Tony Blair with some of the 100 new Labour women MPs elected in the 1997 election. Photo: Getty
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It’s 2014 – yet media and politics is still a man’s game

An archival study of newspaper coverage of female MPs since 1992 has revealed that the way women in politics are covered by our press is getting worse, not better.

Leveson fiddled while Rome burned. When Nadine Dorries and Louise Mensch had a political disagreement it was reported as a “catfight” (The Week, 2012 ) . “Cameron’s Cuties” and “Blair’s Babes” are the eponymous headlines; “Calm down dear” (Cameron’s 2011 comment in parliament to Angela Eagle) symbolises the political reality.  We know that men are over represented in Parliament, forming around 50 per cent of the electorate, and yet 77 per cent of MPs. We also know that this has cultural consequences for women who actually gain office. In Laura Bates’ important Everyday Sexism she highlights (among other things) the ways in which female politicians are subject to casual, daily sexism within Parliament. From the leery hand gestures and sneers to the masculine dress codes, which mean that Caroline Lucas was admonished for being inappropriately dressed in her “No More Page 3” T-shirt, while the Houses of Parliament were stocking a beer called “Top Totty”, which depicted a woman with bunny ears in a bikini. Read her book; the list goes on.

That this casual sexism takes place in the corridors of power is alarming enough, and indeed may seem sufficient to mean that women either don’t come in to politics in the first place, or when they do, leave. (A Fawcett Society report recently highlighted that a common reason for women MPs standing down was the sexism that they had experienced). This is culturally compounded by the ways in which women MPs are talked about in the press, if indeed they do get talked about at all. In order to get to grips in more detail with some of the ways in which women MPs are positioned in the press, we recently undertook an archival study of newspaper coverage of female MPs since 1992. We sampled news from coverage in mainstream newspapers from left to right, from the Guardian to the Telegraph, from the Mail and Sun to the Mirror.

We did observe a bias towards the government on the day, across the board: female politicians were more likely to get news coverage if they were part of the current government. However, we also found that female politicians were more likely to be reported negatively – for example, by 2012 we found that although all Conservative politicians received negative coverage, Conservative women MPs received negative coverage that was double that of their male counterparts. Labour women, meanwhile, were receiving coverage that was four times more likely than Labour men to be negative.

Regressive trends in the press representation for women have continued across the board. For example, our findings also showed that since 1992 and 2002 there was a decline in the amount of news coverage women MPs received relative to their proportional numbers in Parliament. As well as a relative decrease in women appearing as the main actors in stories, in relative terms they were being quoted less in 2012. We are not hearing female politicians’ voices as often as we might expect. This is not good news for our press or the state of our politics.

While the data told us something about this relative sidelining of women in politics over the decades, we were also interested in looking at the nature of this coverage in more detail. When women MPs do get media coverage, how are they represented? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the worst offenders were the tabloids. Headlines which reduced women to their body parts (busty Jacqui – the Sun making reference to the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith); as sexual adjuncts to men “Blair’s Babes” (the Sun), “Cameron’s Cuties” (the Mail) were fairly standard practice.  A focus on appearance, however, seemed to be normal practice in both red-tops and quality papers: for example, Teresa May’s shoes rather than her policies featured across the board in headlines from the Express (as “Twinkle Toes May”), the Guardian (“Theresa May makes political power play on Tory conference catwalk” ) and an article in the Times, ostensibly about May welcoming of the President of South Korea but which focused almost exclusively on what she was wearing. Positioning women as sexual objects and the emphasis upon their appearance serves only to marginalise their role as “serious” politicians. Can we imagine a headline which read “George looked svelte as he wore Armani to the CBI dinner” ? Or “Dave’s abs and sixpack gave him muscle at the Tory party conference”?. If these sound ridiculous and we can’t imagine them, why do we think it is acceptable to talk about our female politicians in this way?

The structures of patriarchy are not just confined to the press. A Hansard briefing paper on the 2010 General Election highlights that “women were not involved in the TV leaders’ debates (although all the main party leaders were male, Caroline Lucas and other minority party leaders were also not represented); the interviewing journalists were all male and there were just a few women on the advisory panels drawing up the question plan for each debate. More damning, however, was the fact that although there were nine BBC Daily Politics show debates held during the course of the campaign, of the 29 participants just 2 were women – Harriet Harman and Lynne Featherstone...”

We recognise that the issue of press coverage of politicians relies on a number of interplaying factors, not merely the press and the media themselves. Some of the problem also lies with the political parties: the selection of female candidates in the first place and their subsequent promotion to more senior political roles, once elected – a politician with more responsibility has a greater chance of attracting press attention. Also important is the effectiveness of the media promotion of women by the party machinery (a problem raised by some Labour MPs we spoke to, compounded by the fact, they felt, that the party’s PR team was all male, as was the election team). Nevertheless, the problems within political parties do not absolve the media of responsibility. When male dominated politics and media organisations determine what politics looks like, and what is deemed newsworthy, is it really surprising that women get such a raw deal?

There is a problem when the “male norm” is assumed; where men are assumed to stand for the whole population. Women have diverse and differing interests, and there is a problem both for women and their range of views and interests if we marginalise and silence them. Our study argues that we need a media that is conscious not only of the numbers of women that are included in media coverage (our research suggests that women are doubly disadvantaged – numerically there is an under-representation of an already under-represented group). But we also need a more mature media that reflects on how it presents women (more generally, but in this context, as MPs).  

Our findings show that for every mention of an MP, women MPs are frequently marked by their gender first, their aberration, deviation from the male norm. (Indeed, this is true in other areas of public life – despite, for example, Bournemouth-born Virginia Wade’s Wimbledon victory in 1977, Andy Murray is still routinely referred to as “Britain’s first Wimbledon victor for 77 years”, on BBC News and elsewhere). A press (and media) representation of women that serves to suggest politics is a “man’s game”, where women are regarded as the aberrant, exception to the rule, sidelines women representatives, puts off women from standing as candidates, as highlighted by Conservative MP Sarah Newton in the Financial Times at the weekend, and alienates voters. We are not seeking to excuse male politicians for their role in this. But a male dominated media is complicit in a culture that marginalises and trivialises women. And until we can have a grown-up discussion about this, we will continue to inflict damage on our democracy and women within it. Leveson was an opportunity to rethink the structures of our press. Instead there was tinkering round the edges as the patriarchy remains intact.

Heather Savigny is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the Media School, Bournemouth University, Deirdre O’Neill is Associate Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Leeds Trinity University

The study is published in Journalism Education and was conducted with the help of a grant from the Association of Journalism Education

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle