Baroness Warsi, Bahrain and the falsehood of British democracy

The Queen has invited the King of Bahrain to her Jubilee - but criticising her would be "mean", the

As Bahrain descends into its “three days of rage” leading up to Sunday's Grand Prix, at once barring journalists and repelling Formula One drivers, we have to wonder what pro-democracy protesters would make of a preened politician refusing to denounce their oppressor on prime-time TV.

Conservative Party Chairman Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, whose hair is so shiny it reflects off every camera pointing at her, told BBC Question Time viewers last night that it would be “mean” to condemn the Queen for entertaining the King of Bahrain at a Diamond Jubilee luncheon. 
 
Woops! Poor Liz. We clearly should never have said anything about the matter, despite, you know, living in a democracy and all. Like Bahraini king Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa authorising his army to detain nearly 3000 pro-democracy protesters and kill more than 50, perhaps our head of state should be able to do exactly what she likes without criticism. Does the Queen even know of the plight of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the former president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights who has been on hunger strike for 73 days now? He was sentenced to life imprisonment in June for plotting a coup against the ruling elite; the sentence was imposed under emergency laws specifically targeting activists who demonstrated in the uprisings of February and March last year.
 
Bahrain, like Syria, is still very much in the middle of its Arab Spring, more than a year after uprisings began. At first ignored by mainstream media and politicians who preferred to entertain the ethics surrounding a NATO mission in Libya, it is perhaps not far-fetched to suggest that were it not for the Formula One Grand Prix, this small island in the Persian Gulf wouldn't have received half the international media coverage it has. There seems no need to question why this might be: the coalition government, for all its disgust at Russia's arms deals with Syria, authorised the sale of £2.2m of arms to Bahrain in the summer.
 
Civil unrest in Bahrain is still being swept under the carpet. Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone earlier this month refused to withdraw the Grand Prix from the country, despite doing so last year. Former leader of the Metropolitan Police's Special Inquiry Squad, John “Yates of the Yard” Yates, was appointed by Al Khalifa to help out his security services (from one moral scandal to another, some might say). As though writing a holiday postcard home, he commented that Bahrain was “a delightful place”. And while the Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa was embarrassed into pulling out of an invitation to last year's ubiquitous royal wedding, Bahraini and British royalty will finally reconcile at a Windsor Castle jubilee lunch next month. 
 
The whole charade smacks of everything that is wrong with an unelected head of state. We can nod alongside William Hague's disapproval of the use of live ammunition on Bahraini activists, even protest against the exchange of arms approved by the same man's own government. But God forbid we should be "mean" enough to criticise the Queen when all she wants to do is celebrate 60 years of unelected rule with her dictator friends. 
 
Baroness Warsi might have caused outrage last night - but she also revealed a critical truth about Britain. Question the powers that be, and you get shot down. It might not be torture and teargas, but it's certainly not democratic. 
Bahraini Shiite Muslims protesting against the Grand Prix. Photo: Getty Images
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA