Why you won’t hear about violence against women in this week’s debate

Half of women experience violence or stalking in their lifetime. But our leaders still won't debate

Women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than get breast cancer, but you can bet that Brown, Clegg and Cameron won't talk about violence against women (VAW) in the final leaders' debate this Thursday.

Staggeringly, half of women in England and Wales experience sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking in their lifetime. Based on government figures, it is estimated to cost over £40 billion a year (including the cost to public services, women's lost economic output and the human cost). Think of most policy areas and there will be a link - health, poverty, inequality, crime, the economy and so it goes on. Despite this, the issue wasn't deemed worthy of discussion in either of the first two leadership debates.

Whilst televised debates encourage soundbites, the manifestos have space to flesh out policies in more detail. So it is astonishing that the Lib Dem manifesto makes no reference to the issue, such as the funding crisis facing rape crisis centres or the need to challenge attitudes that condone violence. Clegg's star may be rising but this is a shocking omission from the party that claims to embody "change".

In their manifesto, the Conservatives promise funding for new and existing Rape Crisis Centres and to include the issue of consent in sex education. But despite having published their own strategy calling for a cross-government approach, their manifesto shows little evidence of this. For instance, how will their Big Society idea of shifting power from the centre to local areas end patchy service provision (as we have charted in our joint Map of Gaps campaign with the Equality and Human Rights Commission? What impact will tougher immigration policies have on ethnic minority women experiencing violence? Clearly, women who leave abusive husbands were not high on the agenda when the marriage tax giveaway was dreamt up.

In its manifesto Labour's recognition of the need to tackle the causes of VAW and raise awareness, not just improve the criminal justice response, is welcome. However it is disappointing that VAW is not reflected across different policy areas or linked to equality and human rights. This is despite the recent publication of a cross-government strategy, after years of campaigning by the End Violence Against Women coalition. There is no reference to the plight of women trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation, and whilst there is a commitment to women-only provision there is no plan to end the funding crisis facing women's services.

Both Labour and Conservative manifestos give a nod to restricting sexualised products marketed at children. Indeed, during the furore surrounding Primark's glittery padded bikini bras for seven year old girls, both Cameron and Brown spoke out in support of Mumsnet's Let Girls Be Girls campaign (although, as the New Statesman has pointed out, Cameron has been strangely silent about Next selling padded bras for girls, noting that its chief executive is a major Tory backer). In the Nationalists and smaller party manifestos, only Plaid Cymru and the Greens support violence against women strategies.

Dubbed the 'Mumsnet election', the parties are keenly aware that women's votes are critical - indeed, the Lib Dems' current surge in the polls is mostly down to women. And yet the absence of women (aside from the leaders' wives) in the campaign has been widely commented on. The lack of debate about women's equality is even starker. When prompted at women's sector events women politicians have fleshed out their policies. All well and good but with three white male leaders slugging it out in tv debates hosted by three white men will violence against women get the airing it deserves? Don't hold your breath.

 

Holly Dustin is manager of the End Violence Against Women coalition.

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era