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Leveson and women – holding the media to account

January 24, 2012

Just thought I’d highlight a blogpost I wrote in my day job on the women’s organisations who testified before the Leveson inquiry today:

While it seems much of mainstream news has been preoccupied with the media big guns appearing at the Leveson inquiry into media ethics, today was the chance for women’s organisations to testify about the often sensationalised coverage of issues such as violence against women, rape, so-called ‘honour killings’ and stalking.
Marai Larasi from the End Violence Against Women coalition (EVAW), Jacqui Hunt from Equality Now, Anna Van Heeswijk from OBJECT and Heather Harvey from Eaves Charity all took part in today’s testimony, providing excellent, compelling testimony which was followed avidly in real time on social media by many women’s organisations and individual women (and – eventually by the mainstream press, see BBC and Telegraph stories).
Those testifying pointed out how many cases involving the murder of women and their families by men often spoke of what ‘drove’ the man to it via the women’s behaviour – a fact that given a recent court decision permitting sexual infidelity to be a factor in sentencing murderers must give us all pause. The issue of treatment of women commentators online was also addressed, with Heather Harvey observing that misogynist insults to women online effectively stamped on women’s access to free speech. “People should be able to equally comment on society but online misogyny curtails and limits women’s freedom of expression, she said.
The tabloids came in for a particular drubbing from those testifying, with Anna from OBJECT noting a particularly repulsive article on a 15-year old Charlotte Church’s breasts in one newspaper, while others on the panel noted that coverage of rape cases was often sensationalist, using language more titillating than sobering.
Leveson himself acknowledged at one point that it could work if women’s organisationss had the right to raise such issues over coverage with relevant authority and adjudicated upon, and Marai Larasi from the End Violence Against Women coalition (EVAW) called for better training of journalists in covering violence against women issues and censure for journalists who breached guidelines.
It is encouraging to see the Leveson enquiry broaden its remit to include testimony on such vital issues as the sexualisation and objectification of women in media coverage, however as Anna from OBJECT observed, the questions directed to them should be directed at the media and politicians themselves, too. After all, they are the ones with the power to change for the better how women are seen, but too often not properly heard, in our media.
You can read a transcript of the women’s organisation’s appearance before Leveson on our website’s blog.

Quickpost: The (non naked) men in Vanity Fair magazine

January 7, 2012

This month’s Vanity Fair magazine has the lovely and talented Matt Damon, Daniel Craig and George Clooney on its front cover, and to celebrate the magazine has compiled on its website iconic images of actors that have previously graced its pages.

And how interesting, with the exception of Mr Brad Pitt, they are pretty much all fully clothed.

Now contrast this with a previous slideshow on classic nude portraits, the overwhelming majority of whom are women.

Now, regardless of whether you believe the old adage that ‘sex sells’ or point out that these women, after all, did agree to the poses (and some are very beautifully shot), the disparity does make you think …


10 women of the world in 2011 – an alternative list

December 30, 2011

After all the kerfuffle surrounding the BBC News website’s decision to include a panda in their list of the top 10 women of 2011 (which for starters indicates that someone could do with a simple biology lesson), and the fact that half the women appeared to have made it onto the list by virtue of being married to someone more notable, I present to you my version of the top 10 women of 2011, women who, for better or worse, made the news of their own volition this year. Feel free to disagree or add your own in the comments!

1. Mona Eltahawy

Egyptian born columnist and commentator Eltahawy was one of the most prominent Western based voices of the Arab spring, using social media – her twitter accounts in particular – to follow, comment and curate the news, especially with regard to women. Eltahawy was, sadly, to experience first hand the problems facing women demonstrators and activists in Egypt last month when she was apparently assaulted by Egyptian security forces. Her story on the shocking incident takes pains to emphasise that she is, unfortunately, not the only woman to have suffered such abuse and that others faced far worse, but it still put the spotlight on some troubling aspects of the revolutions currently sweeping the region.

