Leveson's searing omission on media sexism

If most of the people making the news aren't affected by women's issues, they are niche in the eyes

Sometimes, being a feminist makes you feel like you're going mad. It can feel like misogyny is everywhere, and you're the only one who can see it. I often find myself going through life in a permanent state of muted incandescence, knowing that if I did explode it would be totally useless anyway -- like a dog barking at thunder.

Never is this feeling more piquant than when reading the papers, where misogyny is as palpable and gratuitous as a pair of tits staring blandly out from page 3. So I must admit it was a breath of fresh air to see four articulate women at the Leveson inquiry spelling out the sexism most feminists knew was there all along. In truth, it was just nice to see women making feminist arguments publicly, without being ridiculed or interrupted.

And yet I must confess I was a little disappointed with the recommendations that came afterwards. Journalists should be trained, publications should be restricted, suggested the experts. All very well and good, but not once did they point out the single glaring, searingly obvious problem with media sexism: most of the news is written by men. According to Kira Cochrane, just 22 per cent of newspaper articles are written by women in a typical month. If we're wondering why the media denigrates women so unrelentingly, maybe that statistic is a good place to start.

These male-dominated environments create what blogger Natalie Dzerins describes as a "mutually reinforcing system of dominance": men are dominant, therefore men make the news, therefore men feature more heavily in the news, therefore men are dominant, ad infinitum. This isn't a case of nasty, brutish men pushing women out of the journalism scene -- it's the creation of a culture where male ideas rule and women must compete on a male playing field. Maybe that goes some way to explaining the fact that a lot of sexist articles are written by women: women who might feel the need to differentiate themselves from negative female stereotypes in order to be taken seriously. In 2009, the Workplace Bullying Institute seemed to ratify this, stating: "In male-dominated organizations, where men hold all the executive positions, women tend to adopt male-sex-typed behaviour to survive and succeed."

Is it any wonder, then, that issues affecting 51 per cent of the population are often relegated to the Life and Style section of newspapers? If most of the people making the news aren't affected by women's issues, then they are niche in the eyes of editors. It is acceptable to put articles about knitting patterns and rape side-by-side, as though both are as trivial and marginal as each other.

Making sure women input equally into the news is, in my mind, the only way of ensuring the output is equal too. It's a classic case of "nothing about us, without us." It also means that the next time there is an inquiry into media ethics, women can represent themselves as news-makers with agency, rather than passive victims of a callous and sexist media.

Evening out the playing field upon which media is produced is a lot more tricky than a group of (most likely male) lawmakers quickly introducing regulations to protect women. But the only way we can ensure the news is equal is by ensuring newsrooms are equal, too. Without that, any steps we take will simply be papering over the cracks.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is a freelance writer living in North London, contributing mainly to the Guardian. You can follow her at @MissEllieMae

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.