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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”