The Media's Reporting of the Childs Review Sums Up Why We're Still Light Years From Equality

21/07/2016 16:15 | Updated 21 July 2016
Phil Noble / Reuters

'Breastfeeding in Parliament: MPs should be allowed to nurse children in House of Commons, review says' screams the headline from Huffington Post.

A quick online search shows similar headlines in the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Times and The Independent. The Guardian also squeezes gender neutral loos into its top line alongside breastfeeding.

And in one fell swoop they sum up why we are still light years from equality.

The review they cite is the product of a year's work by the respected academic, Professor Sarah Childs. She spent months listening to people who work in Parliament, discussing what barriers they faced, and probing the cultural norms that have developed over centuries. Ideas for change were tested and debated in detail with a cross-party group.

The result was a 41-page report, running to more than 20,000 words, full of carefully argued and evidenced proposals. There were 43 main recommendations, ranging from requiring political parties to publish monitoring data on candidate selections, to how Select Committees can hear from a diverse range of witnesses rather than assuming that only white men are experts. Proposals are made about Parliament's dress code, works of art, calendar, voting methods and scheduling.

None of these 43 recommendations are about breastfeeding. The word 'breast' is mentioned just twice in the body of the report, in a sub-section under recommendation 12 on page 21, which covers the need for a clear policy on maternity, paternity, parental, adoption and caring leave. The report makes clear that even if infants were permitted into the House of Commons chamber and committee rooms, their presence there would be unlikely to be a routine event. An important symbolic change that might even on occasion be practically helpful to new parents who are MPs, yes. A key plank of how we will create a more inclusive Parliament, certainly not.

I know the media sensationalises and twists things out of context. But I genuinely struggle to understand the thought-process that takes a tiny part of a serious report about how our democratic institutions reflect society, and not only blows it up into the headline, but in some cases makes it the only idea that they even include in the entire story.

It's the journalistic equivalent of pinging a girl's bra-strap and thinking it's hilarious. "Boobs! They mentioned boobs!". You can almost hear the puerile chuckles in the newsroom.

Perhaps the most important recommendation was number 4, which called for media passes for Westminster to be at least 40% men and at least 40% women. The media covering our politics is much more of a boys' club than Parliament itself, both the group of journalists in Westminster and the people making the editorial decisions about what's news, what's the headline and what's the accompanying picture (the totty, naturally). There are a tiny number of women in the core group of journalists covering Parliament, and it's not getting better over time.

Unlike politicians, who are rightly challenged on the snail-like progress towards equal representation in their parties, the media is far less accountable for its own appalling record. Television channels recognise that just having blokes reporting the news looks a bit weird in 2016, so they have a better mix - though notice how the big set-piece events are still seen as a job for the boys. And radio schedules and newspaper bylines tell their own story. Just start counting if you don't believe me.

As the gateway to how many receive their news and find out about the world, the media matters. If current affairs is only presented as white middle-aged men see it, that sets a default view of the world that misses interesting angles and runs the risk of groupthink.

Parliament needs comprehensive change to do its job credibly for all of society, and Professor Childs' report sets out a range of great ideas to achieve that. We also need a much more representative media, but there seems less appetite for change in the corridors of power in Fleet Street.

Maybe one day we'll be able to read coverage of reports which make a passing mention of breastfeeding without cringing. Until then, perhaps you'd better avert your eyes.

Jo Swinson is the Director of Equal Power Consulting and was a Minister at the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills from 2012 - 2015