Women on bank notes: I was wrong

What looked at first to me like a trivial issue opened up a vital debate about the importance of women's achievements in our society.

Here's the thing: I was wrong.

When Caroline Criado-Perez first started making noise about the fact that the Bank of England had dropped the only woman chosen to be on a banknote - Elizabeth Fry - and replaced her with Winston Churchill, I didn't think it was a big deal. Aren't there bigger things to worry about than who gets pictured on our money? What about rape, domestic violence, global hunger, income inequality, the fact I can't find a shoe that is comfortable and stylish? Why are bloody feminists always obsessing over the small stuff instead of solving the real problems?

Now, I've realised that this the line of reasoning that ends, inexorably, with you posting the comment "HOW IS THIS NEWS?!? F1!RST!" on Guardian stories about otters. 

First, the kind of people who complain that an activist isn't focusing on the Real Problem aren't usually focusing on it themselves, either. They're just looking for a cheap, armchair way to feel like they're better than someone else. (Also, on a general note, being a dick to people on Twitter is not activism.)

Second, faced with a huge array of injustices, it's better to do something than do nothing, always. (I don't think Criado-Perez would have cracked the Middle East peace process if only she hadn't been too busy with banknotes.) There's a power in small, symbolic actions; I mean, what was Gandhi thinking when he had a stroll to the sea to make salt? Who cares about salt, right, when there's independence to fight for? 

Third, and this is where my really big apology comes - actually, this campaign is really important. Because of it, we've had a conversation, as high up as George Osborne and Maria Miller, about the sidelining of women in British history. People have had the chance to talk about what women they admire in the story we tell about ourselves and our country. It prompted Ed Miliband to give a speech about the representation of women in public life, and it gave Osborne the chance to do a pun on Twitter. It allowed all the tweeters who knee-jerked to "yeah but there is a woman - the Queen" a moment to reflect why the Queen is there, compared with those who are there on merit, and why women might find that insulting. It helps education campaigners vocalise why they are unhappy with a national history curriculum focused on "posh white blokes".

And it allowed Tory MP Mary Macleod to indulge in the most shameless piece of glory-hunting since John Terry. 

Most of all, it gave a template for a successful, focused campaign. Asking women to protest outside the Bank of England dressed as their favourite historical characters was a stroke of genius, giving the media a fun story (and good pictures to use every time they then wrote about the campaign - making it more likely to be reported prominently).

Criado-Perez might not have "smashed patriarchy", but she has shown that you can make the world better, even if only by a fraction. And that is a damn sight better than nothing. 

 

Criado Perez protests outside the Bank of England. Photo: Getty

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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder