Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Of Messengers And Messages: Reflections On Rachel Smalley's Controversial Column.

Greater Gender Balance Equals Greater Diversity? Well, yes, Rachel Smalley, but only in relation to gender - a factor which in no way guarantees a diversity of viewpoints. And it is, surely, the messages which are carried on the nation’s airwaves that matter most – not the gender of the broadcasters who carry them?
 
IT WAS ONE of the most “respectable” of the Suffragette arguments. Give women the vote. Allow them to stand for Parliament. Make them ministers – even prime ministers – and society will be transformed. The mere presence of women in the halls of power (respectable women, that is, because powerful men and disreputable women have never been far apart) can only soften the raw masculinity of the political process and usher in a more caring, a more productive, and – most importantly – a more peaceful world.
 
All nonsense, of course. No sooner was war declared in 1914, than the leader of the British suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst, and her ambitious eldest daughter, Christabel, were up on the nearest platform, loudly urging every able-bodied British male to enlist in the great fight for King and Country. From chaining themselves to railings, the Pankhurst’s impressive army of suffragettes were swiftly redeployed to handing out white feathers to any young man not in uniform. When it came to mass slaughter, the female of the species was determined to prove herself no less deadly than the male.
 
Or, even deadlier. Because, once again, when women did become prime ministers (be it Israel’s Golda Meir, India’s Indira Ghandi, or Britain’s Margaret Thatcher) they did not show themselves to be one whit less willing to unleash fire and death than their male counterparts. (As anyone familiar with the careers of Boudica, Isabella de Valois, Catherine de Medici, Elizabeth I or Catherine the Great could confidently have predicted!)
 
Old news, one might say. But, one would be wrong. Because no matter how many times it is knocked down, the argument that women, simply by being there, or by virtue of some magical essence peculiar to the female of the species, will make an important difference to the way everything from corporations to cabinets are run, keeps popping right back up again.
 
The argument’s latest protagonist is the broadcaster Rachel Smalley, who used the occasion of John Campbell’s appointment as Radio NZ-National’s new drive show host to lament the preponderance of male voices on prime time radio.
 
“The perspective a male host takes into an interview is often very, very different to that of a woman”, wrote Smalley, in her column on the Newstalk-ZB webpage. “The perspective any of these hosts take into an interview about domestic abuse, sexual violence, or funding cuts to women’s refuge will be very different to mine.”
 
Really? I would have thought that, on any issue, a journalist’s perspective – male or female – would be determined by their willingness to set aside stereotypes and prejudices and allow their professional judgement to be guided by the evidence on offer. And isn’t their personal response to domestic abuse and sexual violence as likely to be determined by their capacity for empathy as their gender? After all, it was a male, David Cunliffe, who told a women’s refuge conference that the statistics relating to sexual violence made him “sorry to be a man”. By no means all the people who pilloried him for that comment were men.
 
Indeed, Smalley’s assumptions regarding the positions a male journalist is likely to take on everything from paid parental leave, to aid for victims of the wars in the Middle East, might, themselves, be characterised as examples of sexist prejudice. Do fathers have no stake in the quantum of paid parental leave? Do journalists like Robert Fisk, and our own Jon Stephenson, not risk their lives to bring the stories of the victims of war to the world?
 
Smalley’s argument would have been a great deal stronger if she had couched it in terms of ideological, rather than gender, diversity. The problem with prime-time radio in New Zealand is not a preponderance of male voices, but of right-wing voices. It is, surely, the messages which are carried on the nation’s airwaves that matter most – not the gender of the broadcasters who carry them?
 
Mary Wilson (the broadcaster John Campbell is about to replace on week-nights between 5:00 and 7:00pm) will soon be playing a major role in shaping the messages coming out of Radio NZ-National. Reality TV suprema, Julie Christie, already plays a very similar role at MediaWorks.
 
Now, ask yourself: Are the radically different messages carried by these women’s respective networks more likely to be the product of their makers’ gender – or their politics?
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of 10 August 2015.

12 comments:

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Thank God for John Campbell. Actually I'm not his greatest fan, partly because he looks about 16 which tends to leave him without a great deal of gravitas :-). But give him credit, he will ask the hard questions, and doesn't annoy you as much as Mary Wilson, who is a bit like a bull at a gate. Credit to her though, as Campbell said she doesn't give up, and when you're dealing with someone like Winston – that's well needed.
And let's face it, it would be a refreshing change to have someone with a slightly left bias doing something on National Radio.

JanM said...

The thing that annoys me most about this piece of flummery from Rachel Smalley is that it seems a cynical misuse of the feminist argument out of some sense of pique. I would argue that John Campbell has much greater empathy than she will ever have and that, in a way, is the basis of the argument. Rachel herself has been caught out making comments which show her to be both shallow and judgmental, and I know who I would rather have a conversation with!
I think Rachel has made an ass of herself.
It's an interesting perspective you have too, Chris - it carries an assumption that women need a voice because they are all soft,sweet and helpless - it's really that as we have different functions biologically we sometimes have different priorities, which have been (and still are to some extent) not taken into account when important decisions are made

rob pharazyn said...

in next weeks Listener cover story it speaks to 3 women who now head all our intelligence services ...from GCSB, SIS etc....and one is a declared lesbian and all Govt. appointed...so much for class ceilings and gender bias and blending arguements....i can't figure out Smalley's point because she's a very experienced journalist and has been in Afghanistan twice and worked for SKYTV in London...maybe being on at 5 am each morning prior to bloody Hosking is doing her head in?

