Not All Bad News

When a UN expert’s report identified serious shortcomings in the UK government’s approach to violence against women and girls, the media coverage reduced her careful analysis to a debate on whether Britain was ‘the world’s most sexist country’. Sarah Green explains how this kind of distortion happens—and how feminists can use the media more effectively to get their message across.

Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, made her first ever mission to the UK in April. At the end of an intense two-week tour she produced an authoritative analysis of the state’s key systemic failings on VAWG. News channels, radio stations, blogs and the next day’s newspapers reported this as… ‘Is Britain the world’s most sexist country?’ If you knew anything about VAWG policy and practice in the UK, and if you’d seen Ms Manjoo’s statement that day, you might well have found the headlines bizarre on one level and infuriating on another. How did it happen?

Media: just part of the patriarchy?

It’s easy to say that the news media, especially the ‘traditional’ media—commercial newspapers and commercial/public broadcasters—are as much a scene of white male privilege and resistance to women’s liberation as the ‘free’ market, the state, much public space and the private sphere. And there are plenty of facts which back that up. There are fewer women than men working in journalism; women face discrimination and the glass ceiling which keeps most of them out of positions of influence as editors, controllers, directors and commissioners. Women are also under-represented as media commentators and guests, especially Black and working-class women. The point is also demonstrated by the media’s daily perpetuation of misogynistic myths about women as workers, mothers, lovers and survivors of violence, and of racist-sexist stereotypes about Black women; by the retailing of porn in national newspapers; and by the failure to investigate and report on women’s lack of equality. We might conclude that the news media are bastions of patriarchy: why would we expect them to convey an analysis of the state’s failure to protect women in the UK?

I believe however that the truth is more complicated. The media can be oppressive, but they can also offer feminists a precious platform.

The contemporary media industry is compelled to search endlessly for ‘product’ which is new, entertaining and comprehensible to the target audience. Sometimes women’s equality stories suit these needs. From Roger Graef’s exposure of the shortcomings of police rape investigations in 1982 to ITV’s broadcast of the Savile victims’ stories in 2012, investigations by TV current affairs programmes have sometimes created change. Newspapers have run committed campaigns on women’s equality issues at national level, such as the Daily Mirror’s 2005 campaign for the UK to sign up to the European Trafficking Convention, and locally the Carlisle News & Star’s 2013 campaign to prevent the closure of its local Rape Crisis centre. As I write this, Nigerian women and their supporters are using the media, in all its forms, to force a response to the kidnapping of their daughters.

The industrial production of news

To understand what happened to Rashida Manjoo, it helps to know something about the production regime in contemporary British newsrooms. That regime is intense: ten years ago a reporter might have been given days—or at least one day—to investigate and produce a story, but today if you flick through a newspaper you will see the same journalist’s byline several times. There have been enormous cuts in the editorial departments of commercial newspapers and broadcasters over the last few years. This is related to the consolidation of global media groups (like the Murdoch empire) which increase their profits and ‘competitiveness’ by squeezing labour costs, just like most other industries. It’s a wonder journalists are not yet on zero hours contracts! (I suppose freelancers are.) Fewer people are doing more work; in journalism this means less time to research each story, and less time to meet and develop contacts. The result has been a worrying decline in specialist expertise.

The same is true of comment. Retained columnists and outsiders can be asked at 3pm for 1,000 words of analysis on a breaking story by 5pm. It can be done, but it’s obvious that such tight deadlines reduce the opportunities for fact checking and talking to different people. But if you turn an assignment down you are taking a risk; the same ‘reliable’ names are used again and again.

Press conferences are less a feature of the working news day than they used to be. It’s simply harder to get reporters to leave their desks. They are more ‘efficient’ on the news assembly line if they are at a desk doing internet and phone based fact checking. If you’re not the PM, think seriously before investing in a press conference; if you really must, do it at 8 or 9am with a free breakfast so media workers can catch it on the way into work.

