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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.

Tony Blair with some of the 100 new Labour women MPs elected in the 1997 general election. Photo: Getty
Tony Blair with some of the 100 new Labour women MPs elected in the 1997 election. Photo: Getty

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