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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. Few things are more important than ensuring that every member of our community feels safe in their own home, workplace, community and school. Sadly, for far too many women and girls in the UK, that is simply not the case, and there is strong evidence that media sexism is playing a significant contributory role.
I want to start by outlining some consequences of the fact that objectifying women has become so normalised in our society, before exploring the extent and nature of media sexism, as well as what action is required. The shocking facts are that here in Britain 60,000 women are raped every year. Two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner. Sexual harassment in our schools, communities and workplaces is routine. In Brighton and Hove, which is home to my constituency, an estimated 11,000 women experience physical and emotional violence every year, and last year more than 2,700 women experienced sexual assault.
The city’s new strategy for prevention offers valuable insights into the way that violence is normalised—
Order. I am not commenting on what the Member may wish to say in the debate; I am only addressing the appropriate means of dress. If she does as I asked, she can carry on with her speech.
Thank you, Mr Hood. I was simply going to say that it strikes me as an irony that this T-shirt is regarded as an inappropriate thing to be wearing in this House, whereas, apparently, it is appropriate for this kind of newspaper to be available to buy in eight different outlets on the Palace of Westminster estate. That is why I have written to the Palace asking for them to be withdrawn, and for them not to be on sale until page 3 is removed.
I was describing a violence against women strategy in Brighton and Hove and was about to quote from it. The city’s new strategy for prevention offers real insights into the way that violence is normalised, saying that
“violence against women and girls is a continuum: it is the basic common characteristic that underlies many different events in women and girls’ lives, involving many forms of intimate intrusion, coercion, abuse and assault, that pass into one another and cannot always be readily distinguished, but that as a continuum are used to control women and girls. Many women and girls learn to discount and minimise forms of violence and abuse both as a way of coping but also because much of it is normalised.”
This is not just about extreme cases. It is an epidemic, with the symptoms identifiable at an early age. A YouGov poll for the End Violence Against Women coalition found that more than 70% of 16 to 18-year-old boys and girls said that they routinely heard sexual name-calling towards girls at school, and even more disturbingly that one in three girls said that they experienced “groping” or other unwanted sexual touching at school. A National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children study reveals that almost half of teenage girls believe that it is acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive towards a female partner, while one in two boys, and one in three girls, believe that there are some circumstances in which it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.
The point I want to make this morning is that none of that is happening in a vacuum. We have to recognise the impact of wider culture, and today I want to focus on just one aspect of that: the objectification of women in the media. Women have been degraded, belittled and served up as sex objects in some of our daily newspapers for many years, despite the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women repeatedly identifying the links between the portrayal of women as sexual objects and attitudes that underpin violence and discrimination against women and girls.
The Government-commissioned “Sexualisation of Young People” review found that evidence suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects, and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm. The American Psychological Association reports that viewing media that portray women as sex objects leads people to become significantly more accepting of gender stereotyping, sexual harassment, interpersonal violence and rape myths.
The scale of the sexism that pervades our media was highlighted last year by women’s groups, including the End Violence Against Women coalition and OBJECT, which gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry and later published a report called “Just the Women”. It examined how domestic homicide cases are reported as “tragic” one-off incidents, rather than as part of a well understood pattern of behaviour; how rape cases in some papers are routinely placed next to pictures of half-naked women; how cases of forced marriage or “honour”-based violence are explained in terms of culture or religion, or almost anything except violence against women and girls; how news reporting upholds myths about sexual and domestic violence, often implicitly blaming women for violence committed against them, or eroticising such violence; how images and stories which sexualise and objectify women are normalised; and how women, particularly those in political office, are frequently vilified and infantilised by the media.
Lord Justice Leveson’s response concluded:
“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.”
I am not suggesting that the media are solely to blame, but their objectification of women goes some considerable way towards explaining why prejudicial attitudes to women are so deeply entrenched and normalised.
A few months ago, inspired by the brilliant Everyday Sexism and Everyday Media Sexism campaigns, I asked constituents to help me gather evidence of the problem. I have since joined forces with women’s groups in Brighton and Hove to launch the Spot the Sexism campaign, which is a month-long campaign dedicated to sharing experiences of how women are portrayed in the media.
