Today’s Daily Mail contains a thoughtful but hard-hitting piece by Janet Street-Porter about the rumours and revelations surrounding the late Jimmy Savile’s alleged sexual activities involving young girls. Whether true or not – and the evidence, it has to be said, appears to be mounting – these reports leave an unsavoury impression not just of a man whom many regarded to be a great role model in his charitable work, but also of a culture in television and radio which appears to have dominated in the sixties, seventies and eighties, and which appears to have persisted into the nineties and up to the present day.
More and more high profile women have been speaking out about the sexual harassment they have experienced in the profession during their careers – Liz Kershaw and Sandi Toksvig are the latest to do so. In describing their experiences, these women are exposing practices which have not only discomforted them and other women, but which have also denigrated them: the use of male sexual power to prevent women from achieving the work environment to which they are entitled, and for which we have all worked hard as a society – men as well as women – for well over a century. These practices are wrong; what is especially wrong, however, is that however isolated, they have been allowed to go on unchecked and unquestioned, because this is revelatory about the underpinning assumptions of the culture in which they occurred.
The media is extremely powerful in our country. It is the means by which we hear most of what happens in the world, and it is by default the filtering mechanism for our values and perceptions of what is happening and why. No news outlet can claim to be truly ‘neutral’, for no such position can possibly exist – the choices that producers make about which stories to highlight in themselves speak of choices and values. Open any newspaper, analyse the layout, the pictures and the stories themselves, and you will find yourself awash with shared values. We have invested the media and those who run it with this power; this power should be used with great responsibility.
Many of these values are ones with which we all feel comfortable: values which are testament to a sound, liberal, healthy society; but on the matter of how women and girls are perceived in this society, they are manifestly not. Ms Street-Porter, exploring the history of women’s employment in the media, gives several examples of this unhealthy culture; quite apart from the tales of direct sexual assault on her colleagues and other women and girls, she emphasises the pervasiveness of a set of expectations about how women should behave which treated women as little other than sexual objects: “The Sixties saw women used as set dressing to add sexual spice to primetime shows. From Benny Hill to Freddie Starr to Larry Grayson, the BBC and ITV bosses (all male) saw nothing wrong in using semi-naked women to chase better ratings”. Worryingly – but unsurprisingly – she does not feel that these days are entirely past, and her conclusion is one that should prey on our minds: “Talent contests and reality TV have replaced the pop programmes and variety shows of yesteryear – but there is still the nagging suspicion that men in powerful positions can abuse the very young and needy. I’m not at all confident that the BBC and ITV can be sure attitudes have changed for the better. All that’s happened is that powerful men in the entertainment industry have got better at hiding their secrets”.
I really, really hope that she is wrong. But we can’t afford to assume that she is. We do not want to turn this into a McCarthy-ist witch hunt, but we do want to make sure that abuse, harassment and sexual objectification of girls and women just stop. For good. Let’s make sure that we don’t let this slip from our attentive gaze.