Broadcasters have an additional emphasis on sound and picture quality, and a need for guests and visuals, needs which can work to the detriment of time spent on story research. It’s a cliché to talk about the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle, but actually this can’t be overstated: there is constant pressure to fill airtime. Online news, live blogs on big stories, constant comment and sharing, all need feeding. In itself this is not necessarily a bad thing—more people than ever before can be constantly in touch with global events—but the way news production is organized means that many smart, sharp journalists who are committed to the public interest spend their time processing news nuggets for us at speed (think beefburgers). If you are a supplier of news, your line had better be clear and easy to grasp (digestible, to continue the beefburger metaphor, but not necessarily fortifying).

The public relations industry ‘packages’ news before it reaches journalists. There are acres of critiques of PR as a profession, but in the context of fewer reporters, working intensively on the churn of the daily news cycle, a ready-made news-burger is perfect. Press releases are literally cut and pasted into newspaper/wire/broadcast script copy. I was amazed and delighted the first time I held in my hand a clipping from a local paper which looked exactly like a news report and was my press release word for word. At national level the news media are served not only by press releases but by pre-briefing (face-to-face or on the phone) before a story is published, and by helpful arrangement of accompanying statistics and case studies by the interested actor in the story (the Government, a business or a charity, for instance).

How it happened: some mechanics

All this helps to explain why the UN Special Rapporteur was so misrepresented: why her considered statement turned into a debate on whether Britain was the world’s most sexist country, even worse than Saudi Arabia.

First of all, it seems that Rashida Manjoo might not have pre-briefed the press on what she was going to say. Given their limited resources, the news media have come to expect advance briefing as a matter of course. Stories and reactions are generally at least sketched out the day before and commentator guests are provisionally booked in. In the organisation where I work we are commonly asked to produce a response to Government statistics which have not yet been published (the press supply them to us) and booked to comment on stories which are still under embargo until the next day.

Secondly, at her press conference (which I didn’t attend), Ms Manjoo read out her nine page statement, and it’s possible she didn’t give a steer at the beginning, middle and end as to what the ‘topline’ should be. Her analysis is of course thorough, authoritative, expertly annotated, reasonable, comprehensive. It is no doubt a good basis for an ongoing dialogue with Government. But if it’s going to be communicated, by a journalist with multiple deadlines, to a student listening to the radio in the shower in Edinburgh, a mum watching the early evening TV news bulletin in Birmingham, and a commuter reading Metro on the London tube the next morning, it needs a shape, a digest, a key message.

And then comes another irony. It’s much harder to get the press pack to a press conference than it used to be. If you do manage to get them there and then you don’t provide a steer by pre-briefing, or in your statement, they are still going to need a story: unless it’s a furious news day, in which case you’ll just be dropped, they’ll have to get what they need by taking the best ‘nuggets’ from the Q&A.

Predictable questions for a visiting global expert might well include – ‘is the UK best or worst then?’ Anything with a superlative is good, as are comparisons with known ‘hotspots’ (‘is it as bad as Saudi Arabia?’) If the discussion starts to shift towards the visiting expert’s opinions, rather than a straight factual report of her findings, it will need to be shaped into something the listener/viewer could also have an opinion on, which further sucks away the depth. Lots of people will have a view on levels of sexism based on their own life experience and reporters are in tune with this; but most people can’t take a view on whether Britain’s provision of specialist services is adequate because only a very tiny minority would have any idea of what that provision is. The expert might resist the superlative question – is the UK the worst then? – and try to nuance it with references to an ‘overtly sexualised culture’, but this is likely to be lost in more popular outlets and as the story gets relayed through the wires. What happened in the hours following the press conference was classic media cannibalism: first a couple of outlets wrote it up as being all about sexism, and then lots more piled in.

This became a story ‘with legs’, running for more than two days as news channels debated with guests, Newsnight gathered a panel, and commentators used it to crucify the UN or to propel strong progressive arguments on UK culture. It’s a really interesting case study which shows there is an appetite among journalists and editors for news stories which assess VAWG. It also shows, however, that the press has come to expect pre-briefing and gets a bit panicked without it. Press conferences need to follow press release rules, and steer strongly from the outset to a reasonable headline for readers/viewers; if there isn’t a strong news ‘line’, the press pack might just create its own.

