In the middle stages of an incredibly long, drawn-out general election campaign, it can be interesting to reflect on the media’s role.
In the early part of Trans Media Watch’s Leveson evidence, we quoted Gray Cavendar – the media helps us “to define what we think about, what we see as problems and the solutions we consider”. We also quoted the journalism.org website – “The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society.” I can’t think of many times when accuracy and reliability is required more than in the middle of a general election campaign.
This morning there was some questioning around why Tony Blair wasn’t sharing a platform with Ed Miliband. A simple question, you might think, innocently phrased, until you start questioning why should the two of them share a platform? After all, why hasn’t any of the four former Tory leaders shared a platform with David Cameron, or Charlie Kennedy shared a platform with Nick Clegg? The question has defined what we’ve thought about – “possible split in the Labour party” – and the solutions we consider – “better not vote for a split party”.
This “when did you stop beating your wife” style of questioning seems fairly endemic. Another example – this morning BBC 2 started a new daytime news show hosted by Victoria Derbyshire. Its first story was about trans children. Irrespective of whether it was a coincidence or planned, it followed on from (and gave a British context to) the Louis Theroux documentary broadcast only 36 hours earlier on BBC 1. Both pieces were done very sensitively, and both managed to successfully and unequivocally position trans identities as something that children can be (and are) aware of.
However both interviewers fell into asking whether the children may be making a wrong decision, and both asked (to various degrees) about surgery. The first question immediately frames one’s gender identity as a choice, and one that you may well get wrong. The second places the assumption that surgery is the natural destination, and gives credence to the flawed idea that maybe you’re not “authentically trans” unless you have surgery. Just a reminder that most trans people think the real problem is the way society treats us, not the fact that we are trans and might need some medical assistance. I’m not sure why surgery figures in a documentary about trans children, because it generally isn’t offered until someone’s 18 – but I guess the television producers have their checklist to tick off – “trans issues, must have makeup and surgery…”
With trans issues in the media, there can be no doubt that the British media has moved on considerably in the last few years. Some part of me is muttering quietly “yeah, but it can move back equally quickly”, but I think the change in social attitudes and the increase in trans peoples’ visibility makes that unlikely. But we still have some work to do in trying to shift the box which the media continues to put us.
There are similar processes to the general election coverage which are going on here. Division within a party is inherently “not a good thing”, yet the reality is that political parties are, themselves, coalitions of views. Modern political parties work hard on getting a consistent media message across now – the danger of letting someone go “rogue” is deemed too hard to deal with. Politicians are mocked for not being honest, yet when they are (like Ed Miliband today on the lack of his television watching), they’re mocked again for being weird.
I think this also has effects on our corporate world. More and more I see when something goes wrong, the reaction is to “learn lessons” and rebuff as many questions as possible rather than actually put something right. Government is also learning this approach, I think to its detriment.
The media never forgets, and castigates people for changing their mind, whether that’s politicians on policies or trans people in case they might de-transition. We now have a harsh, unrelenting, largely corporate media with various degrees of regulation and various levels of trust. (It was similar concerns that led to the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry.) And I really don’t think it’s healthy.