Female MPs photographed outside Parliament in May to campaign for the return of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria. Photo: Getty
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Female MPs in the press: slated or ignored

A new study hints at sexism in the press.

Female politicians are presented more negatively in the press than their male counterparts, and receive less coverage overall, a recent academic study has revealed.

The investigation analysed newspaper reports covering female MPs, using samples from the election years 1992, 2002 and 2012. The researchers dug through archives of papers to both the left and right of the political spectrum, including the Guardian, Telegraph, Mail, Sun and Mirror.

It transpired that although all politicians receive negative coverage, female politicians were more likely to be presented in a dim light.

In 2012, Conservative women were twice as likely as their male counterparts to receive bad press.

Labour women were four times more likely to be slammed in the press than their male colleagues; in their 2012 sample of press cuttings, the researchers found no positive coverage of female Labour politicians at all.

Female Liberal Democrats were generally ignored by the newspapers altogether that year.

The research also identified a regressive trend for media representation for female politicians of all political stripes.

Since 1992 there has been a decline in the amount of news coverage women MPs receive relative to their proportional numbers in Parliament. By 2012 they were being quoted less in the press too.

The pair conducting the research, Deidre O’Neill, a journalism lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, and Dr Heather Savigny, a lecturer in politics at Bournemouth University’s Media School, also examined why female politicians receive worse coverage.

They argued that the representation of female politicians deviates from a "male norm", the pervasive nation that men are assumed to stand for the whole population.

The duo called for print journalists to be conscious of including women in media coverage and reflect on how they present women. They recommended the creation of a media monitoring group, comprising politicians, media representatives and academics.

Savigny said: “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.  This press rep­resentation of women that sometimes serves to suggest politics is a ‘man’s game’, where women are regarded as the aberrant, exception to the rule, can alienate women representatives and likely future candidates."

She added that the invidious trend affects the democratic process, whereby women voters feel unrepresented in Parliament and turn away from political engagement."

O'Neill added: "Within society, many factors already militate against women entering public life. The regressive trends highlighted by our findings, taken in context with other media developments, such as the rise of internet trolls churning out appalling misogynist abuse and rape and death threats to women who have aired views or campaigned publicly creates a climate that makes it more difficult for women and which can put competent women off taking public office."

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.


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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.