To judge by various speeches at this year’s Feminism in London 2013
Conference things could be looking up in the area of gender equality
and the media.
Finn Mackay, addressing the conference, noted that “The last couple
of years have seen a sea change in the representation and visibility of
feminism in our media and culture. Almost every day there seems to
be some form of feminist response or commentary in our media. ….
We have managed to direct attention to those issues we think are
important, we have managed to make news, not just comment on it.”
This is clearly very good news.
However, women, in one way or another, are still targets both for
easy sensationalism – which of course sells papers and draws TV
audiences – and for straightforward commercialisation by way of
This is not new, of course. But, ominously, control of the media
continues to fall into fewer and fewer hands. If we go back a decade
and look just at the United States, we find – and I quote from an
article by Serge Halimi in my own paper Le Monde diplomatique –
“SINCE the 1980s, control of the US media has grown ever more
concentrated. By 1996 the two largest radio chains owned 115
stations. Today they own more than 1,400. Meanwhile the number of
station owners has dwindled by a third. In 2003, 10 giant companies
reign over the information age. Three companies own half of the
stations in the US. Clearly, something has to be done. And it will be.
But not what you would expect.
In the words of Bernie Sanders, one of the most progressive
members of the US House of Representatives at the time: "One of our
best-kept secrets is the degree to which a handful of huge
corporations control the flow of information in the US. Whether it is
television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books or the Internet, a few
giant conglomerates are determining what we see, hear and read.
And the situation is likely to become much worse."
That trend has continued. And, as the global financial crisis has hit
hard, the media have grown increasingly reliant on advertising
revenues. Not just in the United States, but in Europe and all over
our globalised world.
How does that affect women?
As we all know, in an age dominated by celebrity, lifestyle and
fashion,women sell products – not just female clothing and
cosmetics, but mobile phones, cars, washing powders, holidays,
chocolates, kitchens, iPads, breakfast cereals, washing machines,
coffeemakers, vacuum cleaners, sofas, wallpapers. They reflect the
modern couple’s aspirations, our desired life style. Women as sexual
symbols, evoking glamour and romance. Women as the mothers of
happy healthy children. Women as wives, producing the latest
culinary delights, or relaxing on that desirable new sofa. That goes
not just for TV, and newspapers – and their ubiquitous pull-out
colour supplements – and the glossy magazines – but also,
increasingly,for online publications too.
News editors may bestumbling along way behind these
overwhelming commercial constraints of our globalised world, but
they know, too, that womensell stories.
They are powerful symbols.
Take Malala Yusufzai, the 16-year old Pakistani schoolgirt from the
Swat Valley, who refused to comply with Taliban warnings against
girls going to school. Shot at by the Taliban, half dead, her face
painfully reconstructed, she continuedher campaigning for girls’ right
to education. And through the intense media exposure, her story has
done something positive to expose, and perhaps help remedy, a
situation as intolerable to most Pakistanis as to those in the West.
Or take the young female activist, Tawakul Karman from Yemen.As
part of the first phase of the Arab Spring Karman rose to fight for
women’s rights from deeply traditional, tribal Yemen as part of the
Arab Spring. Again, media coverage did much to help empower her,
and help her play her part in ousting one more Arab dictator.
But there are dangers too. And here I will again quote from my own
paper on two other prominent cases. Three years ago, we wrote:
“Bibi Aisha was on the cover of Time magazine last month, a young
Afghan woman with no ears or nose; it is claimed that she was
deliberately mutilated because of the Taliban. In Iran, Sakineh
Mohammadi Ashtiani has been flogged, and sentenced to death by
stoning, for adultery. Forces opposed to the Tehran regime rallied in
response to a much-printed photograph of her face.
These images provoke thought, but about what? Not the ferocity of
Afghan Islamists: the Soviets had already experienced that before the
western powers armed the fundamentalists (with the blessing of the
media). And there was nothing about the nature of President
Ahmadinejad’s regime that we did not already know – electoral
rigging by his supporters, and punishments, including death, for his
These images may not make us think. They may actually prevent us
from thinking, by – intentionally or not – using a powerful symbol (a
mutilation to be avenged, an execution to be averted) to promote
dangerous strategic plans (continuing the war in Afghanistan,
imposing sanctions on Iran). The more powerful the symbol, the less
people will question the plan: the heart demands what the head
might reject. Time claims that Bibi Aisha’s ordeal shows “what
happens if we leave Afghanistan”.
