Gender and the Alternative Media

keyboardactivists.jpgIt’s one thing to sidestep the ‘traditional’ media when it failed to deliver. But it’s quite another to build something better in its place. Where are the women and minorities in Scotland’s ‘new media’ landscape?

Scotland’s new media revolution

You often noticed a tangible sense of pride when independence supporters spoke about the blogs, podcasts and livestreams they had come to rely upon during the campaign. The sense that collectively people had sidestepped the existing sources of information and created new ones; no mean feat. This was accompanied always by criticism of the ‘traditional’ media. This ranged from simply giving up a lifelong habit of buying the Record, to roundly condemning the ‘biased’ BBC and Murdoch’s lackeys at any possible opportunity.

The views on the latter end of that spectrum did get a bit repetitive – and unpleasantly personal, as overworked journalists were singled out as targets. But the general feeling was that you had to look elsewhere for ‘real’ news and facts, and so sites such as Newsnet, Wings over Scotland, National Collective, and Bella Caledonia became hugely popular among yes campaigners. There was that strange phenomenon of one article going viral and being the hot topic at a meeting or canvassing session. Strange because these often weren’t articles printed in the Scotsman or Daily Record, but hosted by the sites mentioned above. Or it would be a fuzzy video of a speech, livestreamed from a packed meeting in a town hall somewhere, guaranteed never to be broadcast on the ‘mainstream’ news but instead reaching thousands via youtube or Independence Live.

So when, after the defeat of 18th September, the movement continued undeterred, these new media platforms did too. Crowdfunders raked in considerable sums – for some – and new websites sprung up promising to be the new media source for like-minded Scots. Some went nowhere, others carved out a niche. Think-tank Common Weal established a digital news platform which provides rolling news coverage; Commonspace has since had a series of exclusives and a fast-growing readership. Bella Caledonia also crowdfunded its next stage, with the stated aim of becoming “the best place for comment, analysis and opinion . . . combin[ing] polemic, essays and features with music, video and photography”.

Two of the most ambitious projects were perhaps the launch of daily print newspaper The National, and NewsShaft’s plan to establish a new TV broadcast channel. Sadly the costs for the latter exceeded what they could raise and after a period producing excellent podcasts and radio shows, the team had to take it off air and pack up the office this month.

The demise of NewsShaft was significant – partly because it highlights the decreasing power of crowdfunding. Maybe we’ve reached ‘peak’ post-ref generosity; maybe some other operators got in there early and hoovered it all up. Who knows? But the biggest significance of NewsShaft going off the air, taking with it presenters Carolyn Scott, James Devoy and Jack Foster, is that it meant one less woman in the ‘new media’ landscape – and there really weren’t many to start with.

A Dismal Industry

The under-representation of women in print news and broadcasting is well documented. A Guardian study of bylines during 2011 found a ratio of 4:1 male to female reporters. It also found that panel shows, such as Mock the Week, regularly had all-male panels and rarely more than one woman. Last year the BBC’s director of TV insisted that “manels” would no longer happen, but it’s been a struggle. Some women, it seems, aren’t happy with this piecemeal and grudging assimilation into what is, essentially, a ‘man’s world’. Caitlin Moran explained that being a ‘token woman’ wasn’t good enough. “It’s not like they built it to screw women over, it’s just that boys built it so they made it work for boys”, she said.

Worldwide, the slow increase in female reporters all but ground to a halt around ten years ago; worryingly researchers noted that online news was “just as dismal as in the case of traditional news media”. LGBT+ and BAME representation is also shockingly low. 94% journalists are white.

Scotland is not immune to this problem. Our new indy-affiliated media might be broadly progressive and left-of-centre, but the dominant voices, curators and editors are male and white, just like before. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – without specific efforts to address these kinds of imbalances, things generally don’t change. That’s not to say no efforts have been made – for instance Bella Caledonia’s editorial board is deliberately gender-balanced, and with Scottish PEN they’ve brought speakers such as Caroline Criado Perez and Margie Orford to Scotland to speak on A Public Press and published a woman’s edition of Closer. The editor of Commonspace is a woman; something sadly quite rare in both ‘new’ and ‘old’ media.

