Leveson, the government, and women’s equality

3 Dec

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Below is Lord Justice Leveson’s section on ‘Representation of women and minorities’ taken from his recent report (Pg 662) in response to Eaves, End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW Coalition), Equality Now and OBJECT/Turn Your Back On Page 3’s submissions and evidence given to the Leveson Inquiry in January 2012.  Women’s groups welcomed his recommendations and his acknowledgement of the harmful impact this imagery and content in our tabloid press has on women.

  • You can read our response to his report here.
  • To get a background on our witness statements and submissions given to the hearing please click on the links: Eaves witness statement | EVAW Coalition submission | Equality Now statement / submission | OBJECT/Turn Your Back On Page 3 statement / submission.
  • You can also watch the women’s groups give evidence here (starts at 1hr 5mins).
  • Please also read Eaves, EVAW Coalition, Equality Now and OBJECT’s recent report ‘Just the Women’ which follows up on Leveson evidence here.
  • Check out our new website ‘Everyday Media Sexism‘ which is a joint project between Eaves, EVAW Coalition, Equality Now, OBJECT and Everyday Sexism.  We ask you, the public, to post your personal testimonies and evidence of media sexism across the board up on to it.
  • Great media stories on Page3/media sexism, Leveson and gender equality here, here and here.
  • Leveson also referenced the No More Page 3 petition which is now close to 100k signatures.

It is abundantly clear from this wealth of evidence of the overt sexism and misogyny which pervades our tabloids (and media) on a daily basis, and it’s the governments duty to end this discrimination and push women’s equality to the top of its agenda TODAY.

Please send this blog post or any part of this evidence to your MP at www.writetothem.com and demand that your MP addresses this TODAY.   Also, please make it clear to them that you will not allow this treatment of women and girls to be passed of as ‘freedom of speech’ and really, if they’re playing that card, what does it say about them and our society?

Leveson’s Report:

8.9 Object, the human rights organisation, gave comprehensive evidence to the Inquiry of what  it described as “the sexual objectification of women and girls, and the mainstreaming of the sex and porn industries in the media and popular culture”.  Its evidence focused on “Page 3 imagery”, namely imagery found in The Sun, the Midweek and Sunday Sport, and the Daily and Sunday Star, of young (almost always white) women with bare breasts, sometimes  entirely nude and in sexualised poses. Anna Van Heeswijk, representing Object, described “a gradient of extremity running from the Sun to the Daily Star to the Sport”: although Page 3 imagery is limited to page 3 of The Sun, it is found on many more pages in the Daily Star and yet more still in the Sport. Indeed, The Sport contains a self-explanatory “nipple count” which often numbers over 100.

In each of these titles, the posed photographs of topless women may be accompanied by stories including ‘up-skirt’ photographs, and extensive advertising for sex web cams, pornographic DVDs and ‘escort agencies’.

8.10 Ms Van Heeswijk considered there was “no marked difference between the content which exists within… classified pornographic materials and the contents within some of these mainstream Page 3 tabloids”.  This may be putting it high with regard to The Sun, but it would be hard to disagree when looking at the coverage in the other titles. The front page of the Midweek Sport from 16 November 2011, for example, contained a full page photograph of a glamour model in a small red bikini, with her legs akimbo. Beside that photograph was a headline, “Top 50 Glamour Babes Ever – 8 page topless pullout”. To the top right of the page was a headline, “Pippa’s Amazing Bum Pic – Shock New Photo Inside”. To the bottom left was a censored photograph with the headline “Jess Goes Topless – Jungle Babe Bares Boobs – Uncensored”. At the very bottom of the page was the headline, “Two Free XXX Sex DVDs for every reader”.

8.11 Ms Van Heeswijk argued that this type of material should not be on sale alongside other daily newspapers, but should be limited to the ‘top shelf’ alongside pornographic material. She noted: “Page 3 imagery is already prohibited in the workplace under sexual harassment legislation (set out most recently in the Equalities Act 2010), and it is restricted from broadcast media before the 9pm watershed. It would therefore be logical to recommend that Page 3 images which are considered unacceptable in the workplace, and which would not pass the pre-watershed test for television, should not be displayed in newspapers which are sold at child’s eye level with no age-restriction.

These recommendations would allow for consistency in media regulation when it comes to keeping harmful materials out of the mainstream and away from children.”

8.12 It is hard to argue against that in respect of some of the material contained in the Sport at least, but the regulation of the sale of explicit print material does not fall directly within the scope of this Inquiry. Of greater potential concern to the Inquiry is the degree to which the images may reflect a wider cultural failure to treat women with dignity and respect and/or a practice which, intentionally or not, has the effect of demeaning and degrading women.

8.13 In respect of Page 3 imagery, there are a range of arguments. There are those, like Object and the recently formed internet group “No More Page 3”, who argue that the persistent representation of topless young women on the pages of national newspapers is inherently degrading and demeaning. By contrast, there are those like Mr Mohan, who argue that Page 3 is “neither harmful nor offensive”, and satisfies the demands of a readership.  Somewhere in between are those who argue that Page 3 is simply an anomaly: out of place in the 21st century where a woman is just as likely as a man to purchase (or edit) a tabloid newspaper, or lead the country.

8.14 The arguments between those who adopt each viewpoint will continue. But for the purposes of this Inquiry, the interesting point is that it was not Page 3 per se which gave rise to the core complaints made by women’s groups. Instead, it was a general attitude which was found throughout the pages of those tabloids which contained images of semi-naked women (referred to as ‘Page 3 tabloids’), and of which Page 3 was only one example.

