The editors of the Independent, Guardian and Financial Times have "appealed to their industry colleagues to show greater transparency and abandon "closed-door negotiations" over Lord Justice Leveson's proposals for reforming the press". It has been reported that this could be a critical week in the talks on Leveson - although a breakthrough has yet to be achieved. What exactly is being discussed and who is at the table remain unclear. However, we can probably assume that among the editors and politicians there won't be [m]any women represented. The fact that these publications felt the need to speak out at all goes to the crux of the Leveson aftermath. Is it possible to have faith in a system of self-regulation when those developing that system are not even opening their discussions to public scrutiny? "Who guards the guardians?" is a question still pertinent today, well over a year after it was first posed by Lord Justice Leveson in launching his inquiry.
As UN member states meet currently in New York to address the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls, the global spotlight falls again in part on the role of the media in promoting or hampering access to justice for female victims of violence. Just the Women, [Warning: Nudity] a title borrowed from an email sent by the editor of Newsnight when describing the only apparent source of evidence against Jimmy Savile, was published in November by the four women's groups (Equality Now, Object, Eaves and the End Violence Against Women Coalition) which gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. It highlighted over 1300 instances of press sexism in 11 UK national papers over a random two-week monitoring period. Critical among the examples given were those descriptions of violence against women which promote and reinforce myths and stereotypes about abuse, including "real" and "deserving" victims and "provoked" or "tragic" perpetrators. This and other inaccurate and prejudicial reporting may seriously undermine the justice system by having an impact on jurors' decision-making, according to the Crown Prosecution Service commenting shortly afterwards. Just the Women gave further examples of the hypocrisy of some papers raging against crimes such as child sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence on the one hand while regularly sexualising, objectifying and demeaning girls and women on the other.
The good news perhaps is that through the open Leveson hearings, there appears to be much more awareness of the workings of some elements of the press and the sort of unacceptable reporting being defended in some quarters. Journalism students I spoke to recently themselves highlighted the coverage by some newspapers of the killing of Reeva Steenkamp as an example of how not to report on crimes of violence against women. Heartening in the public debate has been the overwhelming support for press freedom, but concern that we also need a responsible press that preserves not only our access to justice, but also our democracy. The fact that women are being silenced either because of a lack of meaningful press coverage or the demeaning tone of coverage has also been noted in the discussion of the portrayal of women in the media generally. Our proposal for third party complaints to support those who cannot easily speak for themselves or to address cumulative and systematic demeaning and vilification has been endorsed by Lord Justice Leveson's recommendation that "what is clearly required is that any such [new] regulator [should have] the power to take complaints from representative women's groups". But who will champion a more responsible future system if the processes and discussions remain secretly negotiated among the same old boys' club?
The Independent still believes that while talking behind closed doors creates a damaging impression, it is erroneous to think there is something to hide. Unfortunately, the longer discussions continue without transparency or proof through action that all reasonable interests are being fairly represented, suspicions of a status quo deal are likely to harden. That risks, as the Independent indicates, a deeper polarising of positions. We now call on the press and parliament to ensure that fairness and transparency are brought centre stage in this debate. This argument has nothing to do with media censorship. Our demands are only for a press which enhances our democracy rather than undermines it. This is something which will benefit everyone.