But the problem is a structural one and requires a structural response. Chris Silver, whose forthcoming book looks at the state and future of Scotland’s media (old and new), says that political will and resources are crucial to building a diverse and sustainable media. You can’t have affirmative action, he stresses, without the resources and structure with which to implement it.

Another day, another manel

Recently activists revived #WfIMediaWatch: a project begun during the referendum to document and publicly interrogate the phenomenon of all-male panels and gender imbalance on evening news programmes like Scotland 2015 and Scotland Tonight. Such shows have learnt not to ignore the grassroots, though it took them long enough; well-known bloggers and activists now grace the sofas alongside politicians and spin doctors. But too often they seem to forget the women.

The producers and editors insist they try their best when challenged on the lack of female guests. And perhaps they’re sincere. When sourcing guests for NewsShaft Caroyln Scott found she struggled to get women on the air. Similarly Angela Haggerty, Commonspace editor, finds that while men are keen to offer opinion pieces, women have to be persuaded. It is perhaps a combination of women lacking the confidence of men, and the effect of the vitriolic reaction they often receive when speaking out in public. “People don’t like women with a strong voice”, remarks Haggerty, who is no stranger to receiving online abuse. Jeane Freeman, co-founder of Women for Independence, notes that it’s the columns she and her colleagues write on gender – on male power, on the housework burden – that provoke the most anger and abuse by far.

WfI member and SNP candidate Gillian Martin, who ran #WFIMediaWatch in 2014, thinks the lack of women coming to the fore is related in part to this “shark-infested nastiness” on social media. The debate online can be little more than “oppositional jousting”, which she thinks puts women off – and then there’s the fact that women are simply less likely to be free at 10pm on a weeknight.

Listen to Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye phone-in and you’ll get a fair illustration of this ‘jousting’, with callers often pitted against one another. What this often results in is one angry wee man shouting abuse at a woman. It happens with alarming regularity. Why on earth would any woman voluntarily put themselves through that? Or, for that matter, most men?

Guardian journalist Libby Brooks summed it up well in an interview with Gillian earlier this year. “For a long time in London I refused to do telly and radio because I found it too exposing and didn’t want a Twitter discussion about whether my bra strap was showing or if I was fuck-able.” This wasn’t wild speculation; it had happened to her female colleagues.

Structural Solutions

It’s a culture of macho behaviour and male entitlement ingrained into the media landscape, and though Scotland is slowly improving, it’s a battle. But Angela Haggerty is cautiously optimistic. “The advantage now is that the new media is still in its early days. We can prevent this becoming ingrained – it requires people working together”.

She thinks part of the answer to the gender imbalance in new media is to be found in training and opportunities – something Commonspace can play a role in, particularly as it employs people. In fact, Haggerty adds, the organisation has a “duty” to address this – not just the gender imbalance, but the representation of other minorities voices in the media too.

Women for Independence, too, want to look at ways of training and supporting women who stick their head above the parapet. “It’s intimidating”, Jeane Freeman adds, “but one place you get your confidence from is knowing your sisters are with you, no matter what.”

Funding is arguably key to addressing these issues. For both old and new media, financial security and job opportunities are not in great supply, and this makes it difficult to ‘build in’ equality and diversity. Left to a failing market, the same patterns appear.

Just as Scotland’s poorly-funded and flagging film industry was highlighted during the referendum, so discussions of public funding of journalism and digital production need to come to the fore. Carolyn Scott sees great potential in the idea of a digital media fund, encouraging training in production and media skills. For Chris Silver too, this approach has to be part of the solution. “The big advantage in creating structures, despite all the difficulties of doing so, is that you can insist on underpinning them with certain values. This could include a commitment to diversity in terms of gender. That’s an infinitely better situation than having to simply accept whatever a failing market can manage to scrape together.”

