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‘Tackling the Press’ Abuse of Women is a Long Overdue First Step to Changing how they are Publicly Perceived’

Sinead O’Connor’s passing has seen tabloid tributes about her talent and fearlessness – ignoring how the singer was demonised by the same newspapers when she was alive

Sinead O’Connor at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards. Photo: Ralph Dominguez/Media Punch/Alamy

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Following the death of Sinead O’ Connor, newspapers have been leading gushing tributes to the singer and songwriter. Tabloid reports have praised her as iconic and fearless, pointing to her “social impact” and how she used her platform for activism.

But, while O’ Connor  was alive, the press refused to champion her for speaking out on serious issues. Instead, it ridiculed and even demonised her. 

In her 30-year career, the Irish singer was subject to abusive press coverage and a level of scrutiny beyond that afforded to elected politicians. In death, she has become a “boundary-breaking icon”. But while she was alive, those same newspapers deemed her “troubled” and her activism “controversial”.

This pattern of hypocrisy is something we’ve seen countless times before. 

Amy Winehouse, Caroline Flack, Paula Yates, Whitney Houston – all depressing examples of women who have been publicly shamed and abused by the newspapers.

As part of a wider report on misogyny in the press, Hacked Off – established in 2011 following the phone-hacking scandal and which campaigns for a free and accountable press – in partnership with Fawcett Society, spoke to experts and held a debate in Parliament to highlight the issue.

The report focused on the highly personalised scrutiny of women in public life, the impact of language, use of images and sexist stereotypes in newspaper reporting. 

Author Melanie Sykes spoke at the event in Parliament about her experience at the hands of the tabloids, specifically The Sun who’s focused targeting of her she said was particularly relentless and abusive.

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“I was named ‘Maneater Mel’ at the start,” she recalled. “They hassled me throughout my pregnancies. And once I decided to end my unhappy marriage, they published that I was divorcing my husband because he didn’t earn enough money, even though I was a breadwinner and was getting out of a situation that was not good for me. Before the ink was dry on my divorce papers, the slut-shaming returned and the money-hungry slur was back.” 

Journalists from the 1990s and 2000s often say they were simply feeding a public demand for celebrity ‘fall from grace’ stories. But “why are we still seeing it happen today, if everything has changed?” Sykes asked. 

She claimed she experienced skewed sexist reporting when promoting her book, following an interview with the Guardian by a “female journalist who had read my book and wanted to talk to me about the writing process and the positive messages to women”.

When it was published the next day, none of that messaging was mentioned and the journalist even messaged Sykes to apologise – as the article had been taken from her and edited to now include a clickbait-style misleading headline that Sykes had left TV for a man. 

“They use women journalists as bait to get a quote which, in their eyes, validates the printing of the ‘story’,” she said. “Or worse – they get women writers to do their dirty work for them,” she said.

Of course, journalists don’t have a duty to write nice things about people in the public eye. But they should have a duty to observe professional standards, and not bully.

For Emma Jones, a journalist and Hacked Off board member, “women’s distasteful treatment by the press goes far beyond the acceptable standards we should accept in modern society. The powerful newspaper narrative, which we consume daily, can be perilously out of step with progressive thinking, perpetuating disempowering representations of women which are harmful and regressive.”

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Award-winning podcast hosts, Helena Wadia and Mathilda Mallinson, shared some of their key findings in the report, from their recent monitoring of domestic violence stories in the press. They have found new evidence of inaccurate reporting every day. 

“Only recently, look at the example of Emma Pattison – murdered by her husband, but with coverage which appeared to blame her success for her own murder, with the newspapers suggesting that her husband killed her because he was jealous of her career, and she should – we are left to assume – have realised her place was at home,” Wadia said.

Domestic violence campaigners argue that how these cases are reported on could put women more at risk of abuse. 

“The press plays a vital role in holding the powerful to account and can be a crucial ally in the fight for a fair and just society – including on the issue of gender equality,” said Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, who wrote the report’s foreword.

But, when it comes to coverage about women in public office, on too many occasions newspaper reporting has fallen short, she added. “No one expects an easy ride in politics. But it’s reasonable to expect to be judged on performance, rather than appearance. Civil society and individuals with a lived experience of press misogyny all have a role to play in improving press reporting on these important issues.” 

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The only way press coverage will improve in this area is if journalists listen to the experts on misogyny and domestic violence reporting, and act on the evidence by implementing a framework of regulation which ensures that the interests of women are properly protected. 

They could start by following guidelines issued by Level Up, which in 2018 developed guidelines in consultation with academics in the field and victims’ families.

Despite acknowledging these guidelines on its website, the press regulator IPSO has refused to update the editors’ code, meaning that journalists are under no  obligation to uphold these standards in their reporting. 

But this comes as no surprise, because the editors’ standards code is actually written by the editors of newspapers themselves and packed with loopholes to avoid meaningful change which might address issues and help victims. 

IPSO has only ever upheld one complaint of sexism in the press in its entire history, following outrage after The Sun published a column by Jeremy Clarkson on how he would like Meghan Markle to be attacked with excrement in the street.

While improving press coverage won’t dismantle the problem of widespread societal misogyny overnight, it is an important and long overdue first step to changing the way women are publicly perceived. 

Women, as well as the public, need better protections from press abuse and intrusion so that being in the public eye does not mean being subject to reprehensible bullying. Until legislators act to bring all major newspapers into the Leveson recommended system of regulation, cases of misogynistic reporting will sadly continue. 

Alice Watkins is Hacked Off’s senior campaigns and research officer 

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