I would like to give a sense of just a few contributions that I have received so far. More are coming in, and I hope that the Minister will agree to a meeting later in the year, as some of my constituents would very much like the opportunity to talk about their experiences.
“Like many women Britney, who has a net worth of nearly $200 million dollars, appears to struggle to find the right bra…On this occasion Britney ‘booby trap’ appears to be caused by a lack of support—and a sure sign that she needs to use some of her earnings to splash out on some correctly sized lingerie.”
The website used eight photos of the singer to make its point.
On the same day, the website also carried this headline about a Girls Aloud singer: “Being on tour certainly suits you! Kimberley Walsh shows off her tiny hourglass figure in a clinging white dress”. The story was illustrated with three virtually identical photos of her in the said dress. The spurious news element in both pieces was presumably that two women had bothered to get dressed before leaving the house, but the subtext is that they are worth nothing more than the content of their wardrobes or the shape of their bodies.
The frequency with which women’s looks are used to undermine them was underscored by a Telegraph piece that irritated another of my constituents. It was about the Conservative candidate for the Eastleigh by-election, in which far more was said about her appearance than her policies—specifically, the fact that the journalist decided that she must have been airbrushed in the billboard posters because the real-life version looked tired and harassed, rather than sleek and happy. Another constituent cites every single story in the so-called sidebar of shame in the Mail. The irony, of course, is that that is part of the content aimed directly at women.
The DailyMail comes in for more criticism than most, including for the way that it is still struggling with, as one constituent puts it,
“the right—or is it the wrong—age to have a baby.”
She is referring to the endless stream of articles critical of women having children later in life, as well as of those having them too young, or of working mothers, or those who stay at home. The articles accused women of being too old for IVF and quizzed career women who have “failed” in their so called “duty” to produce offspring.
Another constituent sends this example of media sexism, saying:
A constituent who complained about a BBC trailer for a children’s TV programme, in which girls are shown answering phones and applying makeup, while boys are shown operating cameras and reading the news, got this reply:
“I can assure you that the trail certainly wasn’t designed to perpetuate any negative gender stereotyping…However, I fully recognise your concerns about how girls are shown throughout the trail. To that end I’d like to assure you that I’ve registered your concerns on our audience log…The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions about future programming and content.”
Well, the message does not seem to have got through. I myself was incensed to see even a trailer for BBC Parliament, that august channel, use clips of exclusively male politicians—there were 12 politicians, all of them male—to depict the cut and thrust of politics. I wonder what message that gives to any young girls or women who might be considering going into politics.
Then, of course, there is page 3—a symbol of the fact that pictures that are illegal on workplace walls because of equalities legislation are still allowed to be featured in our newspapers. Sexually objectifying images that would be restricted on broadcast media before the 9 pm watershed are printed in national newspapers that are not age-restricted and are displayed at child’s-eye level. Defenders of page 3 argue that adults should be able to choose to look at images of topless women and that anyone who does not like it does not need to buy The Sun. As the nation’s most popular newspaper, The Sun is seen by about 7.5 million people every day, according to market data. Many have not chosen to view those images, but they cannot be avoided, whether they have been left lying around in cafés, on the bus or in the pub. That means that children in particular are at risk of being exposed to page 3.
These are a few examples of how page 3 helps to normalise the objectification of women’s bodies—and the consequences. A schoolgirl wrote to the Everyday Sexism project, saying that the boys in her school hold up page 3 in the corridor and mark the girls out of 10 as they walk past. A teacher who asked the class to bring in newspapers for art class had to explain why there was a naked woman in a so-called newspaper. A mother who took her six-year-old daughter to a café for a treat and found page 3 lying open on a table was asked, “Mummy, why isn’t that lady wearing a top?” A father felt outraged that a man was looking at page 3 while his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter was having a haircut. None of those people buys The Sun and none wants to look at images of topless women in newspapers, yet they had little choice.
