LibLink: Jo Swinson: The media’s reporting of the Child’s Review sums up why we are still light years from equality

Recently Jo Swinson commented on the media coverage of the Childs Review, a report which made a number of recommendations about how the diversity of Parliament could be improved. The reporting put a huge emphasis on breastfeeding in the Chamber despite this having barely been mentioned in passing.

She wrote this for the Huffington Post:

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.

The idea of ensuring that media organisations should be more representative is a good one, but enforcing it could prove difficult in practice. They would, no doubt, kick off at having to present a diverse team and what happens if they refuse?

 

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23 Comments

  • Stevan Rose 7th Aug '16 - 11:26pm

    I’m not aware of any occupation where mothers or fathers bring their infants into the workplace. A legislative chamber is one of the most inappropriate workplaces I can think of. I assume Parliament has adequate crèche facilities for MPs and staff (including accredited journalists). If not, that’s one answer. But even mentioning it in the report opens it up to ridicule and guess what happened, entirely predictable.

    When you’re at work, you’re being paid to work, in this case by taxpayers, not to be distracted and unfocussed by the need to feed an infant by whatever means. There are only a handful of female train drivers. Should they be taking their babies into the cab and feeding them whilst driving? Or female police officers on patrol? Or surgeons or judges? Or fathers in any of those occupations? Or is this a case of special dispensation for MPs? Doesn’t really fit one view of equality.

    I notice the usual scorn directed at a group known as white middle aged men. Like this is a homogeneous group that thinks and acts with a single mind and have chosen to be a particular race, age and gender. Racism, ageism and sexism all in a short 4 word phrase. How about stop using that stereotyping phrase as a form of insult?

  • Rightsaidfredfan 8th Aug '16 - 7:16am

    It seems to me that the author of this article wants equality of outcome (socialism) rather than equality of opportunity (liberalism).

    Everyone should get to make their own choices but those choices will have different outcomes. I don’t want the result of another person’s life choices and someone else should not bare the consequences of mine.

    Most work places will not allow employees to take their infants to work and nor should they. Infants require a lot of care and attention and an employer pays their employees to work. I don’t see why MPs are different.

    If you are going to have a child and breast feed them then this will require time off work and not being there working while others are will probably mean not getting on as fast in ones career as those who make different life choices. But what people seem to be saying is they want to be able to make a different life choice (in this case have children and breast feed) and still get the same results as someone who doesn’t have kids or can’t and is more focused on their career. That seems like childish socialist thinking to me and more importantly it’s something that will never happen. Equality of outcome isn’t possible unless we have an authoritarian state interfering in people’s lives forcing the same outcome on almost everyone regardless of what they do.

  • @Steven Rose – The first sentence quoted from Jo Swinson says “None of these 43 recommendations are about breastfeeding. “. The whole point of her article is to decry the way the media has misreported – and therefore diminished – a serious report on diversity in Parliament. So why did you respond by doing exactly what she was condemning?

  • “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.”

    Well that misses the point. Political reporting is dominated by group think but more women will have no impact, as all the ones that are brought in share the group think.

    I’m a little concerned that Jo seems to think “white middle-aged men” all think the same. Identity politics really has taken off in the LibDems in a very unhealthy way.

    A more diverse group (in the irrelevant characteristics) in political reporting would be good but greater diversity in thought is more important.

    As I repeatedly have to point out, what is wrong with middle aged people? In general they have decent life experience and skills. When I was a teenager I couldn’t understand this and I haven’t heard anything since to change my mind.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 8th Aug '16 - 8:03am

    @Psi “I’m a little concerned that Jo seems to think “white middle-aged men” all think the same. Identity politics really has taken off in the LibDems in a very unhealthy way.”

    Identity politics is illiberal bigotry. It is essentially dividing people up into groups and sub groups based on arbitrary characteristics that they themselves didn’t even choose (race, sexuality, gender etc) then treating them differently based on what group you have assigned them to and ignoring their individuality. If we are serious about standing up to this nonsense then we must address it for the bigotry and discrimination that it is.

  • Rightsaidfredfan

    “Most work places will not allow employees to take their infants to work and nor should they”

    The thing is that there are a number of work places where key decision makers have to be there and often children will come in (sometimes brought by their other half, of if older on their own after school) as there can be “dead time” when certain work is going on and those decision makers are not needed but will be (not dissimilar to MPs waiting for late night votes). There are other things that are often raised as “impacting on MPs who are mothers” but are actually just a list of anachronistic practices which should be done away with, as they are inefficient for most.

