Newspaper readership has been declining steadily amongst all age groups as other forms of media provide more immediate news. In the last week however, social media discussions have been dominated (in Britain anyway) by the actions of newspapers. Those papers that had supported Britain’s exit from the European Union were furious that the process now had to be put to a vote in parliament. The judges who made the decision were lambasted by the Daily Mail, a mid-market, right-wing newspaper, which said:
“The judges who blocked Brexit: One who founded a EUROPEAN law group, another charged the taxpayer millions for advice and the third is an openly gay ex-Olympic fencer”.
Given that the headline was ‘Enemies of the people’, the paper clearly considers these are activities that are Not What Reasonable People Do. However, isn’t a part of a free press, that newspapers report on areas which may be potentially controversial? Yes, but then there is the way in which the story is reported. In 2015, The Sun, another right-wing tabloid, reported on a school catering assistant coming out as a trans woman. The article talked about the school’s support for their employee and the comments from parents criticised the process of notifying them, not the individual. Despite this, the story’s headline left your in no doubt this was something you should react to: ‘Dinner Laddie – School’s ‘Sir’ Shock’.
Although these are extreme examples, there are biases which apply across many papers. In Ireland, a father killed his wife and their three children, then committed suicide. Headlines included: “How could he kill those poor boys?”; “Wonderful children who will be missed by all who knew them”; “Killed in their pyjamas by father in frenzied attack.” Reading these, you might forget that a fourth person was killed: the boy’s mother. The hashtag #everydaysexism has hundreds of similar examples of where women are airbrushed from stories or presented in a stereotypical way.
What does this tell us about perceptions of sexuality and gender in newspapers? It shows that the old dictum of story-writing, first simplify, then exaggerate, is alive and well. This is not a place were nuances will be recognised or explored. There are also powerful agendas behind the scenes. While the political agenda of newspapers is well-known, as readership shrinks, a technique for retaining readers can be to pander to the more extreme views. The majority of newspaper readers are older, white and male, so the tone of articles reflects this.
There is hope in the widespread condemnation of the Mail’s position. Amongst the criticism was a beautiful reaction from JK Rowling who tweeted:
If the worst they can say about you is you’re an OPENLY GAY EX-OLYMPIC FENCER TOP JUDGE, you’ve basically won life.
It was interesting that the Mail removed the words from its website a short period after this. Does that mean its approach will change?
Almost certainly not while it can still provide a solid body of readers which is attractive to advertisers. That is where a new campaign is focusing its efforts, to boycott the advertisers in the Daily Mail for indirectly supporting hate. This approach of follow-the-money comes as firms become ever more sensitive about perception of their brands. Newspapers survive because their brand has built a bond with their readers: they are trusted to report the news but also provide a reassurance that you are not alone in your opinion. On that basis, there will continue to be bigotry and sexism presented in newspapers while there is still bigotry and sexism in society and this will take all our continued efforts to eradicate.
Alex Clare is the author of He’s Gone, featuring a trans woman DI. Chat to Alex on Twitter @_alexandraclare. He’s Gone is available from Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hes-Gone-Alex-Clare/dp/1907605940 … and Hive http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Alex-Clare/Hes-Gone/19215735 …