The new media isn’t a magic bullet. It isn’t, in essence, even all that different from the old – the distinction between them is fuzzy at best. Activists and campaigners need to use both, and need to ensure that women have the support and confidence to be part of the media landscape, both as commentators and writers. We can’t hope to just slot in when men eventually make room.

Comments (20)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Definitely time for change! Great piece and great way to lay down the gauntlet. On yersel!

  2. leavergirl says:

    Well, it would be awful nice if we knew that our sisters are with us. But it would help even more, in the new media, if more of our brothers were.

    And that will only happen if more men are willing to look closely at their own entitlements, and the behaviors resulting from them, and do the hard work to change. No “funding” or exhortations toward diversity will do this for them.

    1. Jim Bennett says:

      Hello Leavergirl. Could you help me understand his more? What would that mean a man in the independence movement should do in this context?

      1. leavergirl says:

        LOL. That’s for you guys to figure out on your own. How could I, a woman, tell you, a man, how to self-liberate from manels and other such craziness? 🙂

        1. tartanfever says:

          ‘Carolyn Scott sees great potential in the idea of a digital media fund, encouraging training in production and media skills. ‘

          – You have that already, they’re called film and tv courses at your local college/university.

          News Shaft lost all credibility when they thought crowdfunding for £50k or whatever the amount was would enable them to set up and run a nightly tv news programme. It was utter fantasy, £50k is what a decent news programme would spend in a day.

          The gender issue is important, the one on having a ‘grasp of reality’ even more.

      2. Jen says:

        I don’t think men have to figure it out *all* by themselves, but they definitely need to think about and discuss their own privilege with each other. Take a bit of action! Certainly men should refuse to take part in all-male panels, and need to see this problem as a priority rather than a side-issue that the women have to deal with. I can only speak for myself, but it’s tiring and frankly boring to have to be constantly bringing these issues up and hoping things will change.

  3. Jac Gallacher says:

    I was impressed at the WFI annual council where women were encouraged to address the gathering via microphone, normally the idea of this would have me under the table. Unbelievably it crossed my mind to get up, I didn’t in the end, but many others did and the support was amazing, It’s a supportive environment to find your confidence, good work being done there.

  4. Lorna Miller says:

    I’m a bit afraid to do my political cartoons about Scottish issues because of the on line mob attack of Steve Bell and I felt I had to reply to the criticism I got on Bella about the cartoon I did about Sturgeon, Bennet, and Wood wiping the floor with the heads of Cameron, Miliband and that other Lib Dem guy. “None too clever” was the comment and he questioned my “motives”. It could have sparked interesting discussion. Feedback from women is they loved it. Maybe they are less likely to comment in their thousands on line? How do you think it feels to be constantly ignored, rejected and criticised? How can anyone be creative in that environment? I don’t get paid for it and I’m not particularly keen on mob assassination. I’m doing it anyway but I’m a nervous wreck. (Thanks for publishing my work Bella)

    1. Greg Moodie says:

      Lorna, I just found your cartoon (which was excellent), read the criticism and your heartfelt and *lengthy* response. I’m no stranger to criticism. People can find any excuse to attack. You can’t let it stop you. ‘It’s my cartoon. You don’t like it? Get your own.’

      1. Lorna Miller says:

        Thanks Greg that’s kind of you. It takes a special lifetime of patronising experts, put downs, tokenism, rudeness, sexism (in art institutions – hopefully evolved by now), being talked over, “wee lassie” dismissed, sidelined, stabbed by sisters who should know better and being shat on from a great height for that verbose comment. 🙂 I’m enjoying your new animations they make me laugh.

