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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.