Spinprofessor (Claire Robinson)

Thoughts on electoral politics and political leadership

Is it any wonder that news media outlets have difficulty finding female “expert” commentators willing to stand up and speak out?

Readers of my last blog will know that in late November 2012 I was on the receiving end of some bizarre critique from male media and bloggers after the publication of my research that found evidence of image bias in the print media during the 2011 New Zealand election campaign. The most sexist critique was by NBR columnist Rod Vaughan who tried to discredit me by arguing I had my knickers in a knot and a crush on the Prime Minister (and therefore couldn’t possibly be balanced myself).

At around the same time in Australia former Wallaby David Campese publicly apologized for tweeting a sexist remark about Fairfax Media’s rugby union correspondent, Georgina Robinson (no relation). He had been roundly condemned by current and former players for a tweet in which he questioned why the Sydney Morning Herald should “get a girl to write about rugby”.

It was too much to expect that anyone would have condemned Rod Vaughan for being equally disrespectful and sexist in his blog. By attacking a sacred cow in my research, in this case the impartiality and objectivity of the most influential newspapers in New Zealand, I wasn’t likely to get too much support from within the news media for speaking out.

A couple of weeks later media3 ran a story on the difficulty in Britain finding female “expert” television commentators, particularly when it came to discussing “women’s” issues.

Given that they had taken such a sympathetic interest in this subject matter I thought I would check out just how many female expert commentators media3 called upon in 2012. I counted the instances that media3 had used male and female panelists in its 19 shows. I defined panelists as those who sat at the desk with host Russell Brown in the media3 studio and were interviewed for, or provided comment based on, their expertise. In total 51 such panelists featured on the show in 2012. Only 14 of those panelists (27.45%) were female. I tweeted Russell and Jose Barbosa about this. Jose said the point of the story was more about situations where its obvious a female voice is needed, but acceded they could do better. Russell said I might be surprised at how hard it has been to get the women they wanted on camera.

Of course, female commentators shouldn’t just be called upon to discuss “women’s” issues. Women are just as competent as men to express expert opinion on any issue. However, even in the last election campaign, where the issues were of interest to male and female New Zealanders, women were under-represented on screen. Researcher Corin Higgs recently published a review of punditry in the 2011 New Zealand election campaign (in Levine/Roberts ed Kicking the Tyres, VUW Press). He found an under-representation of female pundits on screen, with a gender imbalance of two or three male pundits for every woman.

So why should it be so hard to get women to go on camera as expert commentators?

The usual reasons held up for women’s advancement in all areas no doubt apply: women often lack the networks to be ‘known’ in the right circles to get the opportunities; there are fewer women in positions of authority to call upon so the pool is smaller; women often don’t think of themselves as being expert (the imposter complex), while testosterone fueled men will have more bravado and be more entertaining; and women often won’t have the confidence, desire, or thick skin to stick their heads above the parapet in a combative environment.

With good reason.

With the exception of Maori Television, Corin Higgs found that female pundits tended to be interrupted more frequently, and enjoyed less speaking time than their male counterparts. He also noted that on internet blogs, social media and other outlets, criticism of female pundits tended to be more personalised than criticism of male pundits, and gave as an example where I was labeled a ‘boil on the political commentary landscape’ and accused of being a stooge for the National Party.

The 2011 election campaign was my fourth election campaign as a political commentator. During the campaign I made 16 television appearances. I was contracted by TVNZ to be an expert panelist on the three leaders’ debates and provide post debate analysis on the Tonight news show. I gave a campaign roundup each Friday on Breakfast. I featured on TV3 news, on Chinese TV, on 60 Minutes, and on Sunday. I also gave many radio and print interviews.

In the previous three elections I never received one piece of criticism. That changed in 2011, with the social media revolution of the previous three years making it much easier for people to fling abuse around anonymously from their mobile devices in the safety of their living rooms, and for me to see it.

During the election campaign I received and read what I considered unpleasant personal criticism in the social media. I was called a stupid bitch, a stupid turnip, a seagull, a trout, a gormless smirking pol com, part of TVNZ’s worst political news team, a boil on the political commentary landscape, completely wrong, an air head, a child, hardly neutral, biased, vacuous, awful, utterly superficial, infatuated with the Prime Minister’s political style, the weakest link, not credible, untrustworthy, a public health warning, Shipley’s ass-wipe. I was accused of having no practical knowledge of or any real understanding of the world of politics, of being a good righty, of parroting National Party memes, of contributing nothing, of spouting biased pieces of shit from the ass that is my mouth, of getting my political science degree off the net, and from a cereal box, of providing superficial analysis, of being full of shit. As a female it was suggested I should be more empathetic to the left. I was impersonated on twitter by someone who took my photo and my profile description and tweeted as me through the campaign. They made inappropriate comments about my children.

I searched the internet at the time to see if fellow political scientist Jon Johannson was receiving similar personal attacks. Aside from the odd accusation of him being a lefty, there were none.

To make me feel not so isolated, friends sent me articles from the international press on trolling, and the phenomenal abuse that female bloggers and commentators receive elsewhere. At least I hadn’t been threatened with rape, murder or being urinated on like some female commentators in Britain and the US. Even this week Mary Beard, a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, has blogged about her recent experience with shocking trolling http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/2013/01/internet-fury.html

Seasoned hands said I had to grow a thick skin; that I was now playing in sandpit with the big boys, the playground bullies, and that I shouldn’t gratify them by whining, or showing how their comments affected me. I decided not to comment publicly. I grew a thicker skin, and I didn’t let the abuse put me off political commentating.

I have no problem with people critiquing the content of what I say; if someone has better research or evidence to refute what I say I should be challenged. But the problem of the lack of female expert commentators will not be resolved while personal attacks, misogynist sexist comments and denigration continue, and while the blogosphere (including news media sites) condone and perpetuate it by publishing the abusive comments that their readers mindlessly fling about. As one English political commentator has written, women will never achieve equality in this area as long as they’re being intimidated out of the picture.

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