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Our General Secretary on women in journalism:

The newsroom is the warzone

Michelle Stanistreet© Hazel Dunlop

NUJ Gen Sec Michelle Stanistreet speaking at LFB

THE NEWSROOM is the war zone for many women journalists, NUJ's General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet told London Freelance Branch at its March meeting.

She related how "64 per cent of women responding to an International News Safety Institute survey reported that, yes, they had been subjected to harassment while they were reporting from hazardous areas. The majority of culprits were men in their offices, including their bosses."

Meanwhile, double standards seem to apply to women journalists working in conflict zones. Foreign correspondent Alice Crawford of Sky News, who has four children - her husband left his job to help look after them - found she faced a "questioning of attitudes to motherhood" when she went to cover the Libya conflict.

Channel Four News's Lindsay Hilsum responded to safety advice following rapes of women journalists in Egypt by observing that while male journalists had also been assaulted and killed in Egypt she had not heard any advice to that demographic to stay out of the country.

It "makes me squirm when I'm introduced as the first woman General Secretary" of the NUJ, said Michelle "it doesn't sound good" that it took the Union over a hundred years to elect its first female Gen. Sec. (She added that there have been occasions "internationally" when she'd been mistaken for "a secretary" based on incorrect assumptions around her gender.)

Michelle was speaking shortly after International Women's Day, she said she thought there had been "a lot more editorial coverage of IWD than in previous years" in the media this year. (The Guardian's Everyday Sexism IWD special in particular stood out.). This could possibly have been due to the challenges women face in the industry: "equal pay, maternity discrimination, mis-use of selection criteria in redundancies" and in particular the "double whammy of ageism and sexism" with "older women rare in broadcasting."

While it's "a bit tragic we still don't have pay parity in practice... we've done a lot of work on older women in broadcasting" with "great personal settlements" - including back pay - for women who discover years after joining that they are paid less that they are paid less."

At the other end of the spectrum of age and experience, "more women journalists forced to work for free... on long internships" with "quite a few examples particularly in magazines" where they are bullied and subject to sexual harassment at a time when they are "very fearful of rocking the boat."

One "credit crunch trend" Michelle noted was women coming back to work from maternity. At the Express newspaper, where Michelle was Mother of Chapel (local workplace-based rep for the NUJ) "we fought for a woman who'd been put in a selection pool for redundancy" when freshly returned to work from maternity leave. One on occasion a colleague volunteered to take redundancy but the management turned round and said, "no, her" (that is, the woman who'd just returned to work).

Even when it costs them dearly the owners keep trying this sort of thing on - it ended in a settlement involving a "six-figure sum." Women who think they've been treated well "hit a different barriers when they have kids... some feel they have no choice but to leave a staff job and go freelance." This is especially that case in "sectors like newspapers with incredibly long hours."

While an estimated 40 per cent of the journalistic workforce nationally is female, Michelle cited findings from the Commission on Older Women that note this demographic make up just five per cent of total number of presenters in TV, " the figure nosedives after 50". Also, "women with dependent children are rare in radio." A recent Guardian study of bylines across newspapers over a month found that 22 per cent of these were from journalists with female first names. "We bring talent into this industry from a very narrow pool" in terms of ethnicity and socio-economic background as well as age and gender, observes Michelle.

ITV news presenter Charlene White found that viewers regarded her as "fair game" to be singled out for criticism about her weight, while Michelle has heard of one newsroom where female reporters were told to wear short skirts to "catch the eye" of MPs when working as Westminster correspondents.

In such cases, the support of the NUJ is essential, says Michelle. NUJ Chapels making a collective stand, passing resolutions for the suspension of an editor under investigation has in the past resulted in their removal.

The NUJ does monitoring across different workplaces ("we have a big body of evidence" for the BBC in particular) and it forces the BBC via Ofcom to have mandatory rather than optional monitoring.

The NUJ compiled a dossier with evidence from staff and freelance contributors which went to Dinah Rose QC's inquiry into the BBC and Jimmy Savile, giving detail on contemporary "bullying, sexism, harassment" on top of the evidence of historical abuse. It "had a massive impact" and led to the change in policy the BBC now have in place. There have been cases where abusers have been "stripped of management posts... sidelined on the way to a nice redundancy... this is progress to the way it should be."

(See also previous advice to LFB by Kurt Barling and Channel Four's Dorothy Byrne on combatting bullies in TV current affairs.)

There seems to be a "prevalence of psychopathic behaviour in media": it's a "nexus of men with influence... who cover each others' arses, know each other, trained together". As Michelle told the Leveson Inquiry, "the absence of a trade union" allowed the criminal behaviour at the NotW to go unchecked.

Michelle ended by asking women members to email their experiences of harassment and discrimination to her, in confidence, via generalsecretary@nuj.org.uk

Last modified: 03 Apr 2016 - © 2016 contributors
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