Irish Media and the Gender Problem

Newstalk announced recently, that after a mere four month suspension for extremely offensive comments about rape, George Hook will be returning to the Irish airwaves with his very own new Saturday morning show. Meanwhile Dil Wickremasinghe had her show of ten years, Global Village, cancelled for daring to challenge Newstalk on its response to Hook’s comments. On the upside, Dil found a new home at HeadStuff with her podcast series Sparking Change. Nevertheless, this whole sorry state of affairs says much about Irish media’s continued disregard for the concerns and representation of women.

Of course it is not just Newstalk. I have lost count of the number of times over the last year I have begun an email with the words “Dear Editor” in response to the latest poorly written, poorly researched, take down of feminism, or rape apologism in the Irish Times. Some of these letters have been published, many more have not and some have never even been sent because half way through I give up, deciding to direct my energies into something more constructive and not just another complaint on the letters to the editor page.

Perhaps Irish media has always been like this and perhaps as I get older and wiser I am only beginning to notice this trend. Or perhaps it is the fact that after 50 or more years of feminist activism and media criticism you would think that respectable media outlets would be more responsible in their coverage of feminism and other gender equality related issues.

Boys will be boys?

Until very recently media dinosaurs such as Kevin Myers and George Hook could freely peddle their ill-informed, misrepresented and bigoted views without fear. They were protected by the idea that opinions, even when they promote hatred or discrimination for certain sectors of the population, or perpetuate harmful stereotypes against marginalised groups, are always valid. Kevin Meyers was allowed to spout misogynistic, racist, homophobic and generally intolerant, bile for years on end. It was only when he combined his misogyny with anti-semitism, and this was picked up on by the British media, that he finally given the boot.

George Hook, on his prime-time show, suggested that women who get drunk are also partly responsible if they subsequently experience sexual violence because they put themselves in danger. His comments perpetuated one of the hardest to shake myths around sexual violence: that somehow women are always to blame to sexual assault. Men, can’t possibly be expected to control themselves in this situation and therefore are not really responsible if rape happens.

This is why many women who have experienced of the myths around sexual violence do not report, because they fear they won’t be believed, or worse, will be blamed for what happened. Now that he is back on the airwaves a Cork radio station interviewed him about his “ordeal” and this was subsequently reprinted almost in full in the Irish Examiner.

While Hook does admit that his comments were poorly chosen and offensive he never actually talks about why they were so offensive. No, instead he talks about how hard it has been for him and his family, and how much support he had through his ordeal, especially from his personal friend, Kevin Meyers. (Insert eyeroll here).

George Hook -
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And of course in each of these incidents both men likened the campaign to have them removed from their platforms as akin to a witch hunt. Because sure, being called up on damaging misogynistic comments that promote victim blaming and hatred and suspicion of women is exactly the same as five centuries of religious persecution and murder of women healers, heretics, sexual temptresses and midwives.

These were the two big stories of 2017 but there is still the daily grind of misrepresentation or willfully misunderstanding feminist arguments. Seemingly endless articles telling us feminists are shooting ourselves in the foot, that we are our own worst enemies, that we need to moderate our arguments or our language so as not to frighten men away, that we need to focus on the bigger picture and stop whining about mansplaining or manspreading, that our positions are divisory, that we bring it all on ourselves, that it is our fault that Trump won, that we should just get over it already, like, Ireland already has equality so what are we complaining about? These are frustrating to say the least, but when it comes to reporting on gender based violence, sexual abuse and inequality, the Irish media is still falling short.

Linnea Dunne brought this into focus last year with her moving article ‘Invisible Woman’, subsequently picked up by the Guardian in which she wrote that in the reports following the murder of Clodagh Hawe and her three children, the victim’s name was never mentioned. Meanwhile, the stories that did emerged focused on how Alan Hawe had been a respectable “member of the community”.

I still can’t shake the memory of a headline from a couple years back, “Two boys charged with having sex with girl (15) further remanded”. On a closer reading it is clear that what was reported as an “underage sex case”, referred to a situation in which a 15 year old, asleep in her own bed during a party, was raped multiple times by different boys she knew while barely conscious. Apparently they lined up outside her bedroom to wait for this for their ‘turn’. In what world is this a case of “underage sex” and not gang rape? The media’s insistence of using language that downplays or misrepresents the seriousness of the assault in cases like these contributes to a culture where sexual assault is not taken seriously. Perhaps court reporters should improve their education around sexual violence and consent by reading Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It.

This year, we had the sorry case of Tom Humphries, convicted for two years for the abuse of a 15 year old girl. The actual crime he was convicted for was little more than a throwaway line in the Irish Times’ living eulogy to their “star” sports journalist. #Metoo was just around the corner and yet the Times published an article that resembled something more like a glowing obituary than a condemnation of the former journalist’s crimes. Thankfully, the response on twitter and in the Irish media denouncing such off the mark coverage was immediate.

An old boys’ club?

None of this is particularly new or surprising, considering how few diverse voices are represented in Irish media. Even before George Hook’s woefully inappropriate comments, Newstalk was already under pressure for its lack of diversity in its programme, with the vast majority of presenters being middle-aged white men. Newstalk is no exception, rather it is the rule.

Of all the media professionals, in Ireland  63% of  those working in TV are male, leaving only 37% women. In radio and printed media it is a similar story with 78% and 68% male representation, respectively. Women over 50 years of age make up 11% of all media presence. Meanwhile, 82% of decision making positions in Irish media are held by men, meaning they will be the ones who decide whether that anti-feminist op-ed gets printed or how a stories around sexual violence are reported.   

Irish media executives seem to have forgotten that women make up more than 50% of the population. They don’t seem to realise that women buy newspapers, read opinion pieces, listen to the radio and watch the news. They have not yet caught on to the fact that younger generations of well educated media savvy women are no longer willing to tolerate media that recycles misogynistic myths about women and feminism, or perpetuates rape culture.

Despite all this, and Hook’s imminent return to the airwaves, there are signs of hope. Irish women are finally calling out media misogyny. It was Irish women who made Clodagh Hawe visible, it was Irish women who refused to accept living obituaries for convicted child abuser Tom Humphries, it was Irish women who demanded George Hook be held accountable.

We should celebrate the diverse voices that do make it through the media glass ceiling such as Una Mullally, Louise O’Neill, Fintan O’Toole, Tara Flynn, Dil Wickremasinghe, Roisin Ingle, Kathy Sheridan and more.  

It was once acceptable to be to write that all Jews were crooks or that black people were not fully human or that HIV was referred to as the Gay Plague. It took years of struggle but society eventually accepted that these are manifestations of hate speech, that breed discrimination and even violence. We have reached a point in time where defending rape culture, erasing women from narratives on sexual and domestic violence, or calling those who defend their right to bodily autonomy ‘zealots’ is finally becoming unacceptable. We are calling out the causal misogyny that we have become almost blind to, because we are no longer willing to swallow it.

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