THE BLOG

Why Is the Editors' Code Still Not Fit for Purpose?

25/03/2016 16:09 GMT | Updated 26/03/2017 10:12 BST

Following our success last year we're back on the campaigning trail at No More Page 3. Our weekly rundown of The Sexist News draws attention to the more absurd practices of the national press, and, despite the laughs, at its core the campaign has always been serious about the representation of women in the media.

Over the last few weeks the inquest into the death of Private Cheryl James, who was found dead at the 'Deepcut Barracks' in Surrey in 1995, has come back into the media spotlight. It is reported that prior to her death Cheryl may have been the victim of sexual harassment and attempted rape by superiors at the Barracks. The Sun chose to cover this disturbing news with the headline "'Suicide' Army girl locked in for romp", continuing "Deepcut soldier Cheryl James was locked in a room and chased by a sergeant trying to 'have his way' with her". The tone of the article is one of comedy rather than the reporting of an attempted rape of a woman who subsequently lost her life. Use of words such as 'Romp' in lieu of 'Rape' completely trivialise the fact that the victim may have been on the receiving end of serious sexual violence and abuse. Journalists and editors should know the difference between consensual sex and rape and they certainly should not need reminding that the latter is not a sexual act but an act of violence.

The Sun wasn't the only publication to make these editorial choices; in yet more troubling coverage the Daily Mail on Saturday published an article about the testimony of Cheryl's former boyfriend, with the headline "Deepcut tragedy girl loved sex, says boyfriend". That the alleged victim enjoyed sex is irrelevant to an inquest into her death and the circumstances surrounding it, and is a particularly disturbing angle to take considering that the inquest is tasked with ascertaining whether she had been the victim of sexual harassment and attempted rape prior to her death. This coverage belittles and objectifies the victim and by suggesting that evidence of any sexual crimes committed against her should be thrown into doubt because of her sexual history, it reinforces harmful myths and stereotypes surrounding rape and sexual assault.

The National Union of Journalists guidelines advise that when reporting on cases of sexual violence journalists should, 'Take care not to imply that a survivor of gender based violence might be somehow, even partially, to blame for the violence she has experienced". This advice exists for good reason; the Crown Prosecution Service concedes that myths about rape and sexual violence are consistently brought into the jury room and form an obstacle to obtaining convictions. Rape conviction rates in the UK remain incredibly low, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction. UK police forces were given new guidance by the Crown Prosecution Service in January 2015 with the aim of dispelling "myths and stereotypes" about rape. With reporting rates as low as 15% it is not just juror bias that blocks victims paths to justice; many victims are simply too scared to come forward. As outlined by Rape Crisis, many survivors "fear that others will blame them or that they won't be believed". It is, then, wholly unacceptable that our national press touts myths that not only encourage juror bias but create a wider environment in which victims are too afraid to come forward.

It isn't just industry guidelines which advise against this practice. The UN Commission on the Elimination and Prevention of all Forms of Violence Against Women and Girls - otherwise known as the Istanbul Convention - outlines clearly that the media plays a vital role in forming attitudes towards women and, as such, should refrain from 'presenting them as inferior beings and exploiting them as sexual objects and commodities'. A subsequent report into how effectively the resolution was being implemented stated, "the media provides a conducive context in which VAWG flourishes, by reinforcing myths and stereotypes ... violence in some newspapers is eroticised by juxtaposing stories of VAWG with semi-naked or scantily clad women". Despite signing the Istanbul Convention in March 2013 our Government are yet to ratify it. There is an on-going petition you can sign here.

Instances of irresponsible reporting like the ones above are, sadly, frequent. Tabloids have always had a tendency to report on sexual violence in a melodramatic and sometimes even a salacious fashion. In 2014 the Sun ran a report on the story of a young woman who was trafficked into forced prostitution, with the front page headline, "I was sex slave in Fred West's old house". If the term 'sex slave' to describe the gang-rape she endured over an extended period of time wasn't bad enough, the Sun helpfully split the rest of the article across pages 3 and 4, with the habitual topless image of a Page 3 girl sandwiched in the middle. As observed at the time, by our campaign, "In blurring the boundary between sexual entertainment and violent sexual abuse through its language and images, the Sun's reporting trivialises, to an almost laughable degree, Violence Against Women and Girls". When Reeva Steenkamp was murdered by Oscar Pistorius in 2013 the Sun, the Daily Mail and Daily Star all illustrated the news with various spreads of the victim in her lingerie. The usual Page 3 feature in the Sun was notably absent that day with Marina Hyde observing, "maybe because that particular itch had been scratched by the murder victim". So why do we keep seeing coverage like this?

In 2012 countless women's groups and charities such as the End Violence Against Women coalition (EVAW), Eaves and Object were invited to submit evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on press abuse in the UK. The evidence they collated is filled with examples like the above and collectively they called on the inquiry to look at the way the media in Britain reports on violence against women, including victim-blaming and the perpetuation of myths about abuse, and how the press objectifies and degrades women. Shortly before Leveson's final report was published, EVAW, Eaves, Equality Now and Object published another short report, 'Just the Women' which offered an evaluation of eleven British national newspapers' portrayal of women over a two-week period in September 2012. Documenting, in over 1300 articles, endemic sexism in the British press, and further demonstrating the immediate need for reform. Leveson's final report concluded that the tabloid press has "a tendency to sexualise and demean women" and that this "has a broader impact on the perception and role of women in society." He recommended that any future press regulator should have "the power to take complaints from representative women's groups" and, further still, that the Editors' Code enforced by that regulator should be amended to "reflect the spirit of equalities legislation."

These recommendations made in the Leveson report were welcomed by Women's groups and charities, and in April 2013 Eaves, EVAW, Equality now and Object made a further a submission to the Editors Code of Practice Consultation, in which they recommended, as suggested by Lord Leveson, an amendment to the discrimination clause, to protect the public interest against harmful stereotypes and prejudicial reporting. Such changes, they said, were especially relevant given 'the endemic nature of violence against women and girls in our society'.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) replaced the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) on 8 September 2014 but despite Leveson's recommendation the regulator does not accept complaints from groups or third parties. As outlined by campaign group Hacked Off "The effect of this approach is that potential code breaches can be ignored - for example where the affected person does not wish or is not fit or able to make a complaint, or where there is no one affected person but instead a group such as an ethnic minority." So what does this mean for articles like the above? The victim in question is no longer living and is therefore unable to defend herself against such reporting. According to the Editors' Code no breach has been made and the regulator IPSO, which enforces the code, is not required to take into account the views of any groups or charities dealing with violence against women anyway. The result is that newspapers continue to create a culture of disbelief with content that hampers conviction rates, discourages victims of rape and sexual abuse from coming forward and normalises violence against women, without recrimination.

The groundwork has been laid thoroughly by campaigners, charities, women's organisations and the like, who have worked tirelessly to change this situation, and yet there is still no means at all of holding the UK press to task for degrading, sexist or harmful reporting. Which leaves us wondering; is it time to update the Editors' Code?