British Newspapers Are Officially Declared Sexist. So What Happens Next?

There were few surprises in the report from the 16 month Leveson inquiry into "the culture, practices and ethics" of the British press, but it did make a refreshing change to see some long-overdue attention paid to how women are (mis)represented in U.K. newspapers. As I wrote in my previous piece on the "No More Page 3" campaign, feminists have been objecting to the retro-sexist U.K. tabloid media for decades, but have been repeatedly met with the cop-out response 'If you don't like it, don't buy it'. The words of Lord Justice Leveson strongly suggest that this is not an adequate response to a press where women are routinely "reduced to the sum of their body parts".

Leveson was urged to examine the treatment of women in the British press by a coalition of women's groups who produced the report 'Just The Women' after examining 11 daily newspapers every day for 2 weeks.  Along with reports of women being sexualized, treated as objects or window-dressing and offensively stereotyped, the most worrying of the coalition's findings was that sexual violence was often reported in a 'titillating' manner, or one which encouraged readers to "empathise with the perpetrator".

Leveson appears to have taken women's concerns on board, concluding that British tabloid newspapers "apply a demeaning and sexualizing lens [to women]". The BBC reflected on Leveson's findings with an article on the five ways in which women appear in the British press, those being: sex objects, wives/mothers, passive victims, guilty of possessing an unsatisfactory body type, or not at all. The latter provides a clue as to why female respresentation in newspapers remains so poor, with 78 percent of front-page articles in U.K. newspapers written by men, and 84 percent of quotes in lead pieces from male sources.

But the blame cannot be solely laid at the feet of male journalists or consumers, considering that the now-disgraced CEO of News International, and former editor of sexist tabloids The Sun and News of The World was very much female. And as the BBC article points out, the Daily Mail – a broadsheet wannabe with an anti-feminist, homophobic and anti-immigrant agenda – is thought to be the only national newspaper with a higher female than male readership. Are the women consuming media which stereotypes and misrepresents them just more of Ariel Levy's female chauvinist pigs, content to throw other women under the bus as long as they get their daily dose of celebrity bikini shots? Although I do agree that there have always been women content to pursue the bottom line at the expense of other women, I don't think this covers the whole story as to why our press remains retro.

The tabloids are consumed by a specific audience, one which is unlikely to change allegiance simply because of the Leveson report - indeed, the priorities of tabloid reporting means it'd be easy for their readers to be unaware that the report has even been released. Similarly, middle class right-wingers who look down on The Sun's unsubtle daily parade of breasts and backsides are likely to remain content to critique the curve of Kate Middleton's belly in the Daily Mail's 'sidebar of shame'. And those who are appalled by both and who agree with the Leveson report wouldn't be reading either publication in the first place, so unless the producers of anti-woman content are going to be legally forced to mend their ways – which is both an unlikely and problematic proposition itself — what has really been achieved?

One also wonders where the voice of people of color is in all this. The Leveson report did highlight a prejudice against Muslims perpetrated by the press, but this mention was even more fleeting than the brief time spent on the representation of women. If we began truly unpacking the way racial minorities are treated in the British press, I have a feeling the report would run to a hell of a lot longer than the current 1,957 pages. If anything, it'd be 10 times the size.

Those who are up in arms about the findings of the Leveson Report remain exactly the same people who identified a need for it in the first place – overwhelmingly white, left-wing, middle class people. So it does start to feel that we just end up shouting at ourselves, because few others are listening. That said, I can't deny that it's fantastic to see a long-overdue excoriation of our anti-woman tabloid media. It's refreshing for feminists finally to have the backing of an officially appointed committee, so that those constantly making excuses for media sexism can't pretend women's concerns are a minority interest any longer. Whether there will be true change, or just tiresome inter-party wrangling over press regulation, remains to be seen. But the fact that the conversation is being had is a start – even if it's still probably only happening in privileged circles.

Top image courtesy of the 'No More Page 3' Campaign

by Catherine Scott
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Catherine Scott is author of "Thinking Kink: The Collision of Feminism, BDSM, and Pop Culture," a book inspired by the kink-themed blog series she wrote for Bitch in 2012. She has also written for Ms, the Women's Media Center, the BBC, The Times Literary Supplement and The Daily Telegraph among many others. Her second book To Deprave and Corrupt is due in early 2018.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Woot, yay.

The report can be as scathing as it likes, in the end it seems to have amounted to a 'You're all very naughty boys and shouldn't be doing this, don't do it again!' We kind of knew already they have been naughty, what we could have done with is a regulatory body with some teeth to ensure that the papers are more careful with what they print and how they act. At the moment there's no real comeback unless you happen to be able to afford expensive lawyers. Blogs like have been reporting inaccuracies and media carelessness for a while now but the papers don't seem to want to change their ways.


I agree that the Report seems like little more than a 'wrist-slap' for the tabloids unless the government actually acts upon it. Considering how in-bed the Conservatives have been with News International, it doesn't seem likely. A lot of people have been rushing to defend the tabloids on the grounds of 'free press', saying that any attempt to regulate the media would be 'censorship'. But a 'free press' doesn't mean the right to print lies or behave without any ethics whatsoever, which is what the tabloids seem to have interpreted it as (that's not to say some broadsheets aren't guilty too). As you say, existing legislation is pretty much ridden roughshod over by the media - we already have libel and privacy laws, yet somehow these failed to protect the privacy of a murdered schoolgirl and countless others.

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