    The point is there are plenty of improvements that could be made but when dressed up in identity politics like this, it diverts people from productive approaches.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Aug '16 - 10:34am

    Stevan Rose

    When you’re at work, you’re being paid to work, in this case by taxpayers, not to be distracted and unfocussed by the need to feed an infant by whatever means.

    Have you never been to a committee meeting?

    In my experience it is common for people to have their laptops out and be doing other things while paying half attention to what is happening in the committee. To compare this with jobs that require manual handling of things, as you have done, is nonsense.

    I agree there would be an issue if the child was old enough to be running around making a noise, however for a baby a few months old? I am not aware that feeding a baby the natural way means one’s brain is switched off. I think it perfectly possible to do so while playing a full part in a committee meeting. Being a member of Parliament is a multi-tasking job. Some people combine it with being a government minister, for instance.

    I do also appreciate the point that emphasising this minor aspect of the original report is suspect. However, if one looks at most societies over time and space, it is considered normal and unremarkable for babies to be fed in public this way. Only in modern western culture is it considered to be a weird thing that has to be talked about like this.

  • The way some people have commented on this is very telling of just how entrenched gender inequality is in our society, not just this party.

    A women may well have the choice to have children or not have children but to present that choice as being one of their own that should have no effect on anyone else is not realistic until men can physically create and give birth to new life.

    Secondly, there is already legal provision for breast feeding mothers so, as the article says, it is a non-story anyway. Besides surely, we want to promote the choice to breastfeed given the evidence of physical and emotional benefit to the child and the mother?

    Still, given the entrenched inequality and that roles such as MP, have no set working hours, perhaps we should ensure equality by offering our MPs the same opportunities offered to state’s diplomats and pay for their children to attend expensive boarding schools so they can pay the ‘proper’ amount of attention. Or we could just be a little more flexible on a day to day basis.

  • Lyn

    “The way some people have commented on this is very telling of just how entrenched gender inequality is in our society”

    I seem to be saying this a lot recently but, how about some specifics? Who and what it was they said? You may be misinterpreting, they may have a good argument for a particular point, perhaps they will be persuaded by a specific argument addressing their point, we will never know if no one will get specific?

  • Psi, thank you for responding. I credit you with the intelligence and insight to read the other comments for yourself and make your own interpretation of where the issues I mention match up to individual comments. I don’t feel the need to pick out individuals. I would like to think we can all agree that this issue is far greater than any single comment.

  • As Mary Reid has already pointed out, the Child Report is NOT about breastfeeding and barely mentions it.

    Jo Swinson in turn is complaining about the biased mainstream media reporting that seeks to inflate the issue of breastfeeding, whilst playing down the real issues that the Child Report addresses i.e. too many media outlets would rather discuss boobies than the important issue of diversity in our legislative chamber(s).

    Those who jumped in and said women shouldn’t breastfeed in parliament have massively missed the point.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Aug '16 - 1:15pm

    Jo Swinson is one of the most likeable , warm and intelligent people our party has had in the frontline , but she is in danger of becoming a one note singer, if she does continue to only address matters that see everything as a divide, between her so called group of, white middle aged men , on the one hand , of course , sounding ,horribly narrow ,and the great panoply and tapestry in all its apparent diversity that is , women !

    This is just a crude way of looking at things . I totally concur that to just see things through ,right , let us say it , yes , white middle aged male perspective , only ,would be wrong . If there is such a thing , which there is not , any more than there is a black , middle aged , male perspective ! Nor do women all share such a trait.

    Liberals are supposed to see people , as individuals , a whole person, and , though no scientist myself , even I know we men all have , literally, and in other ways , a feminine side , as do , women , have those masculine traits , biologically etc. !

    Jo Swinson is on solid ground in her excellent criticism of the media , and the typical response to a small mention of breast feeding. But could we have more that unites us than divides us , as an admirer of hers , I look at her Twitter an notice enthusiasm for the new organisation, More United, we shall be if we can see beyond gender stereotypes that cut both ways !

  • Lyn

    “I credit you with the intelligence and insight to read the other comments for yourself and make your own interpretation of where the issues I mention match up to individual comments”

    I think what you may be crediting me with is sharing your experience, outlook and pre-existing prejudices (in the non-judgemental sense of that term). I may share them or I may have very different prejudices. Without specifics we could both be arguing the same point of view but believe we are disagreeing or be arguing different positions but think that we agree.

    There is a trend of discussion becoming more and more general, lacking specifics which are required to actually do anything.

    If anything the report could have benefited from thinking about a hypothetical breastfeeding MP. If something poses a problem to them it probably is a pain for other people (thinki about the method of speaking in the HoC, hanging around bobbing up and down), instead it has suggestions like suggestion 40 (which in light of recent scandals looks like a rather sensible approach) and 42.

