In the Media

The Leveson inquiry must address media treatment of women | Marai Larasi

PUBLISHED January 24, 2012

At the inquiry I highlighted the problem of unbalanced journalism that exoticises violence against women

Lord Justice Leveson is charged with looking at the ethics, standards and practices of the British media. There has been much commentary on the vexed question of privacy versus freedom of the press. I gave evidence to the inquiry today arguing that if Leveson's recommendations are truly to address ethics and standards in our press then they must look at the way our media treats women.

The End Violence Against Women coalition made a written submission to the inquiry in December in which we took a snapshot of media reporting of violence against women and showed how these stories tended toward blaming victims, upheld myths about particular offences (for example, that rape is always violent and normally committed by a stranger) and exoticised some kinds of violence committed against ethnic minority women.

We cite the "Facebook murder" of Hayley Jones in September 2009 and the way the Telegraph reported it as "man killed partner after she changed her Facebook status". It is of course the natural inclination of journalists to hone in on unusual aspects of a case, but focusing primarily on a detail like this carries a subtle message that a woman's behaviour caused a man's violence against her.

We cite also the Daily Mail's reporting of a multiple perpetrator rape of two 12-year-old girls as a "midnight park orgy". This long news report in 2011 carried excuses from the six men's defence counsel around the tragic waste of the men's promising football careers because of one "mistake".

We are also concerned about regular reporting of honour-based violence and forced marriage which tends to attribute serious violence against women entirely to culture and religion, and especially Islam. The murder of Banaz Mahmod was reported in frankly gratuitous detail, and in a way that related the attack to her culture while providing minimal context. Yet, although such crimes are perpetrated against women in many different communities in Britain, the connection is never made.

I argued at the inquiry that such unbalanced reporting which exoticises violence against women and blames women for the violence committed against them, by focusing on a victim's behaviour, dress or physicality, sends powerful messages to all who read it. It is likely to discourage some women from coming forward and reporting violence when victims are portrayed in such a negative and culpable light. It may also encourage a potential perpetrator that they will get away with the crime because people will not consider it a real offence.

Cumulatively these subtle messages do of course reflect commonly held attitudes but, critically, they reinforce and encourage them. That is not responsible journalism. Leveson is charged with looking at "newsroom culture", but who runs our newsrooms and why do they choose to major on some stories and not others? Why do journalists seek comment from some sources and not others? The Guardian has an ongoing survey of "who makes the news" looking at the gender breakdown of UK newsrooms. This comes out at roughly 80-20, with women an even smaller minority among senior editorial staff. While 50-50 newsrooms would not change completely the way that violence against women is reported, more women's perspectives would at least change the questions asked at the beginning of the commissioning process.

We want Leveson to make recommendations to seriously strengthen the Press Complaints Commission. Women's groups have a strong interest in a free press, and we do not want to see heavy regulation or inhibition of journalists who investigate violence against women. But at the moment women who are mistreated by the press have little comeback. And it's very difficult to challenge the no doubt unconscious assumptions about women that pervade so many reports. We want a mechanism by which groups can bring complaints as well as individuals. We want it to be made more independent, with equality groups sitting on it in addition to editors. The new body should have the power to investigate press conduct, such as consistent misogynistic reporting, as well as hear complaints. We want softer measures too, such as better training for journalists on the myths and realities of violence against women. The Zero Tolerance guide is a brilliant place to start.

Freedom, including press freedom, does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. When press freedom is used an excuse to justify the infringements of individual and collective rights, when press freedom allows persistent discrimination against women, against black and minority ethnic communities and against other marginalised groups, then I believe that the press must be held accountable. If Leveson is to be different from the press it's investigating, it must ensure that when it pronounces on the public interest it specifically includes women's interests.

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