Neil Cobb (University of Manchester, Inherently Human editor)
While the British media continues to pick apart the report of the 18 month long Leveson Inquiry, as well as shining a spotlight on the split that seems to be emerging between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over the report’s proposal for statutory regulation of the press, another aspect of the report and its aftermath has been largely overlooked.
Deep within Volume 2 of the 2000-page four volume publication, positioned midway through a chapter on “Criticisms of the culture, practices and ethics of the press”, are thirteen or so pages which focus specifically on submissions to the inquiry that considered the issue of discriminatory representation of women and minorities by the British press.
As the report goes on to note, these submissions involved “a different kind of criticism” from most of the other challenges levelled at press practice over the course of the public inquiry. Unlike well-publicised complaints made by aggrieved personalities like Charlotte Church, the McCanns or Christopher Jeffries, these were instead “complaints on behalf of classes of people, rather than a series of individuals”.
In the past, as the report also accepts, complaints on behalf of women and minorities as groups rather than individuals have had little chance of success before the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). This is because of the particular wording of Clause 12 of the Editors’ Code of Practice, which forms the basis for complaints to the PCC, and which focuses solely on discrimination by the press against specific individuals. As Clause 12 states:
(i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any form of physical or mental illness or disability.
(ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
The upshot of this focus on discrimination against individuals is that complaints on behalf of women or minorities as a group, as the Leveson Report acknowledges, “have not been ordinarily admissible” before the PCC.
For this reason, the inquiry offered, importantly, “a first opportunity for a number of representative groups to express their concerns about discriminatory press reporting.” And given the considerable number of submissions to the inquiry by groups working on behalf of women and minorities full use seems to have been made of this one off opportunity to highlight the problem of discriminatory treatment by the press.
I want to focus primarily in this post on the Leveson Report’s discussion of women.
This means leaving to one side for now the report’s discussion of the mistreatment by the press of trans people, gypsies and travellers, Muslim communities, immigrants and asylum seekers, although the submissions to the inquiry in relation to each these groups certainly make for alarming reading. For example, evidence was submitted to Leveson showing that representations of trans people by some part of the press have almost always fallen within three categories: “trans as fraud”, “trans as undeserving” and “trans as deviant and deserving of parody”. It was also shown that on at least one occasion The Sun’s “anti-terror expert” had deliberately uploaded a post to a Muslim community website, claiming to set out details of a Muslim plot to kill prominent British Jews, in order to vilify Muslims in a subsequent article.
My focus on women also means highlighting only briefly the (perhaps surprising) observation in the report that the inquiry received only a handful of examples of negative representations of gay people by the press. This was the case even though, as the report acknowledges, “30 years ago, an inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press was likely to have seen a deluge of complaints relating to the representation of homosexuals in the press.” The report offers two possible reasons for the lack of similar complaints in 2012: “the fact that only a few such complaints were received by this inquiry may reflect the press’s ability to put its own house in order. Alternatively, it may simply reflect that society has changed and the press has been forced to keep up.”
WOMEN AND THE REPORT
The inquiry heard from several women’s groups including Object, Turn Your Back on Page 3, Eaves Housing for Women, and the End Violence against Women Coalition. Their submissions drew attention in particular to “Page 3 imagery” of semi-naked women across several newspapers including The Sun, the Daily Sport, the Daily Star and the Daily Mail. Page 3 images, it was suggested, formed an insidious part of “a broader culture of objectification and sexualisation of women in those newspapers”.
The submissions by women’s groups paid particular attention to the hypocrisy subsisting in much of this reporting, especially where sexualised images of women and girls, and news stories relating to them, were juxtaposed with apparently “back to basics”-style moralising by the press about the sexualisation of women and girls. For instance, complaints were received about “the awkward co-existence of the Daily Mail’s support for ‘traditional values’ with the Mail Online’s ‘sidebar of shame’”, as well as outrage at paedophilia in the Daily Star next to commentary on “15 year old” Charlotte Church’s breasts. At their most extreme, however, these articles and images also “appeared to eroticise violence against women”, especially an article in The Sun entitled “Bodyguards for battered Towie sisters” which was accompanied by pictures of one of the sisters in an erotic pose in her underwear.
The report concludes that many of the pages of the Sport, in particular, were “hardly distinguishable from the admittedly ‘softer’ end of top-shelf pornography”. It also agreed with women’s organisations that “criticisms of Page 3 tabloids do not derive from the fact those newspapers contain an image of a topless woman on Page 3 (or not only from that fact). They are criticisms for which evidence can be found on a reading of all the pages in those newspapers as a whole” (the report’s own emphasis). The report drew support for this claim from evidence submitted by women’s groups that every one of the female politicians who had tried previously to challenge Page 3, including Clare Short, Harriet Harman and Lynne Featherstone, had themselves been described in The Sun “as fat, ugly, jealous, feminist fanatics, harridans, and battleaxes”.
THE REPORT’S RECOMMENDATIONS
Most radically perhaps Object argued in its submission that it was illogical that Page 3 imagery was freely available in newspapers when similar material was regulated as pornography, was already prohibited in the workplace under sexual harassment legislation and was restricted from broadcast media before the 9pm watershed. For these reasons, Object proposed that Leveson should recommend that all Page 3 imagery should be regulated as classified pornographic material to ensure that it was limited to the ‘top shelf’ in newsagents. The report was able to extricate itself from this demand, however, by responding that while “it is hard to argue against that in respect of some of the material contained in the Sport at least … the regulation of the sale of explicit print material does not fall directly within the scope of this inquiry.”
What the report did accept, though, was that the press representation of women “is an important and sensitive issue which merits further consideration by any new regulator”. It also went on to formally recommend that “what is clearly required is that any such regulator has the power to take complaints from representative women’s groups. Consideration should also be given to [Editors’] Code amendments which, while protecting freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, would equip that body with the power to intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation.”
All in all, then, the report represents at least a partial victory for women’s groups, which have campaigned for decades around these issues. Since the report’s publication it has also been reported that several women’s groups are now not only urging the government and regulators to take heed of its specific recommendations on the representation of women but also “calling on all political parties to support Leveson’s model for an independent regulator backed by statutory legislation.” As such, it will be interesting to see what role the issue of gender discrimination may also play in the arguments for statutory press regulation that will now inevitably follow the inquiry.