Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Women's organisations at Leveson - holding the media to account

While it seems much of mainstream news has been preoccupied with the media big guns appearing at the Leveson inquiry into media ethics, today was the chance for women's organisations to testify about the often sensationalised coverage of issues such as violence against women, rape, so-called 'honour killings' and stalking.
Marai Larasi from the End Violence Against Women coalition (EVAW), Jacqui Hunt from Equality Now, Anna Van Heeswijk from OBJECT and Heather Harvey from Eaves Charity all took part in today's testimony, providing excellent, compelling testimoney which was followed avidly in real time on social media by many women's organisations and individual women (and - eventually by the mainstream press, see BBC and Telegraph stories).

Those testifying pointed out how many cases involving the murder of women and their families by men often spoke of what ‘drove’ the man to it via the women’s behaviour – a fact that given a recent court decision permitting sexual infidelity to be a factor in sentencing murderers must give us all pause. The issue of treatment of women commentators online was also addressed, with Heather Harvey observing that misogynist insults to women online effectively stamped on women's access to free speech. "People should be able to equally comment on society but online misogyny curtails and limits women's freedom of expression, she said.

The tabloids came in for a particular drubbing from those testifying, with Anna from OBJECT noting a particularly repulsive article on a 15-year old Charlotte Church’s breasts in one newspaper, while others on the panel noted that coverage of rape cases was often sensationalist, using language more titillating than sobering.

Leveson himself acknowledged at one point that it could work if women’s organisationss had the right to raise such issues over coverage with relevant authority and adjudicated upon, and Marai Larasi from the End Violence Against Women coalition (EVAW) called for better training of journalists in covering violence against women issues and censure for journalists who breached guidelines.

It is encouraging to see the Leveson enquiry broaden its remit to include testimony on such vital issues as the sexualisation and objectification of women in media coverage, however as Anna from OBJECT observed, the questions directed to them should be directed at the media and politicians themselves, too. After all, they are the ones with the power to change for the better how women are seen, but too often not properly heard, in our media.

You can read a full transcript put together by our intern, Sarah Pollard below:

EVAW – Marai Larsai

Why have you come to the inquiry?

The media creates, reflects and reinforces attitudes. The media needs to be aware of this and not condone reporting that misrepresents women. Sensationalist reporting on violence against women reinforces incorrect views about women.

Submission from Marai Larsai.

The Daily Telegraph ‘Man murders wife after she changes her status to single’.

The tone of the story was that the man killed his wife because of her actions. The focus on her action and Facebook trivialises the murder of this woman and shifts the blame onto her. This is dangerous from a violence against women perspective. Responsible journalism for us would be 'this is how often a woman is killed, a woman is murdered twice a week by a partner or former partner' and the issue would need to contextualised more widely within a violence against women and girls framework. The fact that it became a Facebook murder itself is really symbolic, it was in fact a murder of a real woman by her partner.

Gang rape of young girls ‘an orgy’ Daily Mail.

This is very upsetting. Put the term orgy in something and what you immediately do is grab attention and it becomes titillating. Two young girls were raped, we are talking about unlawful sex and this whole story completely focuses on the girl’s behaviour, their attitudes, what the girls did and didn’t do, it even went so far to focus on their parents and not on the behaviour of the young men . There is an almost sympathetic approach to the young men, they talk about their 'career as footballers being ruined by the biggest mistake of their life'. Now you can report this if it was in a court situation but what happened to these young women is being trivialised. I would expect some scrutiny of the young men’s behaviour and this to be reported in a responsible way. I would also expect to hear that young women are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and this is what responsible reporting should sound like. They are putting words like 'orgy' and 'Lolita' into the public domain without thinking what impact this could have on the young women or on other young women who are in this position. Seeking out of expertise of professionals who are able to speak to the issues that are being reported is important in cases such as this.

But even if you are going to put the defence perspective is there not a further argument that what is critical is to put the perspective that you have just identified?

I'm not saying you can’t have a position where you say 'the behaviour of the young girl was scrutinised in court' but I would expect scrutiny of the young mans behaviour also. I would expect it to be reported in a more responsible way that put the violence in the context of the vulnerability of women. For example ‘The other woman was more reluctant and was raped by just one player’, that tone alone indicates that you are not focusing on that girls vulnerability and the way they say ‘just one player’, a rape is a rape, for that young woman there is likely to be a whole degree of trauma associated with that experience. There is also an importance of seeking out expertise in that field of professionals who are able to speak to the issues that are being reported for example a dialogue with rape crisis could look at the issues surrounding the case.

Honour based violence against and women and girls.

Honour based violence instances are reported in the press in gratuitous detail, language is inaccurate 'forced marriage' is called 'arranged marriage', they talk about these instances as being cultural or religious issues, not as 'violence against women'. The focus is on the culture and not on the issue of violence against women. Frequency of the news being reported as an Islamic issue which is not the case, this is happening in a number of cultures. Again, it is important to have a broad perspective of views from a number of professionals in a piece such as this.