  • The reporting does suggest bad media management of its release. I assume nothing was picked out to be the headline in advance which would leave the media to think of the most ridiculous headline issue in advance then look to confirm this with any passing reference when the report came out. It is a very silly way to cover the report but from skimming the report myself it is exactly the response I would expect form the press to that report.

    Lorenzo Cherin

    “Jo Swinson is one of the most likeable , warm and intelligent people our party has had in the frontline , but she is in danger of becoming a one note singer”

    I would echo this point.

    Traditionally I don’t think LibDem female politicians have been seen as defined by their gender. However it does appear that since the trauma of the 2015 election and the loss of all the parties female MPs, those who are visible seem to be far more defined by their gender rather than as equals who happens to be a woman. Women in the Labour party seem very defined by their gender yet the Tories have managed to avoid that fate.

    Given that for anyone under 42 half the Tory Prime Ministers of their lifetime have been women, and it is rate that a Tory minister appears to have been speaking on a subject due to their gender. As I have said before the LibDems seem to have decided to copy the Labour approach to all things gender related, but when looking at outcomes I can’t understand why.

  • Stevan Rose 8th Aug '16 - 9:27pm

    Let me be clear, I am against MPs of any gender bringing infants into their workplace (Chamber or Committee Room) and feeding them by any means. Those they represent can’t do so in their workplaces so why should MPs set themselves different rules. I hope there are adequate crèche facilities where infants can be properly cared for and fed by a parent. If not create those facilities. I am also against MPs playing games on their tablets, and any other distractions. The suggestion that babies of a few months don’t make a noise is a bit odd. Certainly all those I know / have known have pretty powerful lungs especially when hungry or tired.

    @Mary Reid. The review should not have included a reference to infant feeding at all. It did, the exact reference was provided, I read it. The media response and focus was inevitable, predictable, so why do it. Presumably to create publicity for a report that would otherwise go largely unnoticed. Providing a perfect opportunity to also attack and undermine any counter argument via use of the white middle aged male card.

    And I do object very strongly to the gross generalisation based on race/age/gender. The person who did more damage to the fabric of society in my lifetime was a white middle aged woman. Which is not to say all white middle aged women are right wing social conservatives, though some are.

  • David Pocock 8th Aug '16 - 10:36pm

    We are liberals. I respect there are issues that affect Women and not men. There too are issues men suffer from and women do not. But we are not labour and I would like to think we can cope with thinking wider than identity.

    Don’t make me play the working class card!

    As to Jo’s point – yeah the media is crap. Much of our current woes in this nation are down to the media not remembering its duty is to be separate from politics and reporting the truth. Honestly if I was married to an MP I would look after the kid so the person I loved could do her thing in parliament.

    Gender issues, in fact all issues of equality are fixed by liberalism; giving everyone a level playing field to persue their happiness ect. Let’s not get into identity politics as the only solution they wish for is power to their group and parties.

  • Jayne Mansfield 9th Aug '16 - 9:53am

    When I read this article, I found the main thrust of the argument to be, the appalling reportage, the way a serious review by an eminent female professor has been reduced to a disproportionate focus on breasts and womens’ biology, by the news and media.

    I don’t feel puzzled as to why this distortion of the review happened. I recommend,.
    ‘Hard Evidence, is there still gender bias in journalism’ available online, published in The Conversation.

    The problem as I see it, is that whilst there remains gender bias in the news and media, there will also be a bias towards the world view of those currently in power, and currently that is a particular demographic.

    Underlying this pervasive world view of the powerful, there seems to me to be a lingering notion that ‘biology is destiny’. An argument that supports the status quo.

  • “a bias towards the world view of those currently in power,”

    Prime Minister, female, First Minister Scotland, female, First Minister Northern Ireland, female. Leaders of Conservative Party, Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour, SNP, DUP, Plaid Cymru, Green Party, all female. 3 of the last 4 Home Secretaries, female. With the next US President most likely to be female, 3 of the G7 will led by women and 2 others have had female Prime Ministers in the past. Other countries led by women in recent decades include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Ukraine, Poland, Namibia, Jamaica and Turkey, and others. Just think how far they could all have gone had they been men.

    Being female is not a barrier to election nor to high office. Becoming a candidate may be much more diffic

  • Jayne Mansfield 10th Aug '16 - 1:04pm

    @ Steven Rose.
    You will be aware that the article is about the way the report was Childs Review was reported.

    On the matter of diversity at Westminster. Do you not agree that diversity of those who represent us in Parliament could be improved from top to bottom so that Parliamentary business at every level is more representative and inclusive of the people that it is supposed to serve- more than 50% of the population being women? Do you not agree that by doing so, those affected by parliamentary decision -making might have their interests more effectively and fairly represented?

