Gender and the Alternative Media
It’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.
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.