The importance of engaging

I worked in the press office at Amnesty for many years and I saw how different countries and different institutions have different approaches to dealing with the media. I saw UN agencies take a very formal, hands-off approach, which should in many ways be applauded because it is less open to cronyism, fraud and worse than the matey style you sometimes find between press and PRs in the UK. I have enormous respect for the UN Special Rapporteur and her office. I am also pretty cynical about the practice and growth of PR at the expense of impartial, investigative journalism.

But—just to throw a bit more fuel on the fire –was this episode really a bad thing? There was actually quite a lot of media coverage (which is positive on the principle that ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’). Much of it was infuriating in its dismissal of the notion of Britain being super-sexist. But there was smart stuff too. And many feminists joined the debate, from Laura Bates on Newsnight to End Violence Against Women’s Liz McKean debating Edwina Currie (‘what harm is there in a little groping’) on Sky News. Lots of women, and men, will have heard that debate, and while some will have half-heard ‘some UN nonsense’ and turned off, others will have been pricked by an apparent authority citing Britain as sexist. For many women it will have been meaningful. Serious aspects of Ms Manjoo’s findings were not entirely missed: the Government’s refusal to let her visit Yarls Wood was covered in some depth.

Feminist understandings of VAWG have been under intense media scrutiny since the Jimmy Savile revelations began in October 2012. Although it is challenging and wearing, it is essential that we are engaged. It has been heartbreaking to have to oppose again and again the calls for rape defendant anonymity, which we know is extremely regressive and based on misogyny. But when I did a high- profile interview debating the opposing view last year, I was unexpectedly warmed, lifted, touched and re-inspired by the dozens on dozens of Twitter messages I received immediately afterwards from women who had seen it – and who had just really wanted to see a feminist in the debate, putting across why anonymity is wrong. Media audiences include thousands of survivors. They want and need to hear us. I wholly endorse Liz Kelly’s recent use of a BBC Woman’s Hour interview to at one point cut through the presenter and speak directly, on live national radio, to survivors who were listening. Let’s never defer to media, let’s take it and do this with it.

Being on the front foot

I think that as a movement we are growing more confident in holding the media to account through regulators and the law. We’ve done it with the police and other parts of the state for years, why not the media? The feminist organizations Eaves, Equality Now, Object and EVAW have been involved with the Leveson Inquiry on newspaper conduct since it began in late 2011. They submitted compelling evidence about the way some newspapers uphold harmful VAWG myths, and later published a report illustrating this with examples. All continue to push for a complaints mechanism that works for women and will allow feminists to challenge misogyny on a permanent basis and show editors that it won’t pass scrutiny.

Similarly, young Black women led the charge against sexist-racist music videos from late last year in the Rewind&Reframe project. As well as challenging music industry culture they have been getting complaints in where they can (to the Advertising Standards Authority and the media regulator Ofcom) and pressing for age restrictions online. EVAW will soon produce a media complaints hub to make it easier to complain to the right media authority when nasty media portrayals of women appear – they anticipate #marywhitehouse hashtags but do not care!

We need to have more conversations about getting a variety of feminist commentators into the news media in response to stories. We are many, and among us we have know-how and contacts. And we need to keep talking about the ethics of survivors being used as case studies by the media, including how we can promote alternatives and better practice when it does happen.

I was in a lecture recently where the idea that trafficking is organised crime was challenged – the empirical evidence shows it’s more accurate to look at it as ‘disorganised crime’. To a large extent, in my view, the media is a comparable case. It’s not a monolithic reinforcer of patriarchy, but a chaotic, mostly commercially-driven one, with lots of cracks and holes. If we don’t use its platforms, we can’t create social change.

Sarah Green works in the VAWG sector and as a freelance media consultant. Find her on Twitter at @sarahthegreen