2. Wangari  Maathai

The remarkable Kenyan environmental activist and founder of the Green Belt movement sadly passed away this year, but deserves a mention here for being remembered as the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize and for the outpouring of grief and praise for her pioneering work after she passed.

3. Nobel peace prize winners – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakel Karman

Three remarkable women – a former leader of Liberia (and Africa’s first female president), a Liberian activist and a Yemeni democracy activist, all honoured as recipients of one of the world’s most renowned awards.

4. Sally Dowler, Milly Dowler’s mother

Never mind the Leveson enquiry theatrics, the Murdoch saga, the public opprobium, at the heart of the hacking story was a woman who had experienced unimaginable loss and pain, only to learn that it had been exploited in the most repulsive of circumstances. While we chuckled at the wit of Hugh Grant and tweeted the hearings for the pithiest of quotes, it was Mrs Dowler who reminded us all that running through the entire fiasco was the bludgeoning impact of unethical behaviour.

5. Christine Lagarde

While most eyes were (nervously) on Angela Merkel as she held the fate of the Eurozone in her hands, it should not be forgotten that an enormous amount of power is still with Lagarde, the first female head of the International Monetary Fund after Dominique Strauss Kahn’s spectacular fall from grace. Intelligent, articulate and with that insouciantly Gallic elegance, she has proved one to watch in 2012.

6. Helle Thorning Schmidt

Denmark’s first female prime minister, who has had to suffer the sobriquet ‘Gucci Helle’ for having the temerity to have blonde hair.

7. Manal al-Sharif, Women2Drive activist, Saudi Arabia

Al-Sharif helped to organise the social media campaigns on Twitter (@Women2Drive) and Facebook against Saudi authorities banning women from getting behind the wheel. She was arrested several times this year for her efforts, and some authorities claimed that permitting women to drive would risk their virginity, but was it a total coincidence that a few months later Saudi Arabia announced that women would be able to vote in the country’s 2015 elections and sit on King Abdullah’s advisory council?

8. Syrian spokeswoman Reem Haddad

As the Arab spring swept across the Middle East this year the Syrian regime’s response was embodied in the person of Reem Haddad, who as spokeswoman for the government was often exposed to ridicule for her more fanciful interpretations of why the country was convulsed in violence. She was sacked in the summer for unclear reasons, and Syria seems to have since spiralled into a bloody civil war of attrition. Regardless, Haddad is no longer, it seems, around to put a face to it.

9. The CIA analyst who helped find Bin Laden

Much has been made of the CIA’s work in finally locating that most elusive and most wanted of men, Osama Bin Laden, and of a particular CIA analyst named only as ‘John’ who had led the intelligence trail which finally wound its way to Abbotabad, where Bin Laden was killed. What few stories concentrated on is that is was one of his female colleagues who honed in the courier Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, thus beginning the trail which led eventually to his safe house and one of the boldest, most fraught intelligence operations of our times.

10. Lindsey Hilsum

OK so another journalist, but Hilsum excelled herself this year in coverage of the many, many conflicts, revolutions and other events percolating outside of UK shores. Honourable mention, too, to Alex Crawford of Sky News, who endured the tired old questions of a woman daring to leave her children to report the news with grace and firm rebuttals.

Quickpost: Washington think tanks make for a ‘city of men’

September 12, 2011

A story from a few weeks ago I’ve just stumbled across while doing some research on US gender think tanks reveals some depressingly poor figures on women’s representation in US foreign policy think tanks.

Foreign Policy’s Micah Zenko did the number crunching and found only 21% of women held policy related positions and 29% of leadership roles. He finds similar disparities in academia for international relations departments at universities.

As Zenko points out, this has a negative knock on effect in terms of US foreign policy and decision making which cannot be ignored. It also, from a selfish media perspective, means that coverage of foreign policy in the US is skewed both in terms of representation and content.

