.{C}

I disagree with Louise Mensch on many things: starting with the Tory party being the best and continuing right down to "Count Cosimo Parigi" being an acceptable name for the hero of a novel. But I'm with her on this: female politicians can't win. They are inevitably judged on their looks: they're dowdy frumps (or "unfuckable lard-arses", to quote Silvio Berlusconi's charming description of Angela Merkel) or kittenish sexpots. They can't complain about it, either, because then they are whingeing girls who can't play at the big boys' table.

This month, Mensch has been interviewed by Matthew D'Ancona for GQ magazine. Inevitably, the subject of her looks came up -- triggered in part, I'm sure, by the Guardian Weekend magazine's decision last year to ask whether she'd had a facelift -- and she said that it was sexist to "'trivialise a woman politician based on her appearance". She also posed for a photoshoot wearing a knee-length skirt and a crisp white blouse.

Cue sneering.

The Mail went for "Tory MP Louise Mensch has condemned the 'trivialisation' of women politicians who are judged on the basis of their appearance. However, the attack will raise eyebrows given that it came in a magazine interview accompanied by high-glamour photographs of the outspoken backbencher and chick-lit novelist." Just in case you didn't know what a "high-glamour photograph" was, it provided one - a photograph larger than the accompanying text, in fact. (D'Ancona told the Mail that Mensch was happy to be photographed but refused to wear "'skimpy outfits".)

The Telegraph had much the same idea, accompanying a quarter-page photograph of Mensch with an epic 93 words about her views on her promotion prospects.

Immediately, the cry went up: why pose for GQ if you want to be taken seriously? The answer, of course, is that plenty of male politicians have posed for style magazines with little adverse comment. David Cameron was GQ's cover star in a photoshoot which must have involved industrial-sized tubs of bronzer and possibly a whole new iteration of PhotoShop (look, if you dare, here). George Osborne's done it. Boris's done it. Tony Blair did the cover of Men's Vogue, for crying out loud. Nick Clegg posed for the Mail on Sunday's Live magazine doing a sexy tie-based reverse striptease. Look at him, the harlot! How does he expect us to listen to his views on the Eurozone when he's smouldering like that into the camera?

Yes, I'm sympathetic to the idea that Mensch is having her cake and eating it: promoting herself in a men's magazine while decrying sexism. (And she's never going to get my vote as a 21st-century feminist icon.) But there's a lot of other, far more egregious cake dual-wielding going on here.

The first part of it is the media endlessly regurgitating stories about Mensch's appearance, then asking her about them, then getting upset that she answers.

The second is illustrating those stories with whopping great pictures of an attractive woman, because editors know that sells papers.

Who is really exploiting Louise Mensch's looks for their own gain here?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.