It’s hard to believe that as a sexual harassment crisis went public – where the majority of the harassment has been of women – one of our leading current affairs programmes thought they had assembled the best possible panel to discuss the problem: a group of men.
Newsnight’s coverage of the sexual harassment scandal on Wednesday involved 17 guests – 14 of them were men and just three were women.
That’s why myself and Green Party co-leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley wrote to Newsnight to complain. The programme fundamentally failed to reflect or properly examine the seriousness of what is happening to women in Britain.
To make matters worse, part of the coverage involved the use of biological descriptions of nature set against footage of animals. It wasn’t only entirely inappropriate but failed to challenge the behaviour of men in positions of power and even gave a defence for their actions.
Evan Davis made statements like “it is true that in many animals males gain evolutionary benefits from… coercing females into mating” and “in most mammals, including us, males have higher testosterone levels… and this may incline them to be more aggressive”. It’s absurd and it’s incredibly misleading.
The only thing that leads a man to harass or assault a woman is that man’s decision to do so. Davis’ assertion he was “not going to use any of this to exonerate men” did little to undo the damage already done.
Equally concerning was Newsnight’s explanation of how society has “dealt” with the male character it presented – in Davis’ words, by developing “codes of behaviour to restrain naked sexual aggression”.
The three female guests, Laura Bates, Shelagh Fogarty and Eliza Anyangwe, were voices of clarity in an otherwise confused programme. But they shouldn’t have had to compete with 14 men to get their points across. The first half of the programme was almost entirely dedicated to male voices.
It shows just how deeply Newsnight misunderstood the power play in society which has caused the sexual harassment crisis runs. Having started out with a very male-dominated and male-focused introduction, the rest of their programme gave strikingly little airtime to women survivors or female voices.
Women often don’t come forward because they fear their stories will be dismissed, won’t be believed, or they will have their words twisted. The last thing we need is for this to be reinforced in the media.
Sexual harassment can be a complex issue and the press might not always get it exactly right, but letting male voices and misogynistic tropes dominate coverage does much more harm than good.
Newsnight’s betrayal of women showed us just how pervasive the effects of patriarchy are. We must focus on the perpetrators of this abuse, not just in Westminster but wider society as well – where the odds are too often stacked against women. The Government has implemented a brutal regime of austerity that affects women the worst. Rape crisis centres, refuges and other domestic violence services have all been shut down due to lack of funding. It seems disregard for women is built into the way some MPs act – both in their personal lives and in the political decisions they make professionally.
The press is meant to challenge the government and tackle big issues. On this occasion they have been complicit in glossing over a scandal in British life and I only hope that they will have learned their lesson.
Amelia Womack is deputy leader of the Green Party