Regional press need to make first move to tackle innate sexism

Peter Oborne’s remarkable letter of resignation from the Daily Telegraph contained an interesting section about how the press (and the media in general) have certain “duties” when it comes to democracy.

I wholly agree and indeed I wrote last week about how the media have a duty to inform. This is something which applies most obviously to the public service broadcaster, but I think it applies to the press as well – not least here.

The regional press is in serious trouble in Northern Ireland. Sales are declining and newspapers are now largely kept afloat by advertising. Since much of that comes from the public sector, which is itself heading into choppy waters, even that is no security. I am sympathetic to their plight – after all, it is hard to compete when you have to pay hard-working journalists less than the public sector pays press officers. However, it does not yet seem to have occurred to enough people that, in order to survive at all, you have to add value.

The focus thus far of much of the coverage, ten weeks or so before the election, has been the age-old soap opera of “Unionist pacts” – a soap opera whose character are 90% males of above average age. The tiresome old charade is played every time, just so that politicians and journalists alike can fill space without having to think too much about real issues which may actually affect people. The whole nonsense takes place in an ever decreasing bubble from which the vast majority are excluded, and it is unsurprising that articles starting from such a prism usually mention only male candidates. The fundamental problem with this is that it is very boring and utterly irrelevant for the vast majority of the population, not least the 51% female share. This is not a “victimless crime”; turning off so many people in this way is extremely bad for democracy, and the media need to stop enabling it.

Lest you doubt me, let us remember that to, er, “compensate”, we often then get an unbelievably patronising article or two about how “glamorous” any female candidates look. Such articles focus on women on the ballot paper as if they are candidates for Hello Magazine rather than a Legislative Assembly or a Council, thus making the “Lovely Girls Competition” in Father Ted look advanced.. This again becomes a charade politicians (given the male dominance of the profession) are willing to go along with – staggeringly, in AD 2015, one party’s own press office referred to one of its own candidates as “photogenic” (one of her top three most positive traits, apparently).

This is all acutely embarrassing in what is supposed to be a modern society, but let us be clear: politicians will get away with this – the penalty may be a lower turnout but the same number of them will be elected regardless. However, journalists and editors need to realise that they won’t – the penalty is declining newspaper sales until there is no newspaper.

The press needs to realise, quickly, that democracy is not a soap opera, and the task of reporting it is not regurgitating the same old male-dominated charade that happens all the time but enlightens no one. For the sake of themselves, and for democracy, it is time candidates were assessed equally and on their merits – regardless of gender, and regardless of “community affiliation”.

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