    You seem to me to be rather accepting of the media’s disproportionate interest in women’s unique ability to breastfeed rather than other measures recommended to achieve greater diversity of representation. (It seems that female breasts and their function, should never, ever, be mentioned in any report, to prevent this diversion happening).

    Parliament is not just another work place, it is the source of power for change and improvement for people within society, and yet it is neither representative nor inclusive. There needs to be greater political will. How can Parliament pass laws on equality issues and wider access to positions of power when it does not practice what it preaches? It should be a beacon of progressiveness.

    Whether one agrees with the recommendations of the Childs report or not, too many may be put off from making a political contribution because current political arrangements do not fit with the reality of their lives. It is not for them to make the necessary adaptations, ( sometimes biologically impossible), but for parliament to adapt from a model that is currently more suited to a century ago than the 21st century, thus offering a level playing field to those from more diverse and representative backgrounds.

    As the independent review found, Westminster is disproportionately, white , male and elite – this is a not a jaundiced view. The manner and the influences that caused the press to choose to report the review and its recommendations as they have, should be challenged not simply accepted. One could start by looking at the level of diversity at different levels in the press and media.

    .

  • Jayne Mansfield 10th Aug '16 - 1:38pm

    @ David Pocock.
    Isn’t giving everyone a level playing field exactly what the independent Childs report sought to do with its recommendations?

    Doesn’t giving everyone a level playing field mean accepting that sometimes where the field is tilted against individuals or groups, intervention is needed to level it up?

    As far as social class is concerned, well not all women are university educated, let alone Oxbridge graduates, they are not all white, free from disability, of one sexual orientation, married to rich husbands , or indeed, like Margaret Thatcher, able to afford, an ‘English’ nanny as she said was essential to her being able to function effectively as a politician.

    Identity , both individual,class and group, is very important to some people.

    Go on, play the class card. You know you want to!

  • Jayne Mansfield

    “Identity, both individual, class and group, is very important to some people.”

    It is, however MPs need to be working for all of their constituents and identify politics isn’t going to help.

    The Childs report obviously wants to “level the playing field” but it doen’t look like it will be very effective at that. I think that is probably the effect of having an academic conduct it. Parliament seems to function as a ridiculous throwback, just making it more like a C21st institution would make it more efficient and probably remove many barriers. Having started with that, then looking at what barriers exist in a modern system would have been a more effective approach.

  • Jayne Mansfield 10th Aug '16 - 10:15pm

    @Psi,
    I agree that MPs need to be working for all their constituents. I don’t believe that a sense of individual class or group identity necessarily works against that. I deplore the idea of a hierarchy of victimhood, but not a recognition of shared experience. It enables one to give a different perspective in discussions. on policy etc.

    Members who are representative of those in wider society, can bring to a discussion different perspectives based on lived experience, not simply research -based theory or paternalistic concern.

    As the report states, there is a sizeable motherhood gap in parliament, with fewer women MPs having children relative to male MPs, or to women in other professions, or compared with wider society. 45% of women MPs do not have children compared to 28% of male MPs.

    My own view is that a mother’s place is where a mother wants it to be, but these figures need explaining, and if women with children are put off pursuing a career in politics because of the existing environment and culture militate against a career in politics and motherhood, changes are needed.

    This discussion was really about the way the review was reported and it would be interesting to have a full discussion on the recommendation that came from the review. However, if one chooses to focus on breastfeeding, the current advice to mothers who wish to breastfeed, is to solely breast feed for 6 months, the WHO recommends breast feeding for 2 years or more, and the science is that they be fed on demand. The dyadic relationship means that the sight and cry of a one’s baby stimulates let-down of milk. This seems a powerful enough argument for allowing babies into the House and to committee rooms so that a nursing mother is able to carry out her representative functions. Why is this so controversial?

  • Jayne Mansfield

    “This discussion was really about the way the review was reported and it would be interesting to have a full discussion on the recommendation that came from the review.”

    I agree that the original point was how it was reported but I think the reason for the poor reporting is probably two fold, firstly poor media management and secondly the report doesn’t look like it will achieve much.

    Regarding your point about the breastfeeding question (apart from my disagreement with the WHO advice in western countries), I have no issue with MPs breast feeding in the House or committees etc. (not that I imagine may would). But I don’t see how the report would start to make that work. Things like a sensible queuing system for speaking and not all votes to require attendance etc. (ideally move parliament out of London to something better designed). Though most of the things that would make it easier to be a parent and an MP would be making MPs more efficient generally, so positive regardless. It just looks a-bit like cosmetic tinkering.

    More substantive report would have more to report.

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