Not soaraway any more

No one seems to hold the editor responsible for the <em>Sun</em>'s decline in sales, least of all he

The other day I received two energy-saving light bulbs free with my copy of the Sun. "Help save the world (and £13 into the bargain)", it said. Thank you, Rupert.

I had known the gift was on its way because of something even odder in the paper the previous day: a pull-out "green" section, introduced with a truly baffling pastiche of the famous Sun front page from election day, 1992.

Back then, we had Neil Kinnock's head as a light bulb beside the headline, "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights". This time it was Gordon Brown's head as a new-style light bulb and the words, "Will the last person in Britain to switch to energy-saving bulbs please turn out the old lights".

What were they suggesting? That global warming is like Kinnock? That Brown is like Kinnock? That changing your light bulbs today is like voting for John Major in 1992? In fact the page said rather less about climate change (however welcome this new recruit to the cause might be) than it did about the state of the Sun.

The nation's favourite paper is news in its own right these days: Rebekah Wade has been editor for five years; she recently gave evidence to a House of Lords committee; printing has moved from Wapping; and, most strikingly, the circulation recently dipped (briefly) below three million, its lowest level since 1974.

The industry consensus is that Wade has been a good editor in tough times, and she certainly cut a confident figure before their lordships, brushing aside suggestions that she manipulated her readers or was Murdoch's puppet, and bragging about her team of journalists and her closeness to the readers.

But there is no getting around that loss of a fifth of the readership in the past decade: the paper that branded itself as "soaraway" soars no more.

Wade blames the free papers, the internet and the decline of the street-corner newsagent. As you might expect, she does not see quality as a problem, and in print the Sun is proud of its scoops ("Amy on crack", "Ashley cheats on Cheryl" and the like). But is it really a good paper, or is there something about it that has been putting off the readers?

In several important respects it is indisputably better than it ever was under Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor who gave it its glory days. The news is better done, with a broader range. The layout is tidier, so it looks smarter. And it is less irresponsible. Unfortunately, as that Gordon Brown light-bulb page demonstrated so vividly, it is also painfully short of flair and wit, and relies so heavily on old tricks that you can't help noticing the absence of new ones.

The punning headlines are as awful as they always were, but the awfulness has become as unfunny as the leader-page cartoons, as in "Clint-on a Roll" (Hillary wins a primary), or repeated references to "Leslie C-Ash" (because of her compensation award).

A picture story begins like this: "Claw blimey! Atomic Kitten Liz McClarnon looks like the cat that got the cream as she poses in tiny white undies." It's like a bad McGill seaside postcard, and no one sends those any more.

Desperation haunts the showbiz pages, as when Eva Longoria is shown pushing a wheeled suitcase rather than pulling it, under the headline "Eva Lawngoria" (it looked like she was pushing a lawnmower, geddit?). And to call Kylie Minogue "the pint-sized pop stunner" is beyond cliché.

Most obviously, the covers lack the sharpness of the earlier era, even when a lot depends on them. A campaign against the EU treaty last autumn began with a Churchillian front page that once again tried to ape MacKenzie, but, like the light-bulb rehash, mangled its message.

The worst of it is that when the humour is so poor, the raw unpleasantness of so much of the other content is more obvious. With its triumphant snaps of celebrities who have put on a few pounds and its endless parade of sour and intolerant columnists, the Sun can be the nasty paper, just as surely as the Tories were once the nasty party.

Maybe I'm a snob - that is how the paper usually dismisses its critics - or maybe I am guilty of rose-tinting the past. It may even be that there simply aren't any new red-top tricks available to replace the weary old ones (the Mirror certainly hasn't found any). Whatever the reason, I'm not surprised the Sun has lost readers.

Now that is worrying

"I find myself worried," the venerable William Rees-Mogg informed us in the Times, "by the figures with whom Mr Obama is compared." He had in mind Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi. All four may have been charismatic and idealistic leaders, Rees-Mogg pointed out, but "what they also had in common is that they were assassinated".

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.