Unpublished and unfinished MA dissertation reported in the Telegraph

The original press release said 'Promiscuous men more likely to rape' but the Telegraph twists their report and makes it about 'women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped'. There is a great concern about the editorial intent as it is misrepresenting the information, of the dissertation and presenting an unpublished piece as science.

Would a fair and responsible and comprehensive reporting about violence against women seek to bring in a number of strands of the story?

Absolutely, the other side of it is a context, men who commit violence are deemed as beasts, but they are the men around us. Men are demonised and the press take it out of the context of normal society, 1/3 women are abused so it is normal. Sensationalising the violence means that people disconnect it, and 'other' the violence, it doesn't relate to them. So people are less likely to report violence to the police as it becomes sensationalised.


The first point for us is a softer recommendation about journalists receiving training about the law and the way they report violence against women including the absolute and clear rule that the identities of victims of rape should not be disclosed. But also looking at violence against women and girls and helping them understand what the genuine issues are and some mythbusting so journalists are empowered as they have some accurate information.

Something around sanctions for journalists who break the law. At the moment free press seems to grant some journalists immunity.. We want a free press but we want an accountable press.

We also want to stop victim blaming. Looking at the situation and the victim is different from a tone which is 'she only has herself to blame'.

Regulatory system that has teeth, the current system does not have an adequate framework for redress. Women who have been wronged do not feel as though they can take out complaints. Have a system where a woman would feel like she is able to do that. System where groups would allow to complain also.

Equality Now – Jacqui Hunt

Why have you come to the inquiry

International human rights standards require the elimination of stereotypes against women and the media withholds these views. This is a huge issue for the international community; it focuses on the harms of this sexist stereotyping in the media. We don't have every diverse image of women in the media, BME, older women, disabilities do not exist.

Submission from Jacqui Hunt

Women in decision making roles have negative stereotypes, 'Blair's Babes' and 'Cameron's Cuties' are often the headlines of the article and even if the article makes very important points, the headline always trivialises the point.

There is a legitimisation and normalisation of sexism in society which may legitimise violence against women, which may have a consequence when it comes to access of justice for women. Any examples we have submitted come back to these points.

Freedom of the press is important, but we have to make sure that women are not sidelined and taken out of decision making in society.


Women's groups to be involved in setting the standards in a new press complaints commission because there are those headlines of discrimination and inaccurate reporting and there is also a carve out of good taste or tone and I think if you don’t understand the gender/equality arguments you might be persuaded in thinking this is about tone and not the substance of discrimination.

We don#t want just a group who is supporting an individual making a complaint but more like the CEDAW optional protocol when you are making complaints, both an individual who is directly effected by the complaint, either grave or systemic pattern of a abuse that we can then go to the media and say this is a pattern that constantly feeds into the sexualisation of women.

Anybody who can complain who has an interest, victims, groups, everyone has a legitimate right to raise a point. Sexism doesn’t start in the news room, it's in our society, we are asking our government to take a lead on campaigns to stop discrimination and promote equality.

Object - Anna Van Heeswijk

Why have you come to the inquiry

It is clear Page 3 contributes to a culture where women are perceived as existing for the sole purpose of being sex objects. This is harmful as these images are in mainstream newspapers which exist at children’s eye level.

We are proposing very simple solutions to tackle the sexualisation of women in the tabloid press.

Submission from Anna Van Heeswijk.

The Sun.

Women are displayed as a sum of sexualised body parts within the press. The common theme is the page three feature of a topless fully nude woman who is sexualised and objectified.

Women are always accompanying the 'Dear Deidre' article in their underwear, reducing them to objects and there is also widespread trivialisation and eroticisation of the reporting of violence against women. This can be seen on the front page of the Sun where the headline reads, 'Bodyguard for battered TOWIE sisters', photograph accompanying the story is a picture of one of the sisters in her underwear. Trivialises the incident so it will not be taken seriously.

These newspapers are not displayed on the top shelf, they readily available and mainstream, adverts for the porn and sex industry are alongside an advert for free toy Lego, directed at children.

Despite the fact the images within the sun would not allowed to be displayed in the workplace because of sexual harassment laws and they would not be displayed before the watershed, they are shown in this 'family newspaper'.

Parents and teachers are trying to regulate this material, teachers have told us about their difficulties with this issue, they want to encourage children to read the news and engage. Teachers encourage children to bring in a paper and they bring in the Sun. The Sun is very easy to read and is attractive for children to buy. Teachers have to confiscate these newspapers from the children and then the children point out that they are able to buy them, they are at eye level. 'Page three' girls are on every page of the Daily Star. Imagery on the front page of the star is relevant; they are displayed at child's eye level and in the mainstream.

Another point to make is the assumptions they make about the male reader which are displayed in the star accompanying this article, 'we assume you are not even reading this because you are getting a pervy eyeful of that arse', (this text accompanied a woman athlete). Even when a woman is taking part in a sport she is still sexualised and reduced to a body part.

Charlotte Church at 15, commentary with the article is that 'she is a big girl now', ‘child singing sensation showed just how much she had grown up at a Hollywood party, chest swell'. The article on the next page is an outrage about a satire to do with paedophilia; there is a massive contradiction here.

