The Sun newspaper’s front page splash on January 7th proclaimed: ‘I was sex slave in Fred West’s old house’.
This was the titillating headline with which the newspaper chose to introduce the horrific story of a young woman who was trafficked into forced prostitution, enduring gang-rape by many men over an extended period of time. The sensationalist, salacious tone continued over a two page spread on pages 4 and 5, with a second headline: ‘Slave gang forced me to have sex with 5 men at a time’. The words were accompanied by a large, staged photograph of a woman dressed as a sex worker.
Sandwiched in the middle of this report of horrendous sexual abuse – and by necessity reinforcing its sexualised tone – was the Sun’s habitual soft porn Page 3 image – a topless woman of around the same age as the victim in the story.
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, VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) – in direct contravention of all published guidelines.
Such salacious reporting can obviously be deeply distressing for survivors of sexual abuse; but it’s also acknowledged to have a broader impact on society’s views of VAWG. In other words, it affects us all.
The UN Commission on the Elimination and Prevention of all Forms of Violence Against Women and Girls, signed by our government on March 15th 2013, was unequivocal in its findings that the media plays a vital role in forming attitudes towards women, and should refrain from ‘presenting them as inferior beings and exploiting them as sexual objects and commodities.’
A report into how well the UK was implementing that resolution said “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’. In the same report, Alison Saunders, Chief Crown Prosecutor for London, concluded that the treatment of women in the media has an impact on the justice system and jurors’ attitudes.
Last year’s Leveson Report found that the tabloid press had ‘a tendency to sexualise and demean women’ and concluded that ‘there is credible evidence that it has a broader impact on the perception and role of women in society.’
Leveson’s final recommendation was very clear: that any future media regulator should be able to accept submissions from groups representing women – and that consideration should be given to amending the Press Code, in order to reflect equalities legislation.
Yet the coalition’s Draft Royal Charter last year included no reference whatsoever to the fact that media representation of women had even been on the agenda of the Leveson Report – and the subject seems to have been excluded from the current debate about media regulation.
So, after all this, there is still no means of holding a newspaper to account for its reporting of violence against women – either through the courts, or through the Press Complaints Commission. No More Page 3 has written a letter of complaint to David Dinsmore, Editor of the Sun, but this issue is far, far too important to be left to a small, unfunded campaign.
The latest figures show that in the U.K. 470,000 women are sexually assaulted and 85,000 raped each year and one in three schoolgirls have experienced unwanted sexual touching. As we now understand the link between media reporting and societal attitudes which are harmful to women and girls, how long are we going to allow the press to flout both National and International guidelines with impunity? The U.K. Government signed the UN Resolution last March, how long do we have to wait for them to act to ensure that it is implemented?
Originally published on Mumsnet