“We are all affected by Page Three whether we buy it or not, because we all live in a society where the most widely read paper in the country makes ‘normal’ the idea that women are there primarily for men’s sexual pleasure.”
The answer is not to “turn over”, as the Prime Minister has suggested. Turning the page on inequality, prejudice, harassment and violence does not make it go away. Nor is the fact that some page 3 models say that they feel empowered by men looking at their bodies any justification, because many more women are disempowered by the objectification of their and other women’s bodies. Lucy Holmes says that we
“see page after page of men doing all of this stuff, like running the country and achieving in sport, and then there’s an image of a woman standing there in her pants.”
The impact on young girls’ self-image is especially worrying, as has been recognised by Girlguiding. It is supporting the No More Page Three campaign with this message:
“We need to get used to the idea that women are not for sale.”
In common with the No More Page Three campaign, I do not think that women’s breasts are acceptable daily content for a family newspaper. For that and a whole host of associated reasons, I join the campaign in calling on the paper’s editor to consign page 3 to the rubbish bin, where it belongs. To date, public pressure has secured the most public sign from the proprietor of The Sun that the paper might scrap page 3, but the clock is ticking and we still have not seen any concrete action, so I think that if page 3 still has not been removed from The Sun by the end of this year, we should be asking the Government to step in and legislate.
There are other areas where the Government could act as well. The National Federation of Retail Newsagents issued updated guidelines on displaying adult or top-shelf titles in December 2012. The Government could, as a small but important step, consider whether to make those guidelines mandatory, rather than voluntary as at present. It could also extend them to a wider range of publications to ensure that young women in particular are better protected from page 3-type images. Hon. Members may know that there are also currently moves to hold supermarkets and newsagents to account under equalities legislation for stocking publications that degrade women. I hope that the Minister will look at that as well.
Women’s groups such as the End Violence Against Women coalition also argue that newspapers and magazines that are not age-restricted should always be suitable for wider audiences—in other words, audiences that include children and young people. That means that all content, including advertising, must be suitable for children to consume if they choose to buy the publication or if they should come across it unawares. The groups recommend that sexual material, such as images of nudity and/or language of a strong sexual nature that are not justified by the context, is not printed in newspapers or magazines that are not age-restricted. Those principles already exist for broadcast media, and I am interested in what the Minister thinks about introducing some consistency.
Crucially, we also need the wider media culture to change. We could start by ensuring that the new editors’ code of conduct, introduced in the wake of the Leveson inquiry, has a much stronger clause on the definition of discrimination, in line with equalities legislation designed to protect people from violation and with the Government’s international obligations on equality. People with expertise in equality should be an integral and permanent part of drawing up and overseeing implementation of the code. That would help to deliver media that better reflect their audience. Half of us are women, yet there is still a notable absence of women presenters and journalists. It is the case that 72% of “Question Time” contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s “Today” show are men. Just 18% of presenters over 50 are women—that is evidence that women are battling against media ageism as well as sexism.
It is not just TV that is the problem. Researchers have found that from July 2011 to June 2012 women wrote less than one third of the articles in the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian and only 26% of the opinion pages. Only one national newspaper is edited by a woman, and there has only ever been one instance of a woman editing a daily broadsheet newspaper in the
The Independent for just three months, from January to April 1998.
Women are fighting back with wonderful initiatives such as The Women’s Room and HerSay to promote women experts on a range of topics, yet in a media culture that degrades women as standard, they are swimming against the tide. We need media that feature women in all their diversity as well, rather than media that inadequately reflect women’s roles and contributions to society, yet that, too, is an uphill struggle when the industry is dominated by men.
A Women in Journalism analysis of UK newspaper front pages from 2012 found that not only were more than three quarters of the stories written by men but that men also dominated the news stories themselves. Of all those quoted or mentioned by name in the lead stories, just 16% were women. The analysis also found significant differences in the roles that named men and women played in news stories. For example, three quarters of so-called experts were men and 79% of so-called victims were women. Women are twice as likely to be quoted in their capacity as celebrities and 10 times as likely to be featured as victims when compared with men. If it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, the photos that make the front pages—not just page 3—of our newspapers also tell us a great deal about media sexism.
