Jess Phillips MP on calls for reforms to press regulation: “There is appetite for change”

On Thursday 22nd April 2021, Jess Phillips MP delivered Hacked Off’s 7th annual Leveson Lecture.

Before becoming an MP, Jess worked for Women’s Aid, where she managed refuges for survivors of domestic abuse. She is now Shadow Home Office Minister.

Speaking on “Prejudice and the Press: The media’s damaging portrayal of women, and the complaints-handler, which lets them get away with it,” the Shadow Minister for domestic violence examined how newspaper coverage of domestic abuse perpetuates dangerous and misogynistic narratives.

Over 400 of Hacked Off’s close supporters attended the virtual event to watch LIVE.

And the lecture is now available to watch HERE.

Jess began by speaking about the role newspapers play in the everyday lives of women, commenting; “the way that women are represented in our media makes an enormous difference in whether we are safe in our homes, on our streets and whether we have liberation in our lives”.  

Coverage of fatal domestic abuse must improve

Jess went on to speak more specifically about her main topic of the evening: the detrimental effects of misleading newspaper coverage around fatal domestic abuse. 

“I cannot stress enough how dangerous the reporting of domestic violence is on the future of how jurors react to domestic violence cases, and on the likelihood of  conviction.”

Newspapers may not realise it but in many cases, the reporting of these crimes gives the reader a moment of justification for why the murder happened.

Jess said,

“It makes the reader feel at ease that it won’t happen to them and leads people to continue to believe that women have a role in their own abuse. But it also gives potentially violent men reading, a chance to empathise with the murderer.”

Watch the Seventh Annual Leveson Lecture in full:

At Hacked Off, we already know that inaccurate, sexist and unethical newspaper reports about fatal domestic abuse leads wider society to dismiss warning signs and reinforces (wrongful) commonly held beliefs about ‘crimes of passion’ as isolated and partially justifiable incidents – putting more women in danger. 

Jess believes that more robust press regulation would help to change the public narrative. 

“It will take the allyship of a free press to ensure that the voices of women are not silenced as we go forward.”

She also believes there is a real political appetite for reform in this area.

On the prospect of her party, the Labour Party, pushing for reform to press regulation, she said,

“There is an appetite to change. Certainly where reporting damages society. I don’t think anyone could argue that we don’t need it to be more robust.”

Jess was also joined by a panel of experts, including Former Hacked Off Board Member Natalie Fenton, Journalist Shaista Aziz and campaigner Janey Starling. 

Janey Starling is co-director of Level-Up, the feminist campaign organisation that introduced the UK’s first media guidelines for reporting fatal domestic abuse

“The press is meant to be about accuracy and truth but it is inaccurate to victim blame”

For too long, expert opinion on domestic abuse coverage has been ignored, further contributing to what experts call a public health emergency.

In the past year, there have been record numbers of women reporting these crimes.

Janey said, “Two women a week are murdered and the press informs the way we speak about these killings, in our own communities.

“The press is meant to be about accuracy and truth, but it is inaccurate to victim blame, or suggest that somebody has acted out of a jealous rage.”

Janey added, “The same way that suicide is treated as a public health issue when a woman is killed by a partner or ex-partner, we want journalists to approach fatal domestic abuse in the same way.” 

IPSO, the complaints handler controlled by the press, claims to have published Level Up guidelines on how to report on domestic abuse.

But these are almost impossible to find on IPSO’s website and, as guidelines, newspapers aren’t actually required to follow them and there is no enforceable sanction. 

Professor Natalie Fenton, chair of the Media Reform Coalition, thinks the standards code relied on by IPSO, the Editors’ Code is inadequate. 

She said, “IPSO will only look into a specific area of your complaint, related to your name. You can’t complain about the discriminatory reporting of women in general, or Muslims, or transgender people.” 

“Challenging misogyny may be good for democracy but not for share-holder profits”

Natalie cited the Media Standards Trust, which deemed this failure to include code protection for groups as a ‘licence to discriminate.’

“You can carry out wholesale discriminatory reporting, against women and no complaint will ever be upheld,” added Natalie.  

According to Shaista Aziz, an anti-racism and women’s rights campaigner, when it comes to misogyny faced by women of colour, the horrific treatment by the press goes even further. 

“We have brown and black women who are over-sexualised, in different ways to white women and then we also have those who are not deemed to be women because they choose to wear a hijab or a niqab.

“Their right to be a woman is taken away from them, daily, due to the portrayal in the press”. 

“These are issues we need to hold the press accountable for.”

But could reformed press regulation ever make a real difference and help tackle the widespread damaging portrayal of women? 

Natalie Fenton believes it can. 

She explained why without proper press regulation, the prevalence of media misogyny is likely to continue. 

“I think the concentration of ownership is a massive problem. We have three companies which control 90 % of our national newspaper market … The political-economic model for the majority of newspapers is unbridled commercialism. And sex and violence sell.” 

“Challenging misogyny may be good for democracy but not for share-holder profits”.

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