The women are completely nameless and headless just focusing on one part of their body, completely objectified and sexualised. In vulnerable position, normalising up skirt photography, voyeurism, harassment and bullying. Young girls in schools are often subjected to this bullying in school.

We have to ask ourselves, what does this say to young boys and girls when they see men in suits, sports attire, who are active participants in society and women as sexualised objects, who are naked or nearly naked every single page.

What is the difference between Penthouse and the material we have just seen?

There is not a market difference between the content, the difference is how they are regulated. It is more harmful to have these images in mainstream newspapers because of the normalising and legitimating nature they have. They are never displayed on the top shelf, they are completely mainstream and available to everyone. Makes this portrayal of women unquestionable, normal and acceptable.

The images on our submission were censored, we are in a roomful of adults but they are not in the newspapers.


Images should be guided by legislation which already exists. Any messages and images which are not considered as appropriate for the workplace should not be printed or readily available in unrestricted newspapers.

Gender equality being the baseline for shaping the attitudes of children and young people about women and young girls.

We are not proposing any form of radical over haul of media regulations, just called for consistency with how other media outlets are regulated.

Eaves Housing for Women – Heather Harvey

Why have you come to the inquiry

We are grateful to contribute, we support freedom of expression but we have concerns that the press should challenge the status quo, hold people to account and we are concerned that our press reflects our society and reinforces it. If we do not keep power in check sexism will continue to exist.

Submission Heather Harvey

The riots over the summer will often be covered in a responsible way, they look at the wider patterns and the wider context, will usually involve asking commentators.

There were 4 instances of a man murdering his wife and children over Christmas, I would expect responsible journalism to look at these things, is there a common factor, is there any research, if there isn’t should there be, all these things should be asked. What we are concerned about is these cases are treated as a ‘one off’ nothing you can do to prevent it. Our position is that violence against women is linked directly to the public sphere; it is a cause and a consequence of inequality. It's a lack of contextualisation and a failure to ask the right questions. The press coverage causes us all to sit back and think that there is nothing we can do about it. A free press should and could be asking these more challenging questions about our society and the status quo.

We feel a lot of the coverage has a focus on the perpetrator in often quite a sympathetic way; it's amazing how little you know about the women who are actually the victim. We often know that the perpetrator has just lost his job, is depressed etc. These are valid reasons but ultimately he has been violent, but there is another half to this story, which is not being told. This tendency to obscure the victim or to scrutinise her very intently gives the impression that there is a validation, explanation or justification as to why this man committed this violence.

The media are not reporting all the cases that go to court, they report the most interesting, different or unusual. Only 8% of all rapes are stranger rapes, the rest are acquaintance, date or marriage and you would never know that if you read the paper. Women blame themselves and they feel like they should not come forward as they have heard in the discourse that they are responsible.

On the issue of debate in the general public, the level of abuse that women get, when they comment on issues of public policy, is very sexist and gendered abuse. There is a language 'you should be raped' 'you should have your tongue ripped out'. Focus is on your looks comments such as you're ugly and you're a lesbian (as if this should be a bad thing). The women themselves recognise that this is about resenting women’s right to comment on public matters, if she is talking about women's rights or policy there is a challenge to their own right to have an opinion. Women's voices and issues are being silenced, not covered properly, fairly and not a true representation of how women experience life. The way women are portrayed, prevents women from being involved in the conversation.

My colleague Larsai said most of what I wanted to say. Guidance and training for the media. Quick and affordable access to remedies.

Proactive power to undertake investigations when the media receive complaints

Would like some sort of strong sanction. Means of bringing a complaint as a member of a community as this is the only way you can bring in the less tangible but just as harmful effects of the media.

Closing comments…

Anna Van Heeswijk - It is a shame that the people who wrote these stories were not questioned about these issues. These newspapers have created a culture of fear which silences politicians and others who speak out against women being objectified. The vilification and targeting of Claire Short is an example of this, who initiated a campaign against Page 3 in the 1980s.
Claire Short's face was superimposed onto a page three model and the headline is 'fat jealous Claire brands page three porn', they likened her to a back of a bus and said making her into a page three girl would be a 'mission impossible' - the effect has been close down free speech, making people feel they cannot speak out against newspapers. This is the same point my colleague was making earlier when she spoke about bloggers. I think this sort of abuse is very alarming and something which continues. Harriet Harman has been vilified for the position she has taken on Page 3, Dr Evan Harris was named 'villan of the week' in the Sun also. Clearly a bullying tactic, because the editors themselves were not questioned on this issue it is essential politicians can speak on the experiences they have on speaking out against the Page 3 phenomenon.

Leveson - 'the start would certainly be to permit bodies such as yours to be able to take up issues of press standards with whoever would be responsible to regulate it'. The length and the breadth of what I can do with this enquiry, how much further one can go without raising all sorts of other issues is not entirely straight forward, so I’m not discouraging you but am merely asking if I understand the absolute priorities.

Anna Van Heeswijk 'We do not see this as a real drastic ask, proposal or recommendation to recommend that this generally accepted policy is applied to all broadcast media.'

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