Women in Journalism’s analysis further underscores how much men dominate the news agenda and examines the particular function that women fulfil for newspapers. Although there are generally strong news-related reasons for the appearance of most images of men on a sample of front pages, the same cannot necessarily be said for the women who feature. It cites as an example the Middleton sisters, for whom
“the wearing of a new hat or new dress could be enough to prompt a lead front page picture, in a way that would be unlikely to be the case, say, if Prince William or Harry stepped out in a new tie.”
An improved code of conduct needs to go hand in hand with ensuring that the proposed new regulatory bodies are fit for purpose. That means that the post-Leveson regulatory frameworks need to institute and include a statutory body with proper women’s representation on it and full rights for third parties and groups to complain about prejudicial treatment in the media. That is essential if the press is to be held accountable through fair public scrutiny in line with its own press code.
Sexualised and sexist representations of women in the media provide a conducive context for violence against women and girls; it is one in which such violence flourishes. Earlier, I cited the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. I welcome the fact that the Government have this year joined other member states at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in making a formal commitment to act. It has specifically promised to
“promote balanced and non-stereotypical portrayals of women with a view to eliminating discrimination against and the exploitation of women and girls and refraining from presenting them as inferior beings and exploiting them as sexual objects and commodities and instead present women and girls as creative human beings, key actors and contributors to and beneficiaries of the process of development”.
That is a very worthy and positive objective, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister what practical action the Government will be taking to that end to confront media sexism. I should also like to know whether he agrees with me that it is a sexist anachronism that The Sun is still available so widely across the Palace of Westminster estate and whether he will join me in taking action to try to get rid of it. I hope that the Minister will lend his full support to the measures that I have outlined today.
This is an unusual and refreshing debate. I probably have to choose my language carefully; I am reluctant to praise Caroline Lucas on her dress sense, but she certainly made a fantastic impact in the initial stages of the debate. I note that you, Mr Hood, reminded us all of the current code of conduct for dress in the House, but she did make an impact. She has also made an impact with a powerful speech.
I note in passing the remarks the hon. Lady made about the opening credits of BBC Parliament, which I confess is not a channel that I watch a great deal, but I know that the BBC monitors debates such as this extremely carefully. The debate today is one of the few in which the BBC is mentioned when somebody from its public affairs department has not texted me furiously to put points on its behalf. I hope that the BBC has noted what the hon. Lady said about the opening credits of BBC Parliament representing the cut and thrust of debate with 12 male Members of the House and that it notes that there are many women Members of the House, who make a fantastic contribution to our debates.
The debate covers a crucial and wide-ranging issue, which impacts all of us in this country. I welcome the hon. Lady’s recent campaign and her ability to secure today’s debate. In responding to her remarks, I will describe some fundamental principles in the Government’s approach to media regulation and, as she challenges me to do, provide a flavour of how we are addressing media sexism more generally.
Media representation of women is rightly of great concern to many people. As discussed in the debate, it can include, in particular, images or text that are sexually explicit or objectifying, reporting that trivialises violence against women and girls, or accumulated imagery that restricts the diversity of representation of women. The Government fully recognise that concern, and the potential that such representations have to impact negatively on women’s participation in public life, as well as how they can affect the way women view themselves and how they might be viewed by others.
It is also worth reminding the House that the media play an invaluable role in our cultural and democratic life. The Government are utterly committed to supporting a vibrant and diverse media industry. The press has a crucial role to play in our society: shining a light in dark places, holding the powerful to account and supporting vibrant local and regional communities. Freedom of expression is a vital part of our society. As well as maintaining that freedom, we as a Government are committed to maintaining media that command the respect of the public through high standards and are capable of appropriately protecting the rights of individuals. While on the one hand we must promote vibrant, diverse and free media, we must also maintain and protect the rights of ordinary people. The focus of Government regulation has therefore always been on supporting those standards and protecting individuals who find themselves, often through no fault of their own, the focus of the media. I will talk briefly about the different types of media regulation in this country, including press regulation, broadcasting regulation and advertising regulation.
