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Turning the page on media sexism

28 June 2013

David Dinsmore, the new editor of the Sun, is to continue to run Page 3 topless models in the papers because it is a "good way of selling newspapers".

He will, however, be dropping "News in Briefs", the speech bubbles coming from the models with comments on such issues as quantitative easing or quotes from Heidegger. Just how funny was that?

It is 2013. Germany has a female Chancellor. And the UK's biggest selling newspaper still thinks women are pieces of meat.

Dinsmore's decision made it obvious that an NUJ event on the same day, Turning the Page on Media Sexism, was as relevant as ever before.

The first speaker, introduced by Michelle Stanistreet, the union's general secretary, was Sophie Bennett, campaigns officer of Object, the organisation which challenges the sexual objectification of women through lads' mags, lap dancing clubs and sexist advertising.

It was her organisation which gave such compelling evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, into the ethics and culture of the press, on the harm caused by images in the press which denigrate women and the powerlessness of women to have them removed.

Helen Goodman, shadow culture secretary, said the situation had been made worse by the internet which, unlike TV and cinema, is not subject to controls. Hard-core porn, child porn and rape scenes are all available and are being accessed by young people. She said the search engines and other technology companies need to do more to block these images.

The Page 3 issue lead to a debate during the meeting with one woman saying:

"I am a feminist and I disagree with Page 3, but there is the issue of free speech. I don't want to be seen as a feminist who wants to ban everything."

This was countered by Holly Dustin of the End Violence Against Women coalition. She said:

"There is the argument about censorship. But in my experience it is women's voices which are being constantly shouted down. You can argue for freedom of speech, but whose freedom is it? It is freedom which permits images of women being brutally raped for the purpose of sexual arousal?"

Sophie Bennett had started her speech with chilling, yet familiar, statistics: almost one in three 16 to 18 year-old girls had experienced groping or other unwanted sexual touching; the same number of teenagers had experienced sexual violence from a partner; one million women per year suffered domestic abuse, 300,000 were assaulted and 60,000 women were raped.

Her organisation's report Just the Women monitored newspapers over a two-week period last year and discovered an alarming number of incidents of victim-blaming of women in the reporting violence against women, sexist, racist and ageist stereotypes and explicit advertisements for the sex industry. She said:

"There must be a link. The advertising industry is based on the premise that behaviour can be changed by the way images are presented."

Many more recent examples were cited at the meeting, such as Liz Jones's remarks in the Daily Mail about Rihanna, when she said: "She promotes drug-taking, drinking and the sort of fashion sense on stage that surely invites rape at worst, disrespect at least …" and the way the trial of Jeremy Forrester, the teacher convicted for abduction of a 15-year-old pupil, was reported.

"This was statutory rape, but was being presented as a love affair," said Cath Elliott, a freelance writer and speaker at the event.

Sophie Bennett said:

"We will not achieve equality whilst women are either made invisible, trivialised, objectified and vilified on the basis of what we look like and while crimes against women are not taken seriously in the way they are reported. We need, and deserve, a press that at the very least does not harm."

Helen Goodman she had seen women's lives improving for the better in many ways, socially and economically. But there was one area where things are getting worse: the way women are treated by the media and the domination of men within the industry. She said:

"If you work in broadcasting, the minute you get to my age, 55, and the wrinkles start to show, they don't want to know. They somehow have a horror of women who look like me."

Of on-screen presenters the ratio of men to women is 60:40, but only 18 per cent of presenters are women aged over 50. Women are also poorly represented as experts, the people called upon by TV and radio to discuss news items in their field.

Mark Wray, of the BBC's College of Journalism, told the meeting of the work he is doing to remedy the situation. He has set up practical workshops and training sessions for women to learn how to present themselves as experts on TV and radio (more details).

Cath Elliott, writes and blogs for the Guardian and Liberal Conspiracy and is active on Twitter. She said she is subjected to the most vicious, personal abuse when she writes online on feminist (or other) subjects. Michelle Stanistreet said the union has had to take this up with newspapers, including the Guardian, which had allowed its writers to be subjected to vile, sexual abuse on comment threads.

Reni Eddo-Lodge is a writer and campaigner on social justice. She said that, as a black women, she is used to seeing the media peddling images of the "perfect woman", who is thin, nubile and white.

"It amounts to white supremacy in that this is the image of beauty of the people who own the reins of power. It is the same with ageism; women are not seen as attractive when they begin to age."

The problem, she said, is that it is men who own and run the industry:

"These people will do all they can to preserve this power. In their hands speech is not free."

But are journalists also to blame?

Michelle Stanistreet said that in evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, the NUJ gathered witness statements which showed that reporters were bullied by their bosses into writing certain types of stories.

"That is why we are campaigning for a conscience clause, so that journalists are entitled to refuse to produce work that breaches their code of conduct. Unfortunately the newspaper editors have not agreed to put this in their staff contracts."

Sophie Bennett summed up the meeting by picking up on a comment from a member of the National Union of Teachers. She said:

"Education is essential, young people need to be taught about how to deal with the sexism and the porn they are bombarded with. Journalists need to be trained to take care in the way they report stories. And all of us here need to complain when we see sexism in the media. Don't let them get away with it."

More information on the BBC's Expert Women scheme can be found at the following links:

Tags: , sexism, equality, The Sun, BBC, conscience clause