Little Women: Recent representations of women in the media

Dr Jennifer Young (University of Groningen), 18 October 2023

The French television channel Canal 8 brought two applications to Strasbourg earlier this year, see Canal 8 v. France (Nos. 58951/18 and 1308/19, 9th February 2023). These asked the Court to consider if the significant fines levied against the channel by the national regulators, following the broadcast of two controversial programmes, had violated Canal 8’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court agreed with the national regulator and held that there was no violation. Part of the decision was due to one incident depicting a ‘stereotyped and degrading image of women’ where the presenter played a ‘game’ during which he placed a woman’s hand on his crotch (see Alberto Godioli’s piece for Strasbourg Observers for a more in-depth look at the case). Unfortunately in the media degradation of women comes in many forms, as will be discussed later in this blog, and one which seeks to define women within the political sphere, is illustrated by a recent British broadcast. 

This month, in the UK, a furore occurred regarding a presenter and his guest’s attitude towards the female political journalist Ava Evans. On Tuesday 26th September the actor and failed London Mayoral Candidate Laurence Fox was interviewed by presenter and MailOnline columnist Dan Wootton on GB News. GB News is politically right-wing and was hailed by one sitting British MP as a bastion of free speech, often courting controversy. Following the programme Wootton was suspended from further appearances on GB News and Fox was suspended before being sacked.

GB News is currently under investigation for twelve of its programmes and has also been found in breach of the Broadcast Code by the Office of Communications, the UK’s media regulator (Ofcom) for earlier programmes. One programme compared the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines to the actions of doctors in pre Nazi Germany, another broadcast misleading claims about the Covid-19 vaccines. Two more recent breaches were for impartiality, in the first, two sitting Conservative Party MPs interviewed the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer. The second was a topical debate programme which discussed topics including immigration and asylum policy.

This incident with Laurence Fox brought with another investigation by Ofcom, quite an achievement given the relatively short amount of time GB News has been on air, but not surprising given its rather gung ho interpretation by the channel of balancing their right to freedom of expression with complying with the regulations. One presenter referred to their Compliance Officer as ‘Ofcom’s bitch’ when discussing what could and could not be said on air, which may reflect how highly some on the channel considered the Code.
The difference with this programme is that the channel moved relatively quickly to distance itself from Fox’s remarks and it is his remarks and the reaction to them that we are interested in here.  As with the Canal 8 broadcast referred to above, this incident centres around misogyny, but it is comments rather than actions. It is not only the behaviour of the guest Fox but also the presenter Wooton’s reaction to them, which was one of amusement and apparent tacit complicity, which led to both of them being suspended by GB News. 
Dan Wooton was interviewing Laurence Fox regarding comments made by the political journalist Ava Evans. Evans had appeared on a BBC programme discussing the need for a minister for men, which she felt was playing to the culture wars being used to sow division in the country. After her appearance she revised her comments saying that she would be interested in the idea of a minister for young men’s mental health. 
Whilst Fox and Wooton were discussing this, Fox made a number of misogynistic comments about Evans, “show me a single self-respecting man that would like to climb into bed with that woman ever, ever, who wasn’t an incel, who wasn’t a cucked little incel. That little woman has been fed, spoon fed oppression day after day after day, starting with the lie of the gender wage gap” and “We don’t need these sort of ‘feminist 4.0’. They’re pathetic and embarrassing.  Who’d want to shag that?”.  At the end of this both Dan Wooton and Laurence Fox laughed.  To make the situation worse Wootton offered ‘balance’ by saying that Ava Evans ‘regretted her comments, but she didn’t apologise’, adding that ‘…she’s a very beautiful woman Laurence, very beautiful’, as if by commenting on her physical attributes this would somehow minimise the misogyny and counter the offensiveness of Fox’s statement about the political journalist. The video clip can be seen here.

An internal investigation was launched into Dan Wootton who is also mired in another controversy regarding sending former colleagues inappropriate sexual communications. The UK Broadcaster Carol Vorderman, called on her 883k followers on X (formally Twitter) to complain to Ofcom that this incident had breached the Ofcom Broadcasting Code (the Code) to which all broadcasters in the UK must adhere, and an investigation was launched. It should be noted that just one complaint to Ofcom may trigger an investigation, no mass campaigns are needed. Ofcom received around 7,300 complaints and put out a statement regarding their role and objectives.

The legislative background to the Code is grounded in the Communications Act 2003 and the Broadcasting Act 1996 and the rules should be read within the context of the whole Code.  The Code has been drafted in the light of the European Convention on Human Rights, especially regarding Article 10 which relates to an audience’s right to receive information and ideas without interference by a public body (in this case Ofcom) so, like the courts, Ofcom must weigh this with the restrictions prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society and ensure the channel’s Article 10 rights are not violated.

Ofcom is investigating this interview under Rule 2.3 of the Code. The principle of section 2 is to ensure that generally accepted standards are applied to programmes to provide adequate protection for members of the public from the inclusion of harmful and/or offensive material.  Section 3 states broadcasters must ensure that potentially offensive material is justified by the context (see meaning of “context” below). “Such material may include […] offensive language, violence, sex, sexual violence, humiliation, distress, violation of human dignity, discriminatory treatment or language[.]”

Ofcom states that context includes (amongst other elements) the editorial content of the programme, the channel, when it was broadcast, the degree of harm or offence likely to be caused, the likely size and composition of the potential audience and likely expectation of the audience.

GB News is known for being a libertarian channel and, as mentioned above, leans to the right of politics, Fox made a point of saying it was ‘after the watershed’ – the time when fewer children are expected to be in the audience, and such offensive content is not that unexpected given the controversy that both Fox and Wootton court with outrageous statements designed to poke at the ‘woke left’. The channel does not have a significant audience share when compared to terrestrial news broadcasts or an established rolling news channel like Sky, but its audience is growing. It is not a straightforward decision for Ofcom to find the interview in breach but Fox’s comments about a female political journalist are a reflection of a wider problem in society, and not just in Britain.

In her concurring opinion on the European Court of Human Rights case Patrício Monteiro Telo de Abreu v. Portugal – 42713/15 (07/06/2022), Judge Motoc addressed the issue of violence against women in politics.  She drew upon the work of the American political scientist Mona Lena Krook who had identified five forms of violence against women in political life, one being semiotic violence, which uses words to shape public perceptions of women, subjugating and rendering women invisible and incompetent. Such behaviour is designed to exclude women from public life. Semiotic violence seeks to deny women’s ability to be competent contributors to the political sphere.  Fox minimises Evans as ‘that little woman’, she is labelled as a feminist who is ‘pathetic and embarrassing’ and she is dismissed because no one would want to ‘shag’ her as if her only worth would be as a sexual partner rather than a political commentator. The laughter from both of them implies that, at the time, they considered the whole exchange should be defended as just a joke. It will be interesting to see just how funny Ofcom finds it.

[1] Krook, M. L. (2020). Violence against women in politics. Oxford University Press USA – OSO. 187