Chris Trotter said...

No, no, no, JanM! That's not what I think at all.

My view is that the qualities attributed to gender are structurally determined. Thus, when structures change, ideas about gender change with them.

Women will only be considered "soft, sweet and helpless" if the structure in which they - along with men - are embedded is strengthened by portraying them as such. (As was the case with middle-class Victorian patriarchy.)

Political structures, however, have little use for human-beings who are "soft, sweet and helpless" - and will punish anyone, male or female, who manifests such qualities.

That women display as much toughness as their male counterparts in open political environments is, therefore, proof of their fundamental equality with men. And this will be true of any environment that is not consciously structured to advantage one sex over the other.

Only in this sense is Smalley correct. If the entire radio broadcasting industry was dominated by sexist males determined to keep talented female broadcasters out of prime-time, then fostering a more meritocratic environment would certainly include, at least in its initial stages, a measure of positive discrimination. There is, however, considerable doubt that the industry is dominated by such people.

It is on this, the reef of fact, that her argument ultimately founders.

JanM said...

Thanks for explaining, Chris - that makes sense

Anonymous said...

Guerilla talking about lack of gravitas...TV One have the kid looking foreign correspondent who also stands in for Hosking.. !!!

jh said...

On The Panel's "what's on your mind?" Someone congratulated "the media" for it's role in highlighting sideline racism in sport. Which is all very well, but when you read the tone on Public Address, you (or I) get the feeling that here are people who are waaaaaay above the ordinary people with a duty to correct their ways: the people can do little but grunt.

What I see is the super confident type who becomes the student politician and (being empty) goes in search of a persona?

Charles E said...

Well said Chris, both post and clarification.
The political stance of these people is way more relevant but on the balance of that I differ. I find most of the media and National radio in particular almost entirely liberal left. On National, Kim Hill and Jim Mora are about the only ones I cannot place (making them the best by far) but all the rest cannot help showing they are softly left as most journalists are. Was it 68% in the last anonymous survey? Sunday Morning is entirely left wing propaganda and has been so for about 20 years.
I'm not really complaining about this, as it does help balance the fact that the majority of people are softly right wing and expect the media to be left so take all they say with a healthy dose of salt. The world works well this way, hence the political success of the conservative parties everywhere: they are representative of us. The media isn't.

Victor said...

It's amazing how the myth of superior female virtue has survived the realities of women in power.

I'd like to see more of them in powerful positions because they still face some discrimination even in the most liberal societies and discrimination just isn't right.

But life, experience, history and common sense all militate against viewing more women in senior roles as a recipe for reason, peace or siblingly love.

After all, they're just people.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

From what I can gather, the kid is also doing duty on national radio in the afternoon. I guess they're trying to get a younger audience. So why not have a comedian do the job.

Scouser said...

@GS

"And let's face it, it would be a refreshing change to have someone with a slightly left bias doing something on National Radio."

Really? RNZ would be one of the more liberal/left of the radio stations as they work hard at their public role and look to be inclusive and avoid bias - for instance, you will hear much more from union reps and Maori focussed personalities there than almost any other media outlet I can think of. Though, I do admit to the guilty secret of occasionally listening to the likes of ZB as sort of a Coronation Street counter balance where one is much more likely to hear the right of centre and 'hang 'em high' type views.

At a personal level I've never enjoyed Campbell as I find his manner saccharine (yes petty of me but it is entertainment with a general hat flip in the direction of true journalism and I measure it as such) and have had sufficient personal exposure to a couple of TV3's exposees on Campbell Live to distrust their research and independence. It was always about the exposee or supposed sufferer even when the facts did not support the message in the cases I had personal exposure to. In Campbell's defence if Story has the same research crew and overall direction this will probably continue. Also being fair the competition aren't exactly all quality either.

But back to Chris's main point - I think he has hit a very important nail firmly on the head. I work in business where there are plenty of successful women and unsuccessful men. The 'system', for want of a better term, is such that the traits required for success are often ones that many, including myself, are not traits we wish to either have or employ or enjoy on a regular basis. For many there is more to life than immense success at work with its related sacrifices in other areas. The idea that somehow an increase in the percentage of women in the workforce will fundamentally change the way this works is, in hindsight, obviously incorrect. The majority of male employees do not have the traits of the drivers and influencers and that's never had a real influence in the past.

Smalley sort of had a point in that her implied assumption that the views of the presenter affect the message in what purports to be journalism in these TV slots is, sadly, true. Campbell, being a case in point. He was honest in that he deliberately and transparently represented a given set of beliefs and the idea that these are journalism in the old style where the arguments are presented in a factual and none slanted manner as possible is much rarer. I would argue she is wrong though in thinking that would affect the message as relates to the female view as I would expect Campbell to bend over backwards in such circumstances, probably more so than the majority of presenters. Male or Female.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I was trying to be sort of ironic. Probably didn't come off then? But when you think about it, we've had Maggie Barry, Mike Hosking, Lindsay Perigo, and Sean Plunkett. All of whom were a bit up and down in hiding their beliefs.To the extent that they did I guess that radio New Zealand was/is successful in being middle-of-the-road. And it certainly is something other counterweight to the commercial stations, all of which make me want to vomit. Although nothing comes close to Fox News :-).