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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.