We need to talk about the UK media war on women

While Dylan Farrow's child abuse allegations against Woody Allen hold the headlines, it is time for journalists to realise that sexual violence is not about evil individuals, Asian grooming gangs, or 1970s BBC culture.

Sarah Graham
4 February 2014
Max Clifford sensationalist tabloid reporting

Favoured tabloid details tend to feature sensational details. Credit:

A number of years ago I heard British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) journalist Bidisha quote feminist academic Germaine Greer: “The corporation changes the woman before the woman changes the corporation.” These words have weighed heavily on me in the early years of my journalism career.

I later found myself at a protest, working with a reporter from a national news outlet. He spent a long time with his camera trained on an attractive blonde woman handing out flyers. 

“I don't make the rules, I just try not to break them,” he told me.

These rules are no more evident than when you look at media reporting on violence against women and girls, which is rare and often dubious. Since January 2012 Karen Ingala Smith has begun the thankless task of logging all the women killed by male violence in the UK. As chief executive of domestic violence charity Nia, she is particularly passionate on the subject.

Her Counting Dead Women campaign recorded 140 women killed in 2013 by boyfriends, husbands, sons, grandsons, friends, relatives, acquaintances and strangers. That’s one woman every 2.6 days. Almost all of these deaths were reported as one-off incidents, many of them never going further than their local newspaper. At the same time, 85,000 women are raped in the UK in a year. But many of these incidents are not deemed newsworthy enough for coverage.

Favoured cases tend to feature attractive victims, sensational details, false allegations and violence committed by women. Young, conventionally attractive, mostly white victims are invariably granted the most column inches: if it can’t be illustrated with a photo of a pretty, smiling blonde in her school uniform, or the smutty details of some so-called ‘crime of passion’, it’s not worth printing.

In coverage of the murder of Meredith Kercher, all mentions of the victim and of the male co-accused were overshadowed by the media wankfest over “Foxy Knoxy”. Just recently I read a headline about Amanda Knox’s “dramatic makeover before Meredith Kercher murder retrial”, as if Knox’s new bob was a newsworthy addition to the story. 

Even when cases are responsibly reported, many are presented as isolated aberrations, perpetrated by evil individuals. For the women whose abuse frequently remains incidental to the media angle, social change can only happen when individual journalists tear that rulebook up and throw it out of the window.

The media industry requires a radical transformation in the way it treats women. It’s no longer enough to blindly continue working to the same sexist formulas that the newspapermen have been using for decades. Journalists instead need to rewrite the rules, exercising their right to hold power to account, starting with their own editors.

Feminist campaigns about media imagery and the way women are represented do exist. The campaign to have topless models removed from Page 3 of tabloid paper The Sun has so far exceeded 130,000 signatures. The Lose The Lads Mags campaign successfully saw one supermarket chain demand that soft porn mags be delivered in sealed “modesty bags”. But for me it’s the language that’s really pernicious – and no more so than when it comes to reporting violence.

Dylan Farrow this week published an open letter reaffirming allegations (first investigated in 1992) that she was sexually abused by her adoptive father Woody Allen. Dylan's allegations are the latest in a string of child sexual abuse claims made in recent years against male celebrities. Currently in the UK ageing TV and radio personalities Dave Lee Travis, Rolf Harris and William Roache are all facing courts over allegations of historic child sexual abuse, and comedian Freddie Starr has been arrested (for the third time) over further sexual abuse allegations. In the Metro newspaper on my morning commute, I observed an entire page dedicated to rape allegations against male celebrities.

The Jimmy Savile revelations, and subsequent arrests of other household names, have had a profoundly transformative effect on the public consciousness. They have forced the UK to acknowledge the scale of sexual abuse so many of our national treasures were allowed to get away with by virtue of their celebrity. The phrase that’s always stuck with me about the Savile case is: "just the women". This quickly became a catchphrase after the producers of the BBC’s flagship news programme, Newsnight, spiked their exposé of Savile’s abuse. When justifying the decision to drop investigation into Savile's abuses, Newsnight editor Peter Rippon sent an email to producer Meirion Jones stating: "Our sources so far are just the women and a second-hand briefing.” He thought the feature wouldn't stand up with "just the women" as evidence.

