In the latest of our ongoing series examining the media’s “blind spot” towards gender, race and class, we ask writer and historian Rhian E Jones about the media’s attitudes towards women and class, and the role social media could play in ensuring that more diverse voices are heard.
How would you define or characterise the media’s blind spot?
The media has a blind spot in relation to class, which is part of a general lack of diversity across the media. This blind spot operates both in terms of the subject matter the media report on and analyse, and in terms of its personnel. Mainstream media generally represents the viewpoints of working class people in terms of vox pops – there was a very good article recently by John Harris on why working class people were voting for UKIP. He wasn’t trying to be condescending or anything, but it was noticeable that all the working class viewpoints were presented within a middleclass framework, which necessarily assumes that the audience would be middle class. Working people tend to be exhibited or brought in to prove a point, and through that process you lose a lot of the subtlety and nuance of what being working class is.
We working people not a homogenous block, but a lot of that just gets lost in favour of these really reductive stereotypes, like the single mother who is blamed for the ills of the world. There’s no attention paid to what she is beyond being a single mother. These unexamined stereotypes are really useful for politicians. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see there’s a connection between the stereotypes the media presents and the way that politics, particularly under the current coalition, has latched on to it to say that everyone who lives on a council estate is some grotesque villain. So, therefore it’s entirely justified to reduce their child benefit or housing benefit – even though the majority of the recipients of those benefits are in work and need them because wages are so low, rents are so high and the cost of living is increasing.
What do you think of the media coverage of women’s issues generally, and how does the blind spot operate in that respect?
The fact that the media is blind to class also affects its coverage of race and women’s issues. The pay of women executives is presented as a significant thing, but it only affects a small percentage of women. Similarly the campaign to put Jane Austen on a bank note was fine. I thought it was a nice little thing to do, but it got blown up into to ‘the most important feminist issue of the decade.
It’s important to point out that this distortion isn’t the fault of feminism itself; it doesn’t really say anything about how relevant feminism is – rather it says something about how the media frames feminist discourse, to present it as being irrelevant to anyone who isn’t white and middle class.
How have your experiences of the media been affected by the blind spot?
Most of the work I’ve done is for blogs and websites, but the few times I’ve pitched ideas to the mainstream media, I’ve noticed a tendency for them to take things that are presented in a sensational way, or that will get people complaining about them – the kind of things that ordinary people have reacted to by saying they’re irrelevant or pretentious.
What are the challenges facing people working in the media?
The fundamental thing I would say is please pay people for working for you. It’s all very well to attempt to bring in a selection of diverse voices, that is laudable, but unless you are going to pay these people, it’s incredibly hard to do so. When you’re being pushed from pillar to post doing five different jobs and you’re knackered all the time and thinking about where your next freelance job is going to come from, you have less time, energy or peace of mind to sit down and put your all into writing.
I’d also like to see working class people asked to give their views without there being a middle-class framework there to mediate them, which results in the audience being invited to look at them in a certain way. Some sort of nod towards the agency and autonomy of working class people and their ability to speak for themselves would be welcomed.
What role does digital media play in challenging the blind spot?
I find the internet massively helpful. I started a blog in 2009, which more recently has become more coherently political. It was really good to have that space to develop an audience, and it was always really encouraging when someone would leave a comment, or even if I’d seen that someone had clicked on it or linked to it somewhere. From there, I started to develop other networks with other bloggers and started writing for other feminist and leftwing websites, all of which was being done for free by people who are much like myself.
Digital media has been really good for developing my writing and for networking, and it’s really good for people who perhaps wouldn’t be able to develop their voice within the mainstream. Among the other blogs I would recommend Kate Belgrave and Johnny Void. I probably wouldn’t have gotten opportunities for paid writing without having blogged or having the internet as a means of interacting with people who had similar interests.
I think the downside of the proliferation of voluntary writing online is that it has led a lot of media outlets to expect you to write for free, although they do have income from advertising, for example, and can afford to pay their writers. It’s difficult not to feel that your work is undervalued if you’re expected to do it for free. Again, it comes back to class: if you can afford to write full-time for free, fantastic, but you’ve probably got your parents paying your rent, or have some sort of independent income. Whereas if you haven’t, then even £50 for a thousand words can be really important.
Interview by Julie Tomlin, co-founder of Digital Women UK.
About the author
Rhian E Jones
Rhian E Jones grew up in South Wales and now lives in London, where she works in retail and writes on history, politics, popular culture and the places where they intersect. She is the author of Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender (zer0 Books, 2013) and a co-editor of New Left Project (newleftproject.org).