The hon. Lady spent some time on press regulation in her speech. It is important to point out that newspapers are, of course, already bound by the law of the land, including the Obscene Publications Acts and the Indecent Displays Act 1989. The Press Distribution Forum has published guidance on the display of adult material. The majority of newspapers already sign up to the editors’ code of practice, which the Press Complaints Commission is continuing to enforce until new arrangements are in place.
As the hon. Lady pointed out, the Leveson inquiry considered the issues in detail. Although the Leveson report concluded that the editors’ code of practice is generally recognised to be sound, its central recommendations were about how the code could be more effectively enforced. Although it sets out a range of requirements around the treatment of individuals who become the subject of the news, it does not veer into the regulation of press content. That is because content regulation is not something that we have applied to the press in this country, and on the whole, Leveson was clear that the distinction should continue. Leveson recommended a reformed system of self-regulation, including independence of appointments and funding, an arbitration service, a fast complaints-handling mechanism, and the power to demand apologies and levy fines. He urged the press industry to work towards establishing a new, independent self-regulator to address those issues and suggested that press self-regulation should be independently verified through a process of recognition.
As the hon. Lady pointed out, Lord Justice Leveson specifically examined evidence concerning media sexism, taking evidence from organisations such as Eaves, the End Violence Against Women coalition, Equality Now and OBJECT, who jointly published a landmark report late last year entitled “Just the Women.” He summarised thus:
“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…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.”
Among other points, he concluded:
“What is clearly required is that any such regulator has the power to take complaints from representative women’s groups.”
Consequently, his 11th recommendation was that a new self-regulator should enable third-party complaints, from, for example, representative women’s groups, to help counteract media sexism, as well as other issues, and provide redress.
The Government have considered the recommendation, and it is now reflected in the cross-party charter that we published in March. However, we considered it appropriate to apply a threshold to the consideration of group complaints by the regulator, to ensure that the future regulator was not inundated with complaints whose motive was to forward the campaigning agenda of a group or organisation, and to make sure that complaints did not impact on the freedom of the press to express an opinion, which is a very important principle. To summarise: the underlying principle of press regulation has always been that provided something remains within the law and so long as it does not inappropriately interfere with the rights of individuals, it is for adults to choose for themselves what they want to read. The Government therefore do not regulate and have no intention of regulating the content of the press itself.
The Minister has talked a lot about how current press regulation means that the press are bound by the law of the land, but the point I am making is that the law of the land does not go far enough. Does he not agree that if Rupert Murdoch does not take steps himself and listen to the campaigners who are asking for page 3 to be ditched, the Government have a role and should step in at that point? The existing law is not enough.
I hear what the hon. Lady says and I know that she is campaigning for a change in the law, but the Government’s position is that we do not interfere in press content. There are no plans to change the law in that regard. She mentioned other points in her remarks, which it is appropriate to address while I am on the subject of press content.
The hon. Lady suggested that I meet her constituents when the results of her campaign have been collated. That would be an appropriate meeting; I would go further and suggest that other Ministers involved in these issues also take part. She mentioned the guidelines of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents. I take the approach that self-regulation can often be more effective than legislation, because it is more flexible and can be updated more rapidly. I suggest that, with the NFRN, the Government look at how effectively the guidelines are being applied, and that we maintain a dialogue with the NFRN, the hon. Lady and campaigning groups on the guidelines.
I do not have time to go into detail about broadcast media, but it is important to point out that there is a difference between broadcast regulation and press regulation. Broadcasting is pushed into the home, whereas it is often a matter of choice whether print media are brought into the home. That is why the level of regulation is tighter for broadcasting.
The Minister is very kind. With the 40 seconds left, I want to point out that page 3 is not a matter of choice; it is everywhere—in shops, the tube and on buses. That is why, in the last few seconds, I again invite him to take action with me to, at the very least, get it off the premises here in the House of Commons.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I am not planning to join her campaign to keep The Sun out of the Palace of Westminster. As I said, it is a matter of choice whether people read The Sun and I do not think that campaign would be appropriate. I have only three seconds left, so I congratulate her on this effective debate.