Is it time for the media to take responsibility for feeding fascism?

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The media loves a little political or social upheaval. In the wake of the disastrous result of the EU referendum, newspapers across the country have been relishing the chaos, as they churn out headline after headline, each more sensationalist than the last. The pound at its lowest value in 30 years! Racism and hate crime have gone up 500%! The numerous lies of the Leave campaign leave voters reeling! Xenophobia sweeps across the country!

Yet, something about their seeming outrage at the miserable state of affairs we are in leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Perhaps it is their positioning of themselves as objective observers, just as shocked as anyone by the horrific unfolding of events, when in so many cases, they helped to create the very climate that they are now reporting on? I have yet to find a mainstream media outlet that has acknowledged its own role in shaping public opinion in the lead up to the referendum, or in helping to fan the flames of racial intolerance.

Of course, the two worst offenders that spring to mind are The Sun and the Daily Mail, rather frighteningly, two of the biggest papers in the UK in terms of circulation. With headlines such as, “4000 foreign murderers and rapists we can’t throw out…and, yes, you can blame human rights again”; “Warning on UK Muslim ghettos” and “Migrants: How many more can we take?” from the Daily Mail, and The Sun’s equally pernicious headlines: “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for Jihadis” (a report that was described as hugely misleading and irresponsible), “Halt the asylum tide now”, “Draw a red line on immigration, Mr Cameron…We’re seeing red”, and “Where the Brex was won: Streets full of Polish shops, kids not speaking English…but Union Jacks now flying high again”, it is not difficult to see what role these papers have played in the public’s misconceptions on immigration, and the fueling of racial tension. For all that, in a move of rank hypocrisy and a glaring lack of self-awareness, The Sun had the audacity to call for racial tolerance after Brexit, sparking sharp criticism from James O’ Brien, among others.

Blame cannot be solely confined to these two papers, however. Even the supposedly impartial BBC has a lot to answer for in terms of contributing to the sorry state of affairs the UK is in. Right now, an open letter to the BBC is circulating, in which its nearly 200 signatories condemn the BBC’s decision to allow a fascist, complete with a swastika tattoo, airtime to espouse his beliefs unchallenged.

Even before the referendum, the BBC had been receiving complaints about its lack of partiality in political coverage. Last year, for instance, it decided to furnish UKIP with three party broadcasts a year, while giving the Green Party none at all, despite the fact that both parties had one elected MP each. Nigel Farage has appeared numerous times on Question Time, with much of the debate centering around UKIP and their policies whenever he or one of his MPs appears.

While UKIP receives (as reported in The New Statesman) “historically unprecedented levels of coverage for a minor party”, more progressive views are given short shrift. The aforementioned left-wing Green Party famously struggles to gain media coverage despite its growing membership and support, and was even excluded from election debates, leading MP Caroline Lucas to seek legal action. Even Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, currently in the spotlight due to the attempted coup within the party, has not enjoyed much publicity for his speeches or opinions.

The rise of dangerous politicians with outrageous soundbites, such as the UK’s Nigel Farage or Donald Trump in the US, raises some troubling issues which the media cannot ignore. In the age of clickbait social media, it is easy to see why ignorant political figures who spew offensive rhetoric at every turn get far more than their fair share of airtime — not only do they attract far-right supporters, delighted that their views are being spread on mainstream media, they attract an absolute avalanche of ‘outrage clicks’ and ‘outrage shares’ as well. Certainly more clicks and shares than nice, do-gooders like the Green Party or Jeremy Corbyn can whip up. Although the vast majority of those shares are done through a frame of ridicule or disgust, what has become increasingly clear over the past few months (years?) is that, for politicians at least, bad publicity is far preferable to no publicity at all.

Media outlets have to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that, far from being mere reporters reflecting the public’s fears over immigration and intolerance of foreigners, they may be responsible for feeding that sentiment themselves. In a study by Murphy and Devine (2016), evidence was found suggesting that the relationship between media coverage and party support was one way, with media coverage driving party support, but not the other way around. A rather concerning line in the paper reads, “Additionally, qualitative investigation of the dynamics suggests that in at least two key periods of stagnating or declining support for UKIP, media coverage increased and was followed by increases in public support.”

Perhaps something for editors and broadcasters to bear in mind the next time they decide to give voice to extremist views.

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The Empowerment Project – Combatting the Representation of Women in the Media

The next time you’re at a cinema, watching TV, at a play, or even just passing by posters on the street, try this little experiment. Keep count of the number of women you see, and weigh that against the number of men. And for each person that you see, ask yourself just one question — is this person being objectified? That is to say, is sexual attractiveness the main identifying characteristic of this person?

As you probably know, this category will, without a doubt, be overwhelmingly female. Everywhere you look, the voices and thoughts of men push their way to the forefront, while women lounge silently in the background in decorative poses. Out of the 100 top-grossing films of 2010, only 19 centered around women, and according to the Media and Gender Monitor, only 24% of news stories globally were about women. (See more stats here) In media, women are denied personhood, and are reduced to sexual objects of flawless outward beauty.

Far from being “harmless fun”, the battle cry of misogynists everywhere, this one-dimensional portrayal of women is deeply damaging. In a 2010 paper by sociologist Stephanie Berberick, she outlines how the rising rate of cosmetic surgeries and eating disorders is related to the objectification of women in the media, and draws a link between this and violence against women. Young girls, in particular, are incredibly vulnerable to this endless slew of messages that their worth lies in how they look, and their ambitions are pulled in the direction of achieving physical perfection, to the detriment of other goals and opportunities.

Last year, The MissRepresentation project summed up the problem with the line, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Generations of women have grown up in a world, reflected through the media, where men go off on adventures, save the world, run the country, go off into space, achieve sporting excellence, develop as human beings. And women? Women are beautiful. The lucky ones get fallen in love with.

Which is why I was excited when I received an email about a docu-series called The Empowerment Project: Extraordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things. Led by Sarah Moshman and Dana Cook of Heartfelt Productions, the project aims to share the stories of inspirational women in a variety of career fields — how they got to where they are, their biggest challenges and how they overcame them, what it’s like to be a woman at the top of their particular profession. To make this vision a reality, however, the project needs funding, and needs to reach at least $25,000 by May 27.

You can have a look at the list of women they plan to interview on their Kickstarter page, and have a preview of their first interview, done with Jill Soloway, Sundance best director winner and director of Afternoon Delight, United States of Tara and Six Feet Under. The entire project will be undertaken by an all-women crew, who will not only do the interviewing, but will showcase their thoughts and experiences as they grow and learn on their journey.

The all-women crew!

The all-women crew!

If, like me, you’re tired of seeing and hearing only men wherever you go, if you’re tired of all-male expert panels on TV and endless male voices talking about their experiences on the radio, and tired of the constant portrayal of women as no more than instruments for male pleasure, then you’ll understand why this project is so worthwhile. Highly successful women are so often denied a platform that young girls have little opportunity of seeing what they could truly achieve, and too many believe that their only chance of success is through dieting, cosmetic surgery and a rich husband.

So get clicking, pledging and sharing, and together, let’s help make this happen. One project alone may not turn the tide on the abysmal state of female representation in the media, but we need to make it known that we reject the sexist depiction of women as purely aesthetic beings, and that we are hungry to hear and learn from women who have pursued their dreams and achieved great things. And in this mountainous battle, every little pebble counts.