  5. elaine fraser says:

    Good piece on important (vital) subject . During referendum I failed miserably to get my female friends engaged at all while most men if asked had very little trouble in giving their opinion. Things have actually got worse for this generation. I can remember an afternoon magazine programme way back that had a couple of female presenters with interesting guests and discussions ( Afternoon Plus?) Now we are treated like imbeciles with ‘Loose women’ drivel and Real Housewives of Beverley Hills etc where women are presented as brainless barbie dolls. Rather than progress being made I actually feel the media are going backwards and its very scary as realistically the MSM plays a huge (inescapable ) role in shaping and teaching our sons and daughters about their place in the world.

  6. Gillian Martin says:

    When Jen interviewed me for the piece we also talked at length about online attacks on women appearing in the mainstream media of all political shades. Sexist remarks or nasty comments about how a women looks or sounds are unacceptable. I don’t like the politics of Kezia Dugdale for example but I stand with her against all the abuse she gets online about how she looks or what she sounds like. I think when anyone is putting themselves out there have a bit of thought about the guts it takes. And before you casually tweet some nasty personal remarks think, “What if that were my wife, my daughter, my sister, my friend” Disagree on the content of what they are saying by all means. The majority of folk know this but there’s a raft of trolls out there who need to be called out on all sides. Let’s start challenging folk more about their unacceptable online behaviour.

    As for putting yourself out there, there’s a LOT to be said for never reading the comments and muting/blocking the trolls. You are doing it, you’ve got the guts. A sad wee troll sitting in his pants in his bedroom calling you a slut online would never have the ability, nerve or ambition you do- so to hell with ’em!

    1. This was particularly true with attacks on JK Rowling and Michelle Mone by people within the independence movement – both people who can be taken apart for their actions, writing and views without recourse to attacking them for their xex, their looks or their clothes

      1. Ken Waldron says:

        Hmm… one likened Independence supporters to “Death Eaters” referencing characters in her own work evoking concepts of “pure blood” & smearing with allegations of ethnic nationalism, whist the other regularly referred to Independence supporters as “muppets”.
        If you start a supposed debate with nazi-type smears or childish insults you really can’t want a civilised or reasonable argument. I find it difficult to have any sympathy at all for either of them: they set the emotional agenda and got the emotional reaction they had hoped for.

  7. Chitterinlicht says:

    Good article.

    I would just point out that 96% of people living in Scotland are, whether they like it or not, ‘white’. 2011 census

  8. Frank says:

    I understand the arguments about gender but we must also recognise that women occupy high positions in the media – think Laura Kuensberg and Allegra Stratton – or Shelly Jofre, who has been quite impressive as the presenter of Scotland 2015. I also find it quite offensive that ‘white’ and ‘male’ equals reactionary in so many feminist pieces.

    In regards to social media, the medium certainly talks itself up, but I find a significant gulf between the promise and the reality. Wings over Scotland for example, is highly repetitive and conspiratorial – predictable as hell, whereas Common Space has failed to live up to the hype; What I see is bland journalism and a cosy establishment left consensus.

    1. leavergirl says:

      “I also find it quite offensive that ‘white’ and ‘male’ equals reactionary in so many feminist pieces.”

      I agree. Just “male” would do it. 😉

  9. Ken Waldron says:

    Alternative media… oh the Internet. Most people are only interested in what people have to say. They can’t see you. No one need know what sex you are unless you want to declare it. What’s the issue again?

  10. Winnie Verloc says:

    I’m sure I’ll draw ire for subjecting a few of the assertions here to logic, but..

    “just as dismal as in the case of traditional news media”. LGBT+ and BAME representation is also shockingly low. 94% journalists are white.”

    96% of Scotland’s population are ethnically white according to Wikipedia.

    As for “all male panels” – a panel usually really is a small sample size in the statistical sense, and you can’t always expect it the gender balance (etc.) to represent a mean. It may happen now and again that the best people to be on a panel are white men. Or not. Shocking but true.

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