The Ireland team line-up ahead of the IRB Women's Rugby World Cup match against Kazakhstan on August 9, 2014 in Paris, France. Photo: Getty Images
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“The most action I've got in weeks”: play cliché bingo with the Irish Indy on women's rugby

Advice to reporters: when sent to explain why the stereotypes about something are wrong, it’s best not to do your best to reinforce those stereotypes. 

The Irish rugby union team beat Kazakhstan 40-5 on 9 August, ensuring a place in the semi-finals of the World Cup.

If you didn't hear about this, then there's a good reason for that - it was Ireland's women's rugby union team. Women playing a team sport need a final, let alone a semi-final, to even get close to the press coverage of a men's team knocked out in the qualifying stages. But getting to the semi-finals of the World Cup is a damned impressive achievement whichever way you look at it, and this mole applauds the team for it.

However, the Irish Sunday Independent clearly felt it had to fill its readers in on this newfangled "rugby" all the ladies are apparently playing. Intrepid reporter Niamh Horan's dispatch from a day training with the women's rugby squad of Railway Union FC is pretty remarkable.

"I never play a game without my tan", says the headline, and it gets more worse from there:

As I bent over with a blonde's hand slipping around the top of my thigh, I pondered how there are worse ways to burn 
calories on a sleepy Thursday evening.

Now usually I'd make someone buy me dinner before getting into this position.

But here I was, getting my first taste of the world of women's rugby.

I was sandwiched - cheek to cheek - between two other girls, so I had to turn around to see her demonstrate how she would cling to a girl's shorts just below her crotch.

This could well be the most action I've gotten in weeks.

Minutes earlier, I had arrived with full hair and make-up for a post match night out, expecting a few raised eyebrows from my new-found team mates.

"Most of the girls are like that," Shirley continues. "Our scrum half, Jessica, never goes on the pitch without her blonde hair done, a full face of make-up and her nails perfectly manicured.

"You should see some of the guys," she smiles, nodding on the pitch towards the lads' team - some who look like they've just strutted off a catwalk. "We call them The Spice Boys," she chuckles before someone catches her eye.

Put that on," someone said, throwing a jersey my way. I stretch around to check it out in front of my new gang: "Does my bum look big in this?"

Women rugby players - as in other sports with a gender divide - can struggle to earn respect for their skill, and recognition for their achievements. After spending so long building up the feminine credentials of the women on the Railway Union FC team, Horan does go on to talk to staff about the mixed-gender coaching at the club and the differences between the men's and women's game... but it's after that weird, almost erotic opening. 

As anyone who's ever seen a roller derby before will know, there's no inherent contradiction between femininity and playing a sport to win - and perhaps manicured nails might even prove advantageous in a scrum - but Horan's piece both emphasises sexist stereotypes while doing nothing to undo the damage they do to women athletes. Railway Union FC even went so far as to publish a statement on its Facebook page calling out the article:

We were requested by the IRFU to facilitate a journalist from the Sunday Independent who wanted to do a training session and a feature on women's rugby in light of Ireland's world cup heroics. We are disappointed that what could have been a hugely positive article promoting women's rugby in Ireland at time of such achievement internationally has been reduced to stereotyping. The article in no way reflects our sport, its values and the values of our club and our members. Our club's primary goal is always the promotion of rugby, regardless of gender, and we support all teams in the club equally."

Perhaps Horan could have expected this reaction from the response to the innuendo in her parting question:

Before I left, I couldn't resist asking the question: any rugby threesomes then?

"We don't get up to that sort here," I was told bluntly.

The girls, it appears, are able to conduct themselves better off the pitch too.

I'm a mole, innit.

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