Object, along with other organisations such as Turn Your Back on Page 3, Eaves Housing for Women, and the End Violence Against Women Coalition argued that Page 3 imagery was part of a broader culture of objectification and sexualisation of women in those newspapers. Ms Van Heeswijk wrote: “This pervasive objectification and sexualisation of women is not restricted to the portrayal of the Page 3 models or to the Page 3 type feature. Rather, to varying extents, it influences the way that almost all women are portrayed in Page 3 tabloids, including female celebrities.

Examples include an article in the Daily Star on the size of “15 year old” Charlotte Church’s breasts (“She’s a big girl now… Child singing sensation showed just how quickly she’s grown up after turning up at a Hollywood bash looking chest swell”). This is juxtaposed with commentary of outrage against the satirical “sting” Brass Eye documentary’s “Paedophile special” (Exhibit 4). More recent examples include a feature in the Sport commenting on the genitalia of a female newsreader which it describes in derogatory terms. (Exhibit 5)”

8.15 Both of the examples given in that passage support the broader points made by Ms Van Heeswijk and others. First, the unfortunate juxtaposition of the article expressing outrage at a satirical programme on paedophilia and an article commenting on a 15 year-old’s breasts exposes a hypocrisy in relation to the sexualisation of young girls and women that is seen beyond the Page 3 tabloids: some have commented on the awkward co-existence of the Daily Mail’s support for “traditional values” with the Mail Online’s “sidebar of shame”. Second, the article commenting on the genitalia of a female newsreader supports the view that some Page 3 tabloids apply a demeaning and sexualising lens beyond those who choose to appear in their pages with breasts exposed: even the most accomplished and professional women are reduced to the sum of their body parts.

8.16 Object’s submission to the Inquiry gave examples of the sexualisation or demeaning of women from articles in The Sun, the Daily Star, and the Sport over a single week in November 2011. The articles exhibited demonstrated the “gradient of extremity” from The Sun through the Daily Star to the Sport, but all three titles contained what can only be described as objectifying material.

All three included numerous articles with no other purpose except to show an image of a scantily clad or topless woman: see, for instance, The Sun’s articles ‘Jess takes the plunge’ and ‘Celeb beauty gets ‘em out’. All three titles included articles with no purpose other than to attach a photograph of, and describe in derogatory language, a woman’s breasts or bottom: see the Daily Star’s article about “getting a massive pervy eyeful of [a celebrity’s] pert ass”, or the Sport’s article ‘Jugs and Jury’. All three contained large scale advertisements for pornography and/or escort services. And all three included articles which appeared to eroticise violence against women.

8.17 This final category of article was forcefully criticised by the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Eaves Housing who both argued that there was a tendency in parts of the press to trivialise and/or sexualise violence against women. One of the examples identified from The Sun was an article entitled ‘Bodyguards for battered Towie sisters’ reporting acts of serious violence upon two sisters, accompanied by a picture of one of them in an erotic pose in her underwear.  A similar example from the Sport was an article, adjacent to a photograph of a large breasted, topless model, about a man who had committed a sexual offence by groping a woman’s breasts.  A further example from the Sport involved a comment piece expressing the writer’s desire to have sex with a celebrity, but joking that the only way that would happen was if he raped her.

8.18 The evidence as a whole suggested that there is force in the trenchant views expressed by the groups and organisations who testified to the Inquiry that the Page 3 tabloid press often failed to show consistent respect for the dignity and equality of women generally, and that there was a tendency to sexualise and demean women. That failure is particularly clear in the pages of the Sport, which is, in my view, hardly distinguishable from the admittedly ‘softer’ end of top-shelf pornography. But it exists to a lesser degree in the Daily Star and The Sun. For The Sun, at least, it is a failure of consistency, rather than a general failure to show respect for women. The Sun has campaigned admirably against domestic violence, rape, and size zero models.  But it is clear that those campaigns have, perhaps uncomfortably, sat alongside demeaning and sexualising representations of women.

8.19 Importantly, these criticisms of the 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. They are also supported by the response that the tabloids have made to those who have criticised Page 3.

8.20 When Clare Short MP campaigned against Page 3 in the 1980s she was described by The Sun as “fat”, “ugly” and “jealous of beautiful women”.  When the Rt Hon Harriet Harman proposed legislation to ban Page 3 in 2010, she was described as a “harridan” and a “feminist fanatic” on a “furious rant”.  Similarly, when ex-Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone MP raised the issue in Government, she was described as a “battleaxe” and her proposal to limit children’s ability to purchase newspapers containing topless women was described as a “potty plan”.  Describing the female critics of Page 3 as fat, ugly, jealous, feminist fanatics, harridans, and battleaxes goes some way to proving their point.

8.21 Thus far, these criticisms have been considered at a level of some abstraction; it remains necessary to bring the debate back to the terms of the Code, and to the considerations foreshadowed in the introductory observations to this section. The article, ‘Bodyguards for Battered Towie Sisters’ may well infringe clause 12 of the Code as currently drafted, but the majority of the material discussed under this sub-heading probably does not. The impact of discriminatory or prejudicial representations of women in the Page 3 tabloids is difficult to judge. There is credible evidence that it has a broader impact on the perception and role of women in society, and the sexualisation of society generally,although submissions from Sunday Sport (2011) Ltd refer to the range of academic opinion on the issue. Suffice to say, that this Inquiry is not the place to analyse, let alone reach conclusions on these matters.

8.22 That said, these are important and sensitive issues which merit further consideration by any new regulator. 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 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.

TURN YOUR BACK ON PAGE 3!  STAND UP FOR EQUALITY! 

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