There are further issues to consider in regard tothe impact of
politics and political agendas on the media. While the media’s task
is report, expose and challenge such agendas, it is not always a oneway street.
I’ll give just one example.
A few years ago I was writing on the situation of Muslims in Britain. It
was a sensitive moment. We had experienced the London bombings
in 2005, and the Muslim community felt itself under suspicion.
This sensitive climate did not stop the then government under Tony
Blair from weighing in. A former British foreign secretary, Jack Straw,
suddenly “discovered” – and amplified in the columns of the press –
the menace of the niqab! Suddenly, in the words of Tony Blair, it had
become QUOTE UNQUOTE a mark of separation. Never mind that
Britain had been until then quite proud of its multicultural model.
THE TARGET of all this attention wasa young Muslim schoolteacher,
Aisheh Azmi. The23-year-old teaching assistant came from
Dewsbury, a townin the north of England with a high Muslim
community which had hit the headlines at the time of the London
bombings. Azmi had been sacked for wearing the niqab in the
classroom of the UK primary school which had engaged her.
Were Muslims trying to subvert our children, we were encouraged to
Almost incredibly, the rest of the government, including Tony Blair
himself, weighed in to pass judgment.
The niqab was an easy target. And the decision to raise the issue
and create a storm, willingly amplified by the media, came at a
difficult moment as Labour figures were positioning themselves for
the announced post-Blair era, and as Britain’s disastrous foreign
policies in Iraq were unravelling. Labour sensed it was losing the
voters over the Iraq war, and was perhaps looking to the white
working-class vote, while gambling it could retain the core of its
massive Muslim vote it had traditionally enjoyed.
This distraction from the uncertain ”war on terror” and the unending
bad news from Iraq was of course short-lived.
However, the Azmi case was significant because – Of Course – if Azmi
had been a man, there’d have been no story.
And if the media had bothered to do their homework, there’d have
been no story either.
For the truth behind the QUOTE UNQUOTE “story” was that the
Muslim community in Dewsbury itselfagreed with the decision to
dismiss Azmi – on the clear and very simple grounds that she had not
worn the Niqab to her job interview….
Probably most of you here today will be familiar with the crude
depictions of women in the UK tabloid press. PAGE THREE of THE
SUN, with its daily diet of full-page topless ladies is but the most
graphic example of the sensationalism of the popular end of our print
Now, in the UK, after revelations ofthe many, quite shocking abuses
of personal information in the tabloid press, we are perhaps at last
beginning to address the problem.
Last week, following the findings of the Levison Report and the
closure of the News of the World, we saw the start of what promises
to be a long trial, that of Rebekah Brooks, editor of the News of the
World and later The Sun, and Andy Coulson, her successor at the
News of the World – both charged with criminal conspiracy to hack
Also last week, a new system for press regulation came into being.
This is an attempt to bridge the gap between direct government
control and the independent self-monitoring body favoured by the
print media itself.
The question is : Can the press regulate itself?
The GUARDIAN newspaper is in the vanguard of those print media
who believe that – both in the case of the whistleblowers of state
secrets (notably Wikileaks, of which The Guardian was one of the
original partners in the redaction and publication of Wikileaks data)
and of disclosures of personal information, the press can – and must
– take on the role of regulating itself.
The print media argue that government control is IN NO WAY in
keeping with democracy, since freedom of expression and free of the
press are fundamental democratic values.
Yet, thus far, self-regulation by the press has not produced very
Even so, I believe that self-regulation – in conjunction with robust
human rights laws, and a decrease in the prohibitive cost of
bringing a legal action against a newspaper – mustbe the way
forward for the press. After all, in any democracy freedom of the
press is fundamental, along with freedom of expression.
Does the new system of press regulation now under way in the UK
mean that the problem of the exploitation of women by the media is
about to disappear?
The answer is No.
As a journalist, producer of print media and a woman, I’d certainly
like us, the press, to do better.
But listening to the discussions here in the last two days only
reinforces the fact that ALLour societiesstill have a long way to go
towards gender equality.
We need women to become robust enough – economically, socially
and politically – toradically change the balance of forces between the
genders. Only then will they properly be able to defend themselves
from exploitation, sensationalism and commercialism at the hands of