But while Zenko rightly points out that steps must be taken to remedy the issue, he doesn’t provide any himself. So, other than issues such as better childcare, flexible working and improving recruitment policies, what would help?

Radio 4: The great gender diversity audit

August 3, 2011

Over at the F Word blog Sharon Jacobs had the excellent idea of listening to a whole day of Radio 4’s output and conducting a diversity audit of all its programmes to see how the genders were represented.

The answer, unsurprisingly, was distinctly lopsidedly. A mere 28% of the contributors to Radio 4 output (including presenters, guests and journalists) were women, the rest – more than two thirds – were men, she found, while for presenters meanwhile the percentage was even worse – a whopping 78% of presenters on the day were men.

Jacobs points out that the first one can be partially (but by no means completely) explained by the fact that fewer women are appearing in the news, working prominently as journalists and in positions of power to create news. It also must be pointed out that this is but one day in an entire year of 24/7 broadcasting, so maybe they were just having a bad gender day (whatever that means).

However, she observes, there is no such excuse for lack of diversity in presenters. News organisations should be showing best practice in this regard and yet consistently fail. Why is this still so? Why it so hard for an editor to look at a rundown and go ‘hang on, this is not representative”? I’m not sure of the overall gender split of Radio 4’s audience (anyone?) but I’d be surprised if it was as lopsided as the figures above.

Several feminists, journalists and activists on Twitter use the hashtag #diversityaudit conduct informal diversity audits of news programmes on radio and TV while they’re on, including Newsnight and others, and the results are all too often very depressing. I know I bang on about gender diversity on this blog a lot but it’s one of the basic rules of good media – if you’re not representing the population you’re said to serve you’re not serving them at all! This extends to all media outlets in this country, not just the BBC.

Quickpost: New campaigns & reports on UK women

June 27, 2011

A couple of interesting reports have cropped up in my day job which I thought I’d share here, because they shed light on some of the great work being done in women’s organisations and highlight some of the media campaigns being launched to tackle women’s issues.

Firstly, the End Violence against Women coalition (EVAW) launched its campaign ‘We Are Man’, which aims to involve young men in tackling sexual violence against women and girls in schools, colleges and universities:

Much kudos to them (disclosure, my organisation is a member of the coalition) for approaching such as potentially difficult issue in a funny yet sensitive and ultimately sobering manner. The marvellous Sarah Jackson has done a good breakdown over at Bad Reputation as well.

Secondly, the Fawcett Society’s new report ‘Single Mothers Singled Out’, in conjunction with the Institute for Fiscal Studies, makes for sobering reading on the continued negative and disproportionate affect cuts have had on that most unfairly maligned of social groups, the single mother. (Remember John Major’s comments on single mothers? Because as the daughter of one I sure as hell do)

Finally, in a more micro way, new research conducted in Coventry into the cuts impact has thrown up more areas of concern for women, with the austerity measures hampering everything from a woman’s job to housing, education, employment, her access to services should she experience violence, and more.

So, some sobering reading for the most part, but some good insights into the state of women in this country at present, and what some people are doing to try to change it!

Women and the world’s newest country – South Sudan

June 20, 2011

What does the future hold for the women of South Sudan?

It seems not many had been asking the question, until I came across the issue being discussed in an excellent piece by the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s new website for women – Trust Law Women. Consensus seems to be that, despite appalling literacy, domestic violence, child marriage and maternal mortality statistics, the future potentially is a good one, with investment in private sector enterprise, quotas for women’s political representation and changing attitudes towards marrying young.

Of course, recent fighting has led to concerns that the conflict may once again escalate, here’s hoping it doesn’t, both for a country as a whole and for the brave women seeking to shape its future.

Incidentally Trust Law Women hit the headlines last week with their excellent poll on the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman. It’s well worth reading the piece and surrounding content. As a disclaimer – I have started blogging for them in a work capacity and you can read my first contribution, on the Bailey review on child sexualisation, here.