The personal integrity of the ITV producers who later did break the story was more than just an embarrassment for Newsnight; it kick-started a sea change in the public consciousness about sexual abuse and empowered many more victims to come forward to report their abuse, with a renewed confidence that their allegations will be listened to and taken seriously. By December 2012, two months after the exposé aired, 589 victims had come forward with allegations, of whom 82 per cent were female and 80 per cent were children or young people.

I had just started a Masters in newspaper journalism at London's City University when ITV broke the story. I learnt a huge amount at City, but the biggest lesson I learnt during that time came from the aftermath of the Savile revelations: in the media, women are always "just the women". As a woman, a feminist and a journalist, I refuse to play by those rules.

The real protagonists of this story, it quickly became clear, were Jimmy Savile and the BBC. In a lecture on journalism ethics, Professor Roy Greenslade asked who the real victims of Jimmy Savile were. Some bright spark, who in all likelihood is now a professional journalist working in a newsroom somewhere, said "Newsnight".

To him, the women were peripheral to the important story - caught in the line of fire between a dead national icon and a disgraced broadcasting corporation.

For Savile's many other victims, the women who bravely told their stories on camera were not incidental at all. Their words were evidence that they were no longer alone in their experiences of abuse. When hundreds more victims stepped forward it exposed a horrifying, ugly truth that the media were unprepared for. 

The post-Savile cases have been remarkable for forcing journalists to report male abuse as part of a pattern. The sheer number of cases make it impossible to ignore the fact that something bigger is going on.

But the analysis remains far too narrow.

The accepted angle on how these crimes could have happened is to blame “the culture of the BBC in the 1970s” – a time and place when groping was the norm and DJs couldn’t move for groupies throwing themselves at their feet. The implication is that we should ask: was it really any wonder that the lines between ‘flirtation with adoring fans’ and ‘abuse of children’ were a little blurred? This defence is troubling; it confines male violence to a particular space and time – the isolated acts of sick individuals within a specific and (atypical) culture.

Few journalists, for all their analytical skills, have made the connection between “the culture of the BBC in the 1970s” and discussions about the impact of race in the Rochdale grooming case, where nine Asian men were convicted of abusing white girls as young as 13-years-old.

What really links the Rochdale abusers with Savile, Hall and the other alleged abusers is not their race, religion, employer, or the decade in which their crimes were committed. It is that they are all men, operating under male-dominated structures, abusing their power over more vulnerable women and children. Those links are there to be made, but they won’t be until feminist and pro-feminist writers force a shift in the media narrative by continuing to shout about it.

In order to truly tackle violence against women, people, especially men, need to recognise the pattern of male violence against women and understand the power dynamics behind it. The power men hold in the political sphere and the power they seek to exert through violence in the domestic sphere are not incidental. Under patriarchy we learn that masculinity is power and control, yet, for male journalists in male-dominated newsrooms, there is often no personal incentive to acknowledge those structures. The media, as shapers of public opinion, hold a huge responsibility here; changing attitudes calls for a structural and personal shift in the way we report such violence. That starts with addressing your own complicity in patriarchal power.

In the last few months, with my Feminist Times hat on, I’ve had a number of conversations with women working in the domestic violence sector about how we can start enacting that change through our editorial content. The Counting Dead Women list of names reveals a shocking reality. It’s also a powerful piece of journalism, which has had a radical effect on the way I think about my journalistic responsibilities. These incidents should always be reported as part of a pattern of male domination and patriarchal control.

Last week Ingala Smith reported that 99 members of the British armed forces have been killed during the last three years of conflict in Afghanistan, compared with 264 dead women in the two years that she’s been counting. 15 women in the UK were killed in December 2013 alone. Why isn't there a national outcry?

In the United States, the phrase ‘war on women’, is used to refer to conservative anti-choice policies. How radical a shift would it be to talk about a literal war on women, in which women are being raped, abused and killed, in this country, on a daily basis?  

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData