|Anna van Heeswijk (Object), Jacqui Hunt (Equality Now), Heather Harvey (Eaves) and Marai Larasi (End Violence against Women) presenting evidence at the Leveson Inquiry. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian|
Good journalism strives for balance and diversity, yet women are rarely represented as leaders, experts or decision-makers, rather they are frequently objectified, stereotyped, trivialized and demeaned. And certain women—older women, black women, minority ethnic women and women with disabilities—are virtually absent.
The long-term corrosive effect of this type of reporting contributes to an environment of less freedom for women including to obtain justice against violence, to hold political office, to play a public role and to develop healthy body images. Eliminating gender stereotypes and promoting a more comprehensive portrayal of women would be a significant contribution the media could make to address these problems.
In response to the 2011 UK News of the World phone hacking scandal, British Prime Minister David Cameron launched a two-part inquiry into media ethics and journalism practices, with Lord Justice Leveson appointed as Chairman. Leveson opened the hearings on 14 November 2011 stating:
“The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”
Equality Now and partners End Violence Against Women Coalition, Eaves Housing and Object subsequently came together to present testimony to the Leveson Inquiry using everyday examples to highlight the pervasive sexual objectification and damaging representation of women in the British press. Also exposed was the culture of victim-blaming in cases of violence against women, which has been recognized to have negative consequences on women’s access to justice.
On 15 May 2012, the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform interviewed Equality Now London Office Director Jacqui Hunt on the Leveson Inquiry and media representation of women:
|Although we were only able to skim the surface at the Inquiry, we were able to highlight some fundamental issues that we hope will be addressed so that women can participate more fully as equals in society. We also need to promote the balanced participation of women on both sides of the story, both as subjects and as content makers, including in decision-making positions.|
In December 2011, the coalition made individual written submissions to the Inquiry giving examples of prejudicial reporting and calling for these to be addressed in the investigation.
The official submissions highlighted the failure to report accurately on crimes of violence against women; news reporting on such stories which uphold myths about sexual violence, prostitution and crimes against ethnic minority women; news reporting which implicitly blames women for violence committed against them; the normalization of images and stories which sexualize and objectify women in every edition of particular newspapers; the absence from much of the media of the diversity of women’s lives and experiences; the frequent objectification and infantilizing of women in political office; and ultimately, the UK government’s responsibility to ensure that the media does not discriminate against women.
Based on the strength of the submissions, the four organizations were also called to present oral evidence on 24 January 2012 where they encouraged the Inquiry to examine the portrayal of women as part of the investigation, arguing that the stereotyped portrayal of women in the media limits women’s democratic participation and their access to justice, particularly as relates to crimes of sexual violence against women.
>> READ Equality Now's submission to the Leveson Inquiry
>> WATCH the coalition’s testimony (starts at minute 105).
In July 2012, the group offered additional suggestions to the Inquiry in response to a call for submissions to comment on draft criteria for an effective regulatory regime for the press.
Arguments explaining how stereotyped portrayals of women in the media harm democracy were further substantiated by an independent contribution to the Leveson Inquiry by Rae Langton, Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who directly quoted from the submissions of Equality Now, Object and our partners.
|Jacqui Hunt at 10 Downing Street.|
Equality Now, Eaves, EVAW and Object subsequently undertook an evaluation (WARNING: nudity) of eleven British national newspapers’ content over a two week period in September 2012.
The report, published on 25 November 2012, examines how crimes of violence against women are reported, how women are portrayed more broadly, and the general invisibility of women in public life.The fortnight’s study found over 1,300 pieces of editorial and images which illustrated these issues. Both the report and an open letter to David Cameron were submitted to 10 Downing Street.
The final report from the Leveson Inquiry was published on 29 November 2012. Lord Leveson suggested that there is evidence to show that the tabloid press often fails to show "respect for the dignity and equality of women generally", while there is a "tendency to sexualise and demean women". He agreed with our key recommendation that "what is clearly required is that any such [new] regulator [should have] the power to take complaints from representative women’s groups".
In April 2013 Equality Now, Eaves, End Violence Against Women Coalition and Object made a submission to the consultation on the Editors’ Code, suggesting specific clarifications to better reflect the intended purpose and spirit of the Code to avoid discrimination.