Leveson inquiry should address media sexism, women's groups demand
Press accused of perpetuating violence against women through sexual objectification and damaging representation
Lord Justice Leveson should widen his investigation into the practices and ethics of the British press, and tackle the sexual objectification and damaging representation of women in the media, says a coalition of women's groups.
The Leveson inquiry will "not be doing its job properly" if it does not examine the portrayal of women in the media, according to End Violence Against Women (EVAW), Equality Now, Object, and the rape charity Eaves. They argue in detailed submissions to the judge that reporting in tabloid and in some cases broadsheet newspapers perpetuates violence and even prevents some women reporting rape to the police.
"Leveson is not just charged with looking at phone hacking but for the entire relationship between the press and the public," said Jacqui Hunt, director of Equality Now.
"Women make up 50% of that public but too often in the tabloid press are portrayed as sexualised objects or victims who are somehow to blame for the violence committed against them. When older women are pushed out of the media, when they are not used as expert commentators, when women are not seen as equal partners – this has a negative effect all the way through society."
In their submissions to the Leveson inquiry, handed in jointly, the four groups argue some reports of rape subtly blame victims and perpetuate myths about what constitutes "real rape", making victims reluctant to report rape and affecting what judges, juries, and the general public consider as rape.
They go on to say that abuse and violence against women is too often trivialised; and that the sexualisation of women in the media degrades women and legitimises attitudes associated with discrimination and violence against women and girls.
The groups argue that reporting of rape often focuses on the victims – their clothes, whether they were drinking alcohol, and their relationship with the perpetrator – rather than the person who has committed a crime, perpetuating myths of a "perfect rape victim".
"Perpetuating these myths is actively dangerous," said Heather Harvey from Eaves. "It prevents women from coming forward to report rape and affects the whole of the legal system – from juries, judges and the CPS – colouring what they think of as 'real rape'. That the media is allowing this to happen is allowing impunity among perpetrators."
One report of six footballers being jailed after gang raping 12-year-old girls in a "midnight park orgy" in the Daily Mail was criticised for the use of the word "orgy" and for referring to the victims as "lolitas".
"Young women are particularly at risk of sexual violence and stereotypes that they are 'provocative' or look older than they are frequently used by perpetrators in justifying their offences," the submissions say.
A spokesman for Associated Newspapers said the article appeared on Mail Online and not in the Daily Mail and was based on a court report from a reputable news agency which contained the words "orgy" and "lolitas". "Mail Online has received no complaints since the story was published nine months ago. All six of the defendants were later freed after appeal court judge Lord Justice Moses ruled that the girls 'wanted to have sex'. The Daily Mail subsequently ran an extremely sympathetic two-page interview with one of the victims which questioned whether Lord Justice Moses had been right to free the perpetrators."
The use of the expression "hooker" or "vice girl" in outlets including the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the BBC website "frequently imply that all or most of the women working in prostitution choose it and are happy doing it". Rarely was context given about the neglect, abuse and coercion of women that could lead them into prostitution, the women's groups say.
They argue some articles, such as a report in the Telegraph newspaper which reported that a man had murdered his wife after she changed her Facebook status to single, contain "powerful messages about the victim having provoked her killer" by focusing on her "secretive behaviour" while using the internet.
They are calling for mandatory training for journalists on the law over reporting violence against women, the scale of violence against women and "clear sanctions for journalists who break the law".
They also call for greater responsibility from editors and a public debate on "the daily publishing of pornography" in the Sun and the Star and a strong, independent press complaints regulatory system to replace the Press Complaints Commission.
"At the moment the PCC offers us no justice," said Sarah Green of EVAW. "Women's organisations have no confidence in it and have stopped using it. We need a revamped PCC which has teeth which women and women's organisations can use. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. If it is not taken it will be a huge waste."
The inquiry has already heard women complain about sexist treatment in the tabloid press. The singer Charlotte Church told the hearing paparazzi had taken pictures up her skirt, and she said she had been "totally appalled" by a clock on the Sun's website which counted down to her 16th birthday, when she would reach the age of sexual consent. "It was just horrible, I was a 16 year-old-girl and was uncomfortable with it," she told the inquiry.
A spokesman for News International said it had not uncovered any evidence of a countdown to Charlotte Church's 16th birthday.
Naked, highly-sexualised and gratuitous images of women in parts of the tabloid press, which appear in the same pages as adverts for "violent" pornography, sex webcams and prostitution services, "normalise and eroticise" reporting of violence against women, said the campaign group Object. "It is essential that any inquiry must include an examination into the way the press routinely objectify, sexualise and trivialise women," said Anna van Heeswijk, campaigns manager. "Leveson will not be doing his job properly unless he addresses this constant portrayal and treatment of women as sex objects."
Failing to look at images of women in the media would "contradict and undermine" the government's commitment to tackle the sexualisation of children through the independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood led by Mothers' Union chief executive Reg Bailey, she added.
The group was not calling for censorship, but "a common sense approach to media regulation which adheres to principles of equality and is consistent across the board", she said.
Former MP Clare Short – whose criticism of Page 3 resulted in the Sun branding her a "fat" and "jealous" "killjoy" – supports the call for Leveson to look at the representation of women in the media. "Since I started campaigning on this issue the situation has got worse, not better. There are more pornographic images of both men and women in the mainstream media," she said.
"Leveson needs to pull away from this panto of celebrity and take